Dave Komonen 1934

Boston: the Canadian Story
By David Blaikie ©

Dave Komonen 1934

When Dave Komonen was voted the best athlete of 1933 by Canadian sports writers, the moment was bittersweet. On the bright side he had managed, in four and a half years since leaving Finland, to establish himself as the best distance runner on the continent.

Matti Komonen with his father’s trophies

The achievements for which he was honored included victories in the national marathon championships of both Canada and the United States and a second-place finish in the illustrious Boston Marathon. There were a string of lesser victories too, won with the same flying feet that Komonen liked to clad in homemade shoes.

A writer of the time said Komonen (a) had collected enough laurels in his adopted country to open a florist shop and enough cups to become a silversmith.

That was the problem. If he could have become a florist or silversmith, or anything else for that matter. Komonen would have jumped at the chance. He was unemployed. With all his fame and glory in the sports world he was nearly broke. Nowhere in the city of Toronto, it seemed, was there a steady job to be found. Komonen had been looking ever since following his brother to Canada in 1929. If times seemed bleak when he first arrived, especially for an immigrant who couldn’t speak the language, they were worse now with the country caught in the grip of the Great Depression. Komonen picked up odd jobs where he could find them, a few days here, a few there. The last had been with a coal company, driving a truck, where in his best week he had earned three dollars. He tried to earn money making shoes but found he could hardly recoup the cost of materials.

Cobbling was a sideline with Komonen. Born December 16, 1898, in Kakisalmi, (b) Finland, he was a farmer and carpenter known as Taavi Komonen before emigrating to Canada. Frail and somewhat sickly in youth, he became nonetheless an accomplished middle distance runner in the Finnish military. His sports idol, a man with whom he sometimes trained, was Paavo Nurmi, twelve times an Olympic champion in middle distance events in the 1920s.

In Toronto, where Komonen found his name anglicized to Dave, he looked for work in the construction industry, hoping to make use of his carpentry skills. But his poverty only worsened, money so scarce at times that he lacked nourishing food. He liked fresh fish and rye bread but often subsisted on soup and crackers, an inadequate diet that affected his running.

”You give me the food I want,” he once said, “and I’ll win every race in this country from five miles Up.” (49)

Komonen joined the Monarch Athletic Club in Toronto, becoming its star member and winning almost as many races as the rest of its athletes combined. Club executive members sympathized with his hand-to-mouth existence and did what they could to help him find work. Lou Marsh, sports editor of the Toronto Star, also appealed through his newspaper for someone, anyone, to give Komonen a break. ”Here is an honest, hard-working lad with not a lazy bone in his body,” Marsh wrote, arguing that a steady job was a small thing to ask for someone who had brought such honor to Canada. But to no avail.

On New Year’s Day, 1934, his year of honor behind, Komonen made a desperate decision. Gathering up his few possessions, he walked to the Toronto railway station and bought a one-way ticket to Sudbury. It cost eight dollars, nearly all the money he had in his pocket. Komonen chose the northern Ontario mining city for several reasons, the main one bemg that he had run and won a ten-mile race sponsored by the Sudbury Lions Club the previous July and had made several acquaintances there. Sam Rothschild, a club leader, had driven to Toronto to pick up Komonen and a couple of other Monarch runners, arranging accommodation while they were in Sudbury and making sure they got back to Toronto afterward.

Komonen had good memories of Sudbury. The people were friendly, fond of athletics and there was a large Finnish community in which he could converse with comfort in his native tongue. There had, in fact, been a good number of Finns in the crowd of five thousand that turned out at Athletic Park to watch the closing laps of the ten-mile race. Komonen had spoken to some of them about the possibility of moving to Sudbury and found the response encouraging, several promising to keep watch on local carpentry jobs and notify him when work became available. A few months later he also wrote to Rothschild for help. Rothschild made inquiries and advised Komonen to be patient. But when nothing had happened by the time Komonen was chosen athlete of the year, (c) just prior to Christmas, 1933, he decided to force the issue by going to Sudbury anyway, hoping his moment in the spotlight would work to his advantage.

The boldness of the move clashed with Komonen’s quiet demeanor but, as he said later, “I felt I had nothing to lose. I could starve to death just as cheerfully in Sudbury as Toronto.” (50)

Once there he threw himself at the mercy of Rothschild who that day, January 2, 1934, took Komonen to a Lions Club meeting and introduced him to members. When the runner told his tale of hardship the response was immediate. E.A. Mitchell, a Sudbury businessmen, promised Komonen a carpentry job by February I and Harry Riddell, proprietor of the Queen’s Hotel, offered lodging in the interim.

Immensely grateful, Komonen was soon employed as a carpenter at the Frood Mine, applying himself so diligently that friends cautioned him against overdoing it. He also found permanent living quarters at the home of Joe Halonen, a chiropractor and fellow runner.

“We’d work all day then start our running around eight o’clock,” Halonen said. “We would be out every day. In winter when we couldn’t run we used to ski to keep in shape.” (51)

With a regular income, Komonen indulged himself in food, to such an extent that Halonen thought it was the reason Komonen’s stomach was sometimes sensitive when he raced.

”He always wanted to eat before a race. ‘You can’t do it,’ I kept telling him. He lost once in Hamilton because of that. He ate a big meal and then tried to run afterward. He had only gone three miles and was full of gas, and that finished him.” (52)

Komonen fell ill for a period in the winter of 1934, his temperature rising to one hundred and two degrees Fahrenheit. Again Halonen wondered if the cause wasn’t Komonen’s intemperate eating habits. He urged Komonen to watch his diet more carefully and remain at home until the fever subsided but Komonen was reluctant to do either.

Komonen joined the Frood Mine Athletic Association that winter, welcomed by president Herman Mutz and others of the closely-knit athletic fraternity. Komonen trained as best he could through the cold weather, often trying to log eight miles in the morning and another fifteen at night, while still applying himself zealously at the mine. Friends again suggested he was working too hard for his own good but he scorned the notion.

”No,” he insisted, ”I like my job and I’ll stick. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.”

Weather plagued Komonen’s training as much as work in the winter of 1934, fierce cold and deep drifts blanketing the landscape of northern Ontario. Spring, which followed with sudden thaws, added to the problems, replacing the drifts with soggy roads that made training equally difficult.

On Easter weekend, when “the Frood” gathered together enough money to send Komonen to Toronto for a race, he was stricken with cramps and dropped out. Acquaintences in the big city wondered aloud whether he had become too comfortable in Sudbury and Toronto newspapers questioned whether he still had the will to win. Humiliated Komonen returned to Sudbury, offering to repay his expenses. The Frood, more sympathetic, refused to hear of it. Talk turned instead to the next big event on the athletic calendar, the Boston Marathon.

Komonen’s association with the Boston Marathon went back to 1931 when he entered as a member of the Monarch Athletic Club of Toronto and ran seventh. He missed the 1932 Boston Marathon, returning to Finland for an unsuccessful bid to make the Finnish Olympic team of that year, but was back in Boston in 1933, the year he ran second. Leslie Pawson of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, defeated Komonen easily, 2:31:01 to 2:36:04, but the race was the first of three cited as the reason when he was named Canadian athlete of the year at the end of 1933.

The others were the Canadian and American national marathon championships. On June 17, 1933, Komonen ran from Mt. Vernon to the steps of the White House in Washington in a time of 2:53:43 to win the American title and on August 5, 1933, he captured the Canadian title at Toronto with a time of 2:40:58.

Because of this Komonen was favored to win at Boston in 1934 but the race was one he almost didn’t run.

”I’m not sure I will no.” he said. ”It costs money to travel to The Frood Mine Athletic Association was small and poor compared to Komonen’s old Toronto club but it was decided in the end that a way must be found to send Komonen to Boston. A last-minute canvas was made for funds and Komonen, packing two pair of homemade shoes, set off in a car driven by Kust Helin, a Finnish friend. Thev left so hastily their departure went all but unnoticed.

“Until the Frood came to Komonen’s rescue,” the Sudbury Star noted later, “it was thought that the Finn might be obliged to run from Sudbury to Boston as a preliminary canter. Nobody offered him an automobile, a railway engine or a berth between the rods, and so it was assumed he would have to hoof it.”

The field of one hundred and ninety-three runners entered in the Boston Marathon included an honored cast of old and young athletes. The veterans numbered among their ranks the indefatigable Clarence DeMar, now seven times a champion, his last victory in 1930 at age forty-two; Whitey Michelsen, Johnny Miles’ contemporary; Dick Wilding, and Ville Kyronen, a Finnish New Yorker who eighteen years earlier, in 1916, had won the Yonkers Marathon. They were joined by relative newcomers to top marathon ranks, runners like John A. Kelley and Willie Steiner.

Komonen and Helin wandered about Boston before the race, collecting newspapers and souvenirs. Komonen couldn’t read the accounts of the upcoming marathon. English still eluded him even though April 19, the day of the marathon, would be the fifth anniversary of the day he had left his native Finland. But he recognized his photo in some of the pages and chuckled at the sight. He would take the articles back to Sudbury and paste them in his scrapbook even if he didn’t know quite what they said about him. Komonen also bought, as souvenirs from Boston, an umbrella, and a carpenter’s plane to take back to his job at the mine.

When marathon day arrived, with seventy degree weather and a stiff wind that blew at right angles across the road from Hopkington to Boston, Komonen laced on an old and battered pair of shoes. The soles were worn, the arches patched and repatched, and the buckskin from which they were fashioned stained by dirt and time. Komonen had made a new pair of shoes especially for the marathon but set them aside for the old. These were his lucky shoes, the ones that had carried him to victory in the last five marathons he had run, and he decided to wear them one more time.

The early leader of the 1934 Boston Marathon was Willie Steiner, a Gemman-American Athletic Club runner from New York. Steiner pulled away from a knot of runners that included Komonen and opened up a margin of several hundred yards. Worried that Steiner might slip beyond reach if allowed to go unchallenged long enough, Komonen set out to run him down. At Natick, ten miles into the race, Steiner was still a couple of hundred yards in front but Komonen was gaining in second. The women of Wellesley College cheered Steiner’s prancing style, knees lifted high in the manner of a sprinter, as he swept past their familiar vantage point and into the second half of the race. But between Wellesley and Aubumdale Komonen caught the New Yorker and finally moved into the lead.

Once overtaken, Steiner quickly fell from contention and Komonen found another runner challenging at his heels, John Kelley, a florist from Arlington, Massachusetts. Kelley was a gaunt and determined runner, the favorite of the Boston crowd that day. The two men locked in battle as they entered the Newton Hills, hair soaked and bodies glistening with sweat as they ascended the grades. The outcome, so often the case, was decided at the top of the last and steepest rise. Kelley cracked from the strain, the scene portrayed this way in the Boston Post the following day.

”The Gothic spires of Boston College pierce the heavens this morning as twin testimonials. They rise in all their majesty as monuments of fortitude exemplified by a poor Finn, Dave Komonen of Canada. They stand too as tombstones in the graveyard of a gamester’s hopes, Johnny Kelley of Arlington. For within the shadows of those classic towers the impoverished Finn yelled, ‘Rata Auki,’ accelerated his stride and swept on to glorious victory in the thirty-eighth annual Boston Athletic Association Marathon.”

Komonen ran the last five miles of the race alone, crossing what some that year called “the Finnish line” in 2:32:53 4/5. Kelley (d) was second in 2:36:50 2/5 while Steiner held on for third in 2:40:29 1/5. Alex Burnside and Percy Weyer, old friends of Komonen from the Monarch Athletic Club, finished fourth and eighth respectively in 2:44:32 and 2:46:06.

Komonen was a perplexing sight. For much of the race he had worn a knotted handkerchief to ward off the sun. In the BAA Clubhouse, where he was ringed by reporters, the handkerchief was gone, revealing a fashionless sugar bowl haircut and a man who could smile but comprehend almost none of the questions he was asked. Finns from the Boston area stepped into the breach to translate as Komonen sipped soda water and ate the beef stew that had become the standard post-race meal served by the BAA to runners. The facts of his story thus gleaned the Boston newspapers wrote approvingly of the new champion and his effortless running style.

“He is not awkward, nor is he sloppy in his performance,” said the Boston Herald. “He does not sway, he does not flail his arms about, he does not drag his feet in a skip-gaited shuffle like others. He is a running stylist with beautiful arm, knee and leg action. He is a continuity of efficiency, not mere power. He increases his speed imperceptibly, the only obvious feature being the way he draws away from his rivals.”

When Komonen changed from his running clothes to a suit and prepared to leave the clubhouse, he discovered that souvenir hunters had made off with his socks. He found a pair that afternoon at the Allston, home of Karl A. Hilli, where he met local Finns at a reception in his honor. That night he went first to an exhibition at the Boston Garden then drove by car to Maynard where he was guest of honor at a dance arranged by the Kanto Athletic Club, a branch of the Finnish Athletic League of Maynard. He danced until after midnight, wheeling flaxen-haired women about a polished dance floor to the music of a Finnish orchestra, then left the next morning for the long trip back to Sudbury.

A cranky customs officer accosted Komonen and Helin at the border, pulling out the umbrella and carpenter’s plane along with a carton of cigarettes and assessing duty on all three items. Komonen paid the charges on the first two but balked at the two-dollar-and-forty-cent charge for the cigarettes, leaving them behind. Missed in the search were three cigars tucked away in a suitcoat pocket.

“I guess he didn’t see them,” Komonen said. (53)

Lou Marsh hailed Komonen’s victory.

”Thanks, Sudbury for taking Taavi Komonen in and giving him a chance,” Marsh wrote in the Toronto Star. ”And thanks to the Frood miners who paid his way down to Boston. He didn’t need much of a chance — no mollycoddling, did he? He just put in his day’s work and then went out and trained through the snow and slush, worked hard, trained simply. Dave Komonen got a raw deal from Toronto. He got a good deal from Sudbury and I’m tickled that well-known shade of red to know that he has made good.”

The Sudbury Board of Trade planned a banquet in Komonen’s honor and Mayor W. Marr Brodie called council into session to discuss a suitable gift from the city. (54)

”Someone has made the suggestion that he be given a public reception but I am afraid that he might arrive at an inconvenient hour and it would be a flop,” said the mayor.

“I think some reception should be given,” said Alderman J. D. Mclnnes.

“I got in touch with Herman Mutz, ” the mayor added, ” and he said the Frood were going to join in the function and give him a club bag. I had the idea of presenting him with a watch but it wouldn’t be suitable. He already has one.”

”Golden spikes for his shoes,” suggested Alderman Noel De Tally.

”There’s no use in presenting him with a cup, or anything hke that,” said the mayor. ”He has so many of them.”

Alderman Mclnnes suggested a purse of gold.

“He’s not a married man?” asked Alderman Carrington. ”We might get a wife for him then,” suggested Alderman E. D. White.

The mayor smiled. ”We want to present him with an asset,” Brodie said.

”A tie pin?” offered Carrington.

”They’re not being worn these days,” the mayor observed.

“Feeling fine after winning the race,” the message said. “See you soon.” Ears twigged in Sudbury when news of Komonen’s sweetheart filtered back to northern Ontario. Three days later the Sudbury Star hit the streets with a bold front-page headline — Komonen Reveals Divorce.

Beneath it ran the embarrassing story that Komonen was not the devil-may-care bachelor he had seemed to be in Boston. At home in Finland, left behind when he had come to Canada, were a wite and two sons. A Toronto newspaper carried the news first, publishing a photograph of Komonen and his family, taken when he had resumed to Finland in 1932 for the Finnish Olympic trials. The Sudbury newspaper confronted him with issue and he made a reluctant statement.

“I have applied for a divorce and expect that the papers will come through at any time,” he said. “I am leaving her my farm in Finland and she is to have one of the children. I want to bring the other boy to Canada with me.” (e)

Komonen complained about the intrusion into his personal affairs, denying any romantic link with the Toronto woman and maintaining that friends were well aware of his situation. The press should not have made the matter public, he said.

“Lou Marsh knew about it but he was asked to say nothing and he kept the faith.”

The episode passed and attention shifted back to Komonen’s athletic life and the British Empire Games scheduled that August in London. Komonen wanted to compete but was not yet a Canadian citizen.

On May 5, 1934, five years to the day from Komonen’s arrival in Canada, he filed naturalization papers at the office of Sudbury Crown attorney E. D. Wilkins. But there was a problem. Canadian law required a three-month waiting period for citizenship, meaning that Komonen would miss by three weeks the marathon trial scheduled in July at Hamilton. Organizers of the Canadian team protested bitterly that Canada would be deprived of its finest distance athlete by a legal technicality. The question was eventually resolved in Komonen’s favor. He would be allowed to compete in the trial on the understanding that his citizenship papers would be finalized before going to London (f) The matter was no sooner settled, however, than it became academic.

Heat forced Komonen to drop out of the trial and he failed to qualify for the team, a jolt to Canadian team organizers and Komonen’s many followers in Sudbury and elsewhere. Harold Webster of the Hamilton Olympic Club went to London in Komonen’s place and ended up winning the games marathon in 2:40:36.

The trial signalled the end of Komonen’s years in the athletic spotlight. He returned to Boston in 1935, intent on setting the course record he had promised a year earlier in the flush of victory that he would return to set, but the race went instead to Johnny Kelley, the man Komonen had defeated in 1934.

“Hailed a year ago as Canada’s premier marathoner,” said the Sudbury Star, echoing the assessment of most, ”Komonen appears to have passed his prime.”

Komonen lived in Sudbury until 1951, never losing his passion for running. Several times he returned to Boston, and to other races that had once been his for the entering. There were no more major triumphs but he competed for the pleasure and camaraderie he found in doing so. When he gave up racing he remained an athlete, running for health and enjoyment.

Komonen labored as a carpenter all his years in Canada, working at times as a foreman on Sudbury construction projects. A son, Matti (g), moved to Canada, also settling in Sudbury. Unto, his second son, remained in Finland, where Komonen himself eventually returned when he left Sudbury behind.

Komonen remained in Finland and fathered a daughter, Elia. After retirement, he divided his time between a winter condominium in Helsinki and a summer home in Heinola. He grew to dislike the condominium, having little to do but walk his dog, and became impatient for the spring each year when he could go back to Heinola. He tended a garden in Heinola, plants flowering at his touch, and went for long circuitous walks, amazing his family at the distances he sometimes covered.

The athletic community in Heinola held a ten-kilometre race each year in his honor, an event that filled him with pride, bringing back memories of his own days as a competitive athlete. And each spring he looked forward to Patriot’s Day and the news from Boston.

On the day of the Boston Marathon in 1978, when a lithe blond runner named Bill Rodgers was sweeping to victory as had a lithe blond runner long ago in 1934, Komonen lay near death in Helsinki, the victim of spinal cancer. Two days later on April 19, that quirky date that kept cropping up in his life, the day he left Finland for Canada, the day he won the laurel wreath in Boston, Komonen died. He was seventy-nine.

Two years before his death Komonen spent the winter in Florida to escape the cold of Helsinki, living five months with his son. He puttered happily about the yard, mowing lawns, tending shrubs and flowers. Neighbors remarked that the property had never looked better. Matti would pass the compliments on to his father and the old man would smile.

When he wasn’t fussing about his son’s yard, Komonen ventured off for long walks, often along the beach. He liked the glint of the sun on the water and the sound of waves on the sand, and he liked the highways and byways of Lake Worth. Five, sometimes seven miles a day, he would walk.

“He went distances I wouldn’t dream of going,” recalls his daughter-in-law. “He was in good shape, and when he walked he was fast. It was almost half running. It was the way he was.”

Footnotes

(a) Portions of this chapter are based on interviews January I I, 1982, with Mr. and Mrs. Matti Komonen of Lake Worth, Florida.

(b) Part of the former Soviet Union.

(c) A similar honor was denied by the Amateur Athletic Union of Canada because Komonen was not a Canadian citizen.

(d) Kelley won the Boston Marathon in 1935 and 1945 and finished second a record seven times. He also set an unrivalled record for longevity in the race, completing his fiftieth Boston Marathon at age seventy-three in 1981 and continued to run the race annually thereafter.

(e) The divorce was never finalized. Komonen’s first wife died in 1942 and he remarried in 1951.

(f) The papers were never finalized. Komonen remained a Finnish citizen all his life.

(g) Matti Komonen, a watchmaker and jeweler, and Esko Komoncn, a brother of the runner, are residents of Lake Worth, Florida.