GLEN RIDGE, NJ — Horace Ashenfelter III, 94, Olympic gold medalist and Glen Ridge resident, has died. His son James said his father died peacefully on Saturday, Jan. 6, in West Orange.
A top American runner from the late ‘40s into the ‘50s, Ashenfelter won the Gold Medal in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics in the 3,000 meter steeplechase, a race in which competitors must clear hurdles and run thorough water pits. To give a clearer picture of what this arduous undertaking entails, the race is said to have originated in England where competitors, running with countryside church steeples as their guideposts, would encounter walls, fences and streams along the way.
Ashenfelter set a world record of 8:45.4 in winning his Olympic medal. His accomplishment was embraced by the West as a Cold War victory over the Soviets. At the time, he was an FBI agent which only added luster to the story. But according to his son James, the fact that the second-place finisher was the Soviet athlete who held the world record in the 3,000 meter steeplechase was only a coincidence to his father who was not impressed by political intrigue. No American has since won the event in the Olympics.
Winner of the Sullivan Award in 1952 as the top American amateur athlete, Ashenfelter set the world record at two miles in 1954. In 1956, he was a member of the U.S Olympic team in Melbourne. He retired from competitive racing the following year.
In an email to The Glen Ridge Paper, Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. said, “We lost a legend with the passing of Horace Ashenfelter. His Olympic Gold Medal in 1952 inspired generations and was a source of pride for many. We were lucky to have dedicated the track in Watsessing Park, where he trained, in his honor. Our thoughts and condolences are with his family.”
The track was dedicated Oct. 14, 2016. The indoor track at Penn State, where he graduated in 1949, is also dedicated to him.
In a telephone interview earlier this week, James Ashenfelter said his father never complained or came out with a bad word but was silently competitive.
“Interestingly, he never competed in Masters running,” James said. “He didn’t have anything to prove.”
And he never pushed any of his children — he had four sons — to compete in sports.
“Except if you started a sport, you had to finish the season in that sport,” James said. “He was a kind dad.”
James, who swam competitively and was a state champion for Glen Ridge High School, said his father would come to his college swim meets. After he finished a race, he would have to tell his father if his finishing time was any good or not.
Most of Ashenfelter’s medals are on permanent display at Penn State. These medals will travel to NJ for a Saturday, Feb. 10, memorial service at the Glen Ridge Congregational Church. The service will be at 10 a.m.
“He gave these medals to Penn State with the proviso that his grandchildren could have them for ‘show and tell’ at their schools,” James said lightheartedly.
Ashenfelter’s down-to-earth quality and own good humor were recalled by Bill Indek, a former GRHS track coach.
Indek said he came to the high school in 1972. A track history buff, he learned there was a student and a middle school teacher, both named Ashenfelter. He found out the student was Ashenfelter’s youngest son, Tom, and the woman was his wife, Lillian.
“I got to meet Horace at a teacher get-together at their home,” Indek recalled in an email. “He was so humble and kind; there were no indications of his past glories. As I was sitting on their couch, I realized that the lamp next to me had an inscription. I looked closer and it was one of his major awards. He had converted it into something more practical.”
On several occasions, Indek said, he ran with Ashenfelter.
“Over the years I would meet him in and around town,” Indek said. “He would always sincerely want to know how my running was going. Horace was a clearly selfless man.”
Ashenfelter enrolled in Penn State in 1941 and after one year, enlisted in the Army Air Corps where he was a fighter pilot stationed in Florida. His son said he flew a plane, painted orange, that was used as a target for gunnery shooting ceramic bullets. That had to be a little dangerous.
“Dad said he was the first pinball machine,” James said.
At the dedication of the Watsessing track, Glen Ridge Councilman Dan Murphy recalled that his chief competitor on the Glen Ridge High School track team was Tom Ashenfelter. When he learned his rival had a father who was an Olympic champion, Murphy said he went to the Ashenfelter home to see the medal. The doorbell did not work when he tried it. But he was greeted by Ashenfelter’s wife, Lillian, who showed him the medal. It was kept in a sock drawer.
James said one time his father brought the medal to a “show and tell’ and forgot all about it.
“Three years later, it was shipped back to him and he just laughed,” James said. “He didn’t even know it was gone.”
But for Murphy, the aura of an Olympian living in town was mythical.
“He meant a lot to me,” Murphy said. “He was helpful with insights for my running,” he said. “Beyond that, I was friendly with his family.”
In 2000, when Murphy became the organizer of the annual Thanksgiving Day race in Glen Ridge, the Turkey Trot, he asked Ashenfelter if it would be OK to rename the race after him.
“He said to me, ‘Do you think it will help?’” Murphy said.
At the time, the Turkey Trot, an 10K race, attracted several hundred runners. The race was shortened and renamed the Ashenfelter 8K. It attracted about 4,000 runners last year.
Ashenfelter meant a lot to the running community, Murphy said, and Facebook pages are now displaying remembrances and condolences.
“He put a really good face on the borough,” he said. “He was a family guy who happened to be an Olympic champion.”
Town Hall lowered its flag in his honor, as did the Glen Ridge Country Club, where Ashenfelter was an honorary member, Murphy said.
In addition to James and Tom, Ashenfelter is survived by his sons Tucker and John, and his wife, Lillian.