An Olympic Connection

I absolutely love this picture. I found it for sale online a few years ago – a newspaper photo by Ell Sampson for the Chicago Daily Times, taken November 29, 1939, just before my grandmother’s brother, Dick Schwartz, married the Olympic track star, Betty Robinson. On the back of the photo, “These two people have their licenses to be married and the date will be very soon.”

Below is the entry from the 1940 Census, showing Dick and Betty (Richard and Elizabeth) a few months later, living at the Mayfair Hotel in Chicago, 5496 Hyde Park Blvd. They’re on lines 27 and 28. Dick was working as a mail order executive, and Betty as a saleslady. Both worked 44 hours a week.

Betty’s unique and powerful story has gotten a fair amount of attention in recent years. Dreamworks has even purchased the rights for a movie version! She was discovered by a high school teacher as she was running to catch a train at age 16. Just weeks later, she became the first woman to win gold in Olympic track in Amsterdam in 1928, finishing the 100-meter race in 12.2 seconds. She was almost instantly world-famous. But in 1931, a year prior to what would have surely been another successful Olympics for her as a runner, she barely survived a plane crash after going for a ride in her cousin’s biplane to cool off. She was in a wheelchair and on crutches for months, but eventually resumed training. Miraculously, she made the 1936 Olympic relay team, and the United States won the gold medal for the 4x100m relay in Berlin.

So that’s my Olympic connection, and I guess I couldn’t let the summer games pass this year without mention of my great-aunt Betty and uncle Dick. As we never lived particularly close to them, my memories are limited to their occasional visits. I remember Dick as a real charmer, but never one to take anything too seriously. Like many of my older relatives, he patiently tried to answer my genealogy questions, in person and by mail. Both Dick and Betty were tremendously friendly and easy-going, as is their daughter. In later years, we visited them at their home in Colorado, where they got out Betty’s medals and shared stories.

Dick and Betty Schwartz with my grandmother, Evelyn Thal (center), ca. 1974
Dick Schwartz at the piano, ca. 1974
Betty Schwartz with her Olympic medals, 1995

I thought I’d take the opportunity to recommend two books – one fiction and one non-fiction – for anyone interested in Betty’s life and the history of women’s track. And if you’re looking for a picture book for younger readers, I can recommend Unbeatable Betty, by Allison Crotzer Kimmel.

Fast Girls: A Novel of the 1936 Women’s Olympic Team, by Elise Hooper, is a wonderful, fast-moving, historical novel. It traces the stories of Betty and two of her 1936 teammates, Helen Stephens and Louise Stokes. There is plenty of dramatic material here. In addition to Betty’s accident, Helen faces numerous challenges from her upbringing and her homosexuality, and as an African-American, Louise has an entirely different set of challenges. All three narratives clearly illustrate the attitudes of society toward women and minorities at that time. These are three women that we don’t hear much about anymore, but whose stories deserve to be told. Though some license is taken with the details, the gist of the story is accurate and the book is a great read.

Joe Gergen’s The First Lady of Olympic Track: The Life and Times of Betty Robinson is not only an excellent biography, but also an eye-opening account of the early history of women’s track. Since it was written after Betty passed away in 1999, first-hand accounts of her life were limited. There is certainly a healthy amount of biographical material, but to me, the highlight of the book is the light it shines on the challenges of the female athletes of the time. Apparently there was serious concern then that racing would impact a woman’s fertility. If you’re interested in more details, this is an interesting and very readable account.

You can Google Betty Robinson and come up with all sorts of accounts of her story, videos and her obituary from the New York Times. While you’re at it, check out www.bettyrobinson.org, and the link to the Traincatchers Foundation, managed by her granddaughter. Their mission: “To inspire and support young female athletes’ competitive efforts as they reach beyond barriers.

3 thoughts on “An Olympic Connection

  1. Betsy, thank you for sharing all these pictures. I didn’t know Uncle Dick played the piano. I love seeing the picture with your grandmother, I have a special place in my heart for her. You are a wonderful writer. Hugs, Cousin Lauren. P.S. I’ve read all the books about our Aunt

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Goodness, Betsy—what a joy to read your Olympic connection. Thank you so much for sharing the memories and information—-some of which I did not know—I do not remember the information on the back of the picture—nor had I see the time table entries.
    Sometimes the ‘mom’ status of my mother has been an impediment to research!! Thank you for being a torch bearer.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jaine, you are very welcome! I just love sharing this stuff. The comments on the back of the photo were written by the newspaper photographer, I think. Or at least someone affiliated with the newspaper. Kind of cool! And the census records are from Ancestry.

      Like

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