West Seattle Herald: My brother was a long-distance runner

Aug. 21, 2008

SEATTLE, Wash. -

By Georgie Bright Kunkel

My brother Norman Bright was a star runner in the late 1920s at Whatcom Norman School - now Western Washington University - and ended up in its Hall of Fame.

Many old timers in the greater Seattle area remember him after he became blind, running around Green Lake with a guide holding one end of a heavy piece of twine as my brother held the other end. The only problem was that most guides couldn't run as fast as my brother, even when he was in his late seventies. In his eighties his grand nephews would walk with him around his care center as he timed the walk on his stopwatch.

Some people are born to sing, some to write. Well, my brother Norman was born to run. After his running career peaked, however, he concentrated on his profession as a high school counselor. After learning about Masters Division races, the running bug bit him again. He spent hours training and running in marathons all over the world, setting Masters level records, some of which have never been broken. In 2000, four years after his death, he was named to the USA Track and Field Masters Hall of Fame.

Recently my daughter urged me to downsize everything in our basement. I came across my brother's track memorabilia and realized that the best place for this precious collection was the archives at Western in Bellingham. I contacted them and made an appointment to bring up some of his trophies. One was the beautiful gold-tone Glenn Cunningham Mile trophy he won in 1937 in Portland, Oregon. Just the year before he had received a large silver tray engraved with the signatures of all those taking part in the Princeton University's Invitational Track Meet. Along with my brother's signature was that of Glenn Cunningham.

All those who are too young to remember Cunningham must have an explanation.

He was the fellow who suffered burned feet as a child and after being told he might not walk again, recovered and became the first to run the mile race in four minutes. My brother could empathize with him since in childhood his own legs were not strong enough to hold him up. He would fall down and struggle to get up - until my mother decided to massage his leg muscles every day until they became stronger.

In 1938, Cunningham came to Portland and entered the mile race named after him. Even though Norman was a long distance runner, he spent weeks training as he intended to at last win a race against the great miler. His training paid off and soon he was posing with Cunningham and many of our family as our nephew held up Norman's winning trophy.

As my daughter and I stood in the library at Western being photographed with my brother's track memorabilia, soon to rest in Western's special collections, all the early memories of my brother began flooding back into my mind. I turned the pages of a scrapbook that held newspaper clippings of my brother's track wins and his 1935 AAU track tour of Europe. I remembered the story of my brother at college, watching the track team practice. The javelin thrower tossed one way out into the field and my brother playfully ran after it, picked it up and ran off with it. No one running after him could catch him. That was when the coach decided he needed to recruit him for the track team.

During WWII my brother was rejected for enlistment because of his slow pulse - a plus in long distance running but at that time, not considered a plus for the Army. He didn't give up but went out and ran three miles to raise his pulse rate and went to another enlistment center and was accepted. He was the first person in army uniform to compete in the Boston Marathon.

If you chance upon a bench near the field house at Green Lake in Seattle, look closely. There will be a plaque with my brother's name on it placed there by the Snohomish Track Club that sponsored my brother in many a race over the years. When I close my eyes I can still hear my brother yodel as he once did, announcing his return home from one block away, and running all the way. That is how I will remember him.

Georgie Bright Kunkel is a freelance writer who can be reached at 935-8663 or gnkunkel@comcast.net.


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