Walter Young 1937

Walter Young 1937

A week before the Boston Marathon of 1937 Walter Young sat in a barren Boston hotel room with his trainer, Pete Gavuzzi, and came to a depressing conclusion. He had no choice but to return home to Canada. The question was how. On the dresser sat a sheaf of telegrams from members of the Castor Athletic Club in Montreal, each promising money that had never come. Young was broke and Gavuzzi was down to his last couple of dollars. Their rooms in the Technology Chambers, a hotel for men near Copley Square, rented for a dollar a night, four dollars and fifty cents by the week, and neither could see any way to stay. The hotel manager, T. D. Daley, had made clear that credit was out of the question

In his hands Young (a) held the one thing of value remaining in his possession, a handsome Waltham watch won two weeks earlier for running second in a twenty-mile race at North Medford, Massachusetts. The race had given Young considerable optimism. Although John Kelley of Arlington had beaten him in the closing yards, Young had come away certain that the same thing would not happen on Patriot’s Day.

For reasons he could not quite explain he felt he was destined to win the Boston Marathon. Now it looked like he was about to be defeated by the absence of a week’s expense money. Gavuzzi’s two dollars was pitifully inadequate and neither of them knew any place in Boston to turn for more.

Gavuzzi, a small wiry man five years the senior of his twenty-four-year-old protégé, puffed his ever-present pipe and suggested a bleak solution.

“Kid, you’ve got a watch,” he said. ”Pawn it and go home and see if you can get funds to come back.”

”What will you do?” Young asked.

“Never mind me,” Gavuzzi said, ”You get home.” (56)

Young set off down Irvington Street in search of a pawnbroker, thoroughly discouraged. All through the long Quebec winter, with its cold and wind and swirling snow, he had trained faithfully for Boston, supplementing the rigors of hundred-mile training weeks with punishing workouts on snowshoes. That January in Hull, Quebec, he had set what was recognized as a world snowshoe record for ten miles — one hour, six minutes and twenty-three seconds. The record had pleased Gavuzzi as much as it did Young.

Gavuzzi was an unusual trainer. He believed in lots of long gentle runs. ”Three hours slow is better than two hours fast,” he often said. The place to run hard, he thought, was in a race. Gavuzzi also differed from other trainers in that he ran with his athletes, loping tirelessly alongside each mile they logged and showing no apparent effect of his pipe. One day, in the month he and Young had been in New England preparing for Boston, they took a bus to the last stop west of the city, ran the remaining six miles to Hopkinton, the marathon starting point, and then turned and ran the full distance back to Boston, a total workout of thirty-two miles. Young trusted Gavuzzi completely, convinced that his guidance was sound despite the fact that his methods were sometimes questioned by other trainers.

The one thing aside from money that weighed on Young’s mind as he prepared for Boston was the plight of his wife, Muriel, and their three-year-old son, Stanley. They were alone at home in the Montreal suburb of Verdun, living on welfare. The Youngs depended on “the dole” because Walter was unemployed, one of the countless victims of the Depression. Except for odd jobs, Young had been out of work for several years, and though it freed him to train at will, he sometimes felt guilty about devoting his energies to footracing — a pursuit that was looked upon as frivolous. Not many thought he stood much of a chance of winning the Boston Marathon, his wife included if the truth be told. He had run Boston twice previously with little luck, finishing thirty-third in 1934, when Dave Komonen of Sudbury, Ontario, had won the race, and twenty-sixth in 1936. Only one person, outside of Gavuzzi, thought Young might actually win in 1937. After watching him run in the North Medtord race against Kelley, the venerable Clarence DeMar ventured the opinion that the Montreal runner could well lay claim to the laurel wreath.

DeMar’s remark, quoted in a Boston newspaper, had given Young a boost and it had also nurtured another hope he had carried with him through the winter. If he could win the Boston Marathon. Young thought, someone might provide him with a full-time job.

That had been the dream, at least until now as he tramped the streets of Boston, silently cursing the Castor Athletic Club. The dream at this point seemed as doomed as his chance of running in the marathon. Finding a pawn shop, not far from the Boston Athletic Association Clubhouse and marathon finishing line, Young pulled the watch from his pocket and asked for ten dollars.

“That’s impossible,” the man at the counter said. “We don’t allow more than five dollars.”

Young’s heart sank. Bus fare back to Montreal was seven dollars. All he could do was tell his story. The pawn broker listened as he related his tale of woe.

“I’ll do you a favor,” the man said finally. “I’ll give you the seven bucks.”

There was one piece of luck. Bus fare totaled only six dollars and forty-five cents. Young was grateful for the few cents it left him in change. He departed Boston, leaving Gavuzzi to hitchhike to New York where he planned to stay with a friend, Harry Richman.

Home in Verdun, Young took his case to Herve Ferland, the city mayor. Verdun had recently established an athletic commission, an idea borrowed from Montreal, and Young hoped it might help him out. What he did not know was that Ferland would welcome him with open arms, the mayor having landed in political hot water because funds invested by the commission had produced few visible results. The suspicion among Ferland’s political opponents was that he was using the commission to funnel public money into his own pocket. Ferland looked upon Young as someone who might silence the critics, especially if he did well in the marathon.

“We’ll support you,” Ferland said.

The mayor gave the destitute athlete fifty dollars and, wishing him every success, inquired almost as an afterthought whether the city could do anything else. Young thought of an application he had filed sometime earlier with the Verdun police force.

“One of my goals, if I win the marathon, is to find work,” Young said.

“If you do win,” said Ferland, “you’ll have a job on the police force.”

Young walked out of Ferland’s office amazed, taking the good news home to Muriel and notifying Gavuzzi by telegram that he was heading back to Boston.

Walter Young was born March 14, 1913, to English-speaking parents in the Eastern Townships hamlet of Lime Ridge, a place so tiny it disappeared from the map when he was a small boy. He was raised on a farm in nearby Greenlay and walked to school at Windsor Mills, a round trip of six miles. His mother was an industrious woman who put hearty meals on the table and his father was a Canadian patriot who fought overseas during the First World War. Young grew up milking cows, cutting hay, chopping wood and doing all the other chores required of a farmer’s son, developing into a tall, strapping lad nearly six feet tall. At the end of grade eight, the first year of high school in the Quebec of the 1 920s, Young struck out on his own, heading for Montreal.

“In those days it seemed to be the only place that one could find work,” he recalls.

Hired as a steel mill laborer, Young spent a year checking pipe threads, attaching couplings and doing whatever else his limited skills allowed, leaving when a job as a carpenter’s apprentice became available at a wire works plant in St. Henri. Nearby on Church Avenue he discovered a police gymnasium and became acquainted with a group of boxers, soon joining them in the ring and trading punches with the best of them. He boxed as a welterweight and middleweight, classes with upper weight limits of one hundred and forty-seven and one hundred and sixty pounds respectively. In all he fought more than forty bouts, winning a majority of them.

“I thought I was going to make it as a professional boxer. I did turn pro and took part in three professional bouts. That was enough. I won one. I lost, and was knocked out, in the other two.”

Part of Young’s training as a boxer was running, an activity he decided in the end he was better suited for than the rigors of the ring. The miles on the road that seemed such a burden to many boxers passed easily, even pleasantly, for Young. In time he exchanged the company of boxers and the big bag of the gymnasium for the companionship of runners and the lure of the race. He lost his job along the way, called home to look after the farm for a period when his father fell ill.

When he returned to Montreal it was to the reality of the Depression and temporary jobs like the one he held for a couple of summers at Redpath sugar, slinging hundred-pound bags about. It was during these difficult years that Young met and married Muriel Smith of Montreal. The couple found it difficult to cope financially and problems became worse when their son, Stanley, was born. Yet it was during this period that Young came into his own as a runner, racing regularly and eventually coming under the influence of Pete Gavuzzi.

“Walter had the tendency of practically every youthful runner,” said Gavuzzi. ”They all want to use a long stride. In this way they throw away much of their power to win. A short stride is what is needed, plus condition.” (57)

Young’s first race was in Windsor Mills. He ran a ten-mile relay race with a partner who dropped out before the half-way mark. Not knowing what else to do Young finished alone, taking third place. Under Gavuzzi’s guidance, years later, he also became an accomplished snowshoe racer, once piling up a string of ten consecutive victories including the ten-mile record in Hull. His stride was powerful and striking.

“There was quite a trick to it,” he recalls. “You had to run leaning very much forward and have the feet spread, bringing the snowshoes from behind without stepping too far to the front. You had to get the knack. Otherwise you’d get the damn things tangled up.” (b)

Snowshoes provided valuable resistance training that Young believed was the key to many of his victories on the spring roads. But Gavuzzi never allowed him to neglect the long rambling runs. In the months leading up to the Boston Marathon of 1937 they logged nearly seventeen hundred miles together.

The first thing Young did back in Boston was call on the pawnbroker and redeem his watch. The man was happy at Young’s change in fortune, as was the staff at the Technology Chambers when he checked back into a room. Young thought Gavuzzi might already be there, but there was no sign, and he still had not arrived by the morning of the race. Young wondered if something might have gone wrong. Gavuzzi eventually turned up at the Lucky Manor in Hopkinton, a farm given over to the BAA each Patriot’s Day as a staging area for marathoners and organizers.

The farm, which belonged to a family named Tebeau, was overrun by close to two hundred runners and half again as many reporters, trainers, automobile chauffeurs and others drawn by the race. They milled about chaotically, dressing and undressing, spilling liniment on the furniture, reading newspapers, ignoring the bawled commands for order from frazzled BAA personnel. Grandfather Tebeau, manning a barricade on a staircase to preserve two rooms for the family, surveyed the scene with his usual air of grim acceptance.

Clarence DeMar was there, no longer a threat to win but a lordly presence. Seven times a champion, he was the author this year of his just-published life story, Marathon. Also present were lesser lights like Johnny ”Cigars” Connors, conspicuous in pink-striped shorts, green shirt and orange tam. His cigar, he was told, must be extinguished before the start.

In deference to his sometimes sensitive stomach, and in keeping with Gavuzzi’s advice on diet, Young had eaten his last meal five hours before the race. It consisted of steak, salad and tea. He avoided bread, potatoes and other starchy foods that Gavuzzi thought served only to slow a runner down on the day of competition.

Normally, Young would have worn the colors of the Castor Athletic Club but this day, with Herve Ferland in mind, he put on a singlet with the word “Verdun” emblazoned in large letters across the chest. Cyclists were assigned to each runner, Young drawing an eager young man from Revere named Humbert Cerafice. As the noon start neared the runners vacated the farm for the starting line.

Young shook hands with Johnny Kelley, the 1935 champion, and Les Pawson, whose winning time of 2:31:10 in 1933 still stood as the course record. Others in the field included Dave Komonen of Sudbury, the 1934 winner, and Gerard Cote, a fellow Quebecer from St. Hyacinthe. The sky was clear at the gun with temperatures in the sixties.

From the outset Young followed a simple strategy, trying to maintain a comfortable pace without letting Kelley and Pawson, the favorites, slip beyond reach. Within ten miles the pattern of the race was set. Pawson dropped from contention and when Kelley forged to the front Young went with him, an estimated half million spectators watching along the route as each struggled mile after mile to shake the other. Kelley was the crowd favorite although some mistook Young for Jimmy Clements of Somerville, Massachusetts, and applauded him with equal fervor, the result of a racing number pinned to one side of his shorts. It looked from one angle like 49, Clements’ number, not the 149 assigned to Young.

By one count Kelley and Young exchanged the lead sixteen times before the race was decided with only two miles to go. Much of the drama occurred in the Newton Hills where Kelley broke briefly away when Young stopped to grab a sugared drink from Gavuzzi who was waiting at the roadside. It looked for a moment like the decisive break but no sooner had Kelley pulled ahead than he stopped in his tracks and doubled up like a jackknife, retching onto the macadam road. He attempted to continue, then stopped and vomited again, allowing Young to catch him and sweep past into the lead. One minute the race had seemed to be Kelley’s; now it seemed to belong to Young. But Kelley demonstrated otherwise. The crisis past, he regained his stride and began to close the gap, throwing himself into a furious assault up the last of the three hills.

First pulling even with Young and then inching past, Kelley was cheered over the crest by frenzied throngs. Descending the other side into Boston and heading into the last long stretch he pulled twenty-five, fifty, then a hundred yards ahead. But the effort had taken its toll and the roar of all the crowds that shouted his name was not enough to carry him on to victory. In front of the Brandon Hall Hotel, overcome by exhaustion, he slowed to a walk. Young caught and swept by him for the final time, unchallenged from there to the finish line on Exeter Street.

The first thing the masses at the BAA Clubhouse should have seen was Young arriving in triumph. Instead, two runners rounded the corner together from Commonwealth Avenue, clipping along at what appeared record pace. Crowds screamed, then groaned as they passed, identifying them as intruders, from advertising slogans they wore on their backs. Boston policemen hustled them off the course. (58)

Young, a distinctive runner whose long torso looked out of proportion to his legs, ran through an unbroken corridor of applause to the finish line, the dye running in streaks down his shirt from the sweat of the race. His winning time was 2:33:20. Kelley arrived wanly almost six minutes later at 2:39:09 4/5, his ability to hold second a tribute to the lead he and Young had built up on the rest of the field. Pawson ran third in 2:41:46 and in seventh place, wearing the Castor Athletic Club uniform that Young had discarded, was Gerard Cote, timed in 2:46:46. Dave Komonen, a shadow of the runner he was in triumph three years earlier, finished twenty-first in 3:02:35 4/5.

Young accepted congratulations in the BAA Clubhouse, flashbulbs popping as he sat with the green laurel wreath on his head. Clarence DeMar, fourteenth in 2:52:00 at age forty-eight, was among those who shook Young’s hand, telling the new champion he would send him a copy of his autobiography.

Young might not learn any new tricks, DeMar said, but the book would provide another runner’s point of view. Young reminded DeMar of the prediction he had made following the North Medford race and DeMar confessed to trying during the race to prove his words wrong.

“I was all right through the first half but I couldn’t keep it up,” he said. ”I thought I could but I couldn’t. You make mistakes, even at my age.”(59)

Kelley spent half an hour in a side room, buckled in agony, before he was able to congratulate Young and speak with reporters. “It was that bad mile again,” he said. I’ve never been so sick in a race, and I thought this was going to be my day.” (60)

Gavuzzi was so overjoyed he could scarcely contain himself, Cote’s seventh-place finish only adding to his pleasure. Gavuzzi had helped train Cote as well as Young, the three of them sometimes running together.

Young reacted to the fuss with his usual unexcitable manner, giving more credit to Gavuzzi and his cyclist than he took himself. He had particular praise for Kelley, lauding the spirit of the Massachusetts runner and his generosity and sportsmanship for sharing water on the course when Young had needed it. Young dropped ten pounds in the course of the marathon, his weight registering a mere one hundred and thirty-five pounds when checked by BAA doctors.

“I felt all along that 1937 was going to be my lucky year,” Young said. ”We went over the BAA course every day for a week, and if we did not run the whole course we would run the hills anyway. We got to know the course like a book, especially the hills.” (61)

Young and Gavuzzi were removed from their spartan quarters at the Technology Chambers, in honor of the victory, and placed in the Hotel Kenmore where telegrams began to arrive, the first coming from a relieved Herve Ferland. “Heartiest congratulations on your magnificent triumph,” the mayor cabled. “The entire city of Verdun pays you tribute.”

When Young ordered breakfast the following morning, a big meal of bacon and eggs, an inordinate number of waiters flocked to his room, lingering after the meal was presented. Young realized that winning the marathon had made him a celebrity. The waiters wanted to get a good look at him. Being champion of the Boston Marathon was satisfying, Young thought, but he knew the real prize waited in Verdun.

His train back to Montreal was met at St. Alban’s, Vermont, by a delegation from Montreal that included W.W. Shipley, the president of the Canadian National Recreation Club. Shipley gave Young honorary membership in the club and invited him to preside at the club field day at Lachine in July. Also boarding was Mrs. Young, holding young Stanley by the hand. She apologized for ever doubting Young’s chances and they rode the last happy leg of the journey to Bonaventure Station.

A noisy reception awaited when Young disembarked, one of the first stepping forward to congratulate him being Edouard Fabre, the Boston Marathon champion of 1915. (c) A parade wound its way to Verdun where a large banner hung across main street welcoming Young home. He was taken to a studio and asked to tell his story on radio. Mayor Ferland called him the pride of the Verdun athletic commission and handed him the keys to a hotel suite.

“Relax with your family,” he said. ”Stay as long as you want.”

Young stayed a single night, then went to Ferland’s office the next day to remind him of the promise that victory would mean a job. Ferland kept his word. Young became a police constable, the first ever to join the Verdun force without a medical examination. His salary was twenty-six dollars and fifty cents a week.

Young remained with the force four years, then joined the Verdun fire department, which allowed more flexibility for training and traveling. But the flexibility was something Young never used. When he retired in 1978, after thirty-seven years as a fireman, he had never missed a day of work.

Young never again equaled his triumphs of 1937, a year in which he logged almost five thousand miles training and racing, and recorded a string of victories. Six weeks after Boston that year he went back to Massachusetts for the Salisbury Beach Marathon, run May 31 in wilting Memorial Day heat. Young won in 2:50:52, the legendary Clarence DeMar placing second in 2:55:35.

Young bypassed Boston in 1938, leaving his title undefended, to represent Canada at the British Empire Games in Australia. The top, with boat stops in Hawaii, Fiji and New Zealand, was one of the most memorable of his life but he ran poorly, finishing seventh in 2:59:05.

Young’s last big race was in 1939, again in Boston, where he ran third in 2:32:41 1/5 on a cold, wet Patriot’s Day, leading a Canadian team composed of himself, Gerard Cote and Lloyd Evans of Montreal to the team championship. Cote ran eighth, Evans fifteenth.

Young ran competitively until 1947, entering an estimated one hundred and fifty races and winning about a third of them. When he put racing behind he continued to run for health and fitness, often covering the four miles morning and night between his home and the Verdun fire station. He ran regularly until age fifty-eight.

“It made me feel good. It gave me what we’d refer to now as a high, the high you’re supposed to get with marijuana or some dope. Many times my feet hardly touched the ground. I felt that proud and that light. That was a high, wasn’t it?”

Young, who lives in retirement in LaSalle, a Montreal suburb bordering on Verdun, believes his athletic success was based on a sound lifestyle.

“Our foods of that day were better than today. l don’t think we had any pizza parlors then and there weren’t french fries on every corner and that sort of thing. It was home-cooked food. These things, I do believe, made quite a difference. And you’d go to bed at night. No one else was up at eleven o’clock at night so I’d go to bed too.”

Young estimates that he has consumed perhaps ten glasses of beer in his life.

“It tastes so terrible, beer. Each glass will be two years apart. At New Year’s I might have a hard drink, and I’ll hope it will be a small one. That’s enough for another year.”

Young’s weight has climbed upward from his days as a champion runner. It held at about one hundred and eighty pounds while he continued to run for fitness, increasing to about two hundred when he stopped. He was a smoker for about ten years, picking up the habit while hunting with a friend in the 1960s, but he stopped as suddenly as he started, simply throwing his cigarettes out one day.

Young became an expert marksman during the years he spent as a member of the Canadian National Recreation Club, winning the Canadian open title in 1964 for accuracy with a .22 rifle from a hundred yards. Today he is an avid bowler, competing in six suburban Montreal leagues. His home is a showcase of his life as an athlete and sportsman. A large basement cabinet is filled with trophies and the laurel wreath he won at Boston is preserved under a sheet of glass. So is a second wreath, made of foliage from the Plain of Marathon in Greece, and presented as a separate memento in 1937 at Boston.

Plaques line the walls of Young’s home. Mrs. Young, a practical woman, has removed the brass figure of a runner from atop her husband’s old Salisbury Beach trophy and filled the base with flowers. It sits in their living room.

Most people acquainted with the retired Walter Young either don’t know or have forgotten that he once reigned as champion of the Boston Marathon. A modest man, he rarely mentions his days in the spotlight. Nor does he complain that his chapter of Boston history has been reduced to relative obscurity by Gerard Cote, four times the victor at Boston in the 1940s. But occasionally the telephone rings and he is invited to attend a road race as guest of honor, usually to fire the starting gun or present trophies afterward. It was on one such occasion in the late 1970s that it struck him how much things had changed. The race was a full-length marathon and the field was sprinkled with women.

“I never could have believed that a lady would ever run a marathon, just would have refused to believe it. Yet there I was watching them.”

What surprised him most was that the best of them were close to being as fast as he had been in his prime.


(a) Portions or this chapter are based on an interview with Walter Young at his LaSalle, Quebec, home on Janualy 19, 1982.

(b) Regulation snowshoes were a minimum of ten inches wide, twenty-eight inches long and three pounds, ten ounces in weight.

(c) Fabre was felled days later by a crippling stoke. Young visited Fabre at hospital and helped in a cave to raise funds for the Fabre family.