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One loss—of many—in the Great War

A hundred years ago, the US entrance into the Great War in Europe ruined the chances of a rematch between the two top milers of the day—Joie Ray from Kankakee, Illinois, and Nashvillian Johnny Overton ’17, a senior at Yale.

On March 21, 1917, Ray and Overton had capped the indoor track season with a showdown in Madison Square Garden, billed in newspaper ads as “The Greatest Mile Race Ever Run Indoors.” In January, Ray had upset Overton in the Wanamaker 1.5-mile race, setting world indoor and outdoor records. In March, Overton had beaten Ray in a 1,000-yard race. In other distances, they had both bested world records.

“Chesty Joie” was a charismatic competitor destined to be the top miler and a three-time Olympian in the Roaring Twenties of Ruth, Red Grange, and Man o’ War. Overton was every bit as flamboyant as Ray. “Johnny had a taste for the crowds,” said a Yale teammate, Henry Cooper ’17. “More than once, he saved his final burst of speed for a particular group of spectators. He would always have a box on the final stretch with three or four pretty girls in it, and as Johnny went by he’d give a little wave and then kick home.”   

One headline after Ray and Overton’s race played on a historical piece of world news: “5,000 in uproar as Czar Overton is dethroned in mile race by Ray.” The US entered the war in April. Overton graduated from Yale in May, and he and many of his classmates signed up. On May 21, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marines. In February he sailed for France.

I learned about Johnny Overton when I was 23, about the same age as Overton when he was serving in France. I was taking a creative writing class at Columbia University at night. Another student, Henry Weil, took the same bus I did from Morningside Heights across town to the East Side. I lived on East 75th Street between First and Second Avenues. Henry was staying with his grandfather on Park Avenue in the 80s. “My grandfather loves to talk about a Yale classmate of his who was a nationally known miler before he died in World War I,” said Henry. “You should come and talk with him.” 

So, one night after class, I got off the bus and walked with Henry to an imposing Park Avenue apartment building. We took the elevator up and entered an enormous multilevel apartment, the kind I’d seen only in movies like Auntie Mame. A dozen or so clay busts on pedestals lined the entrance hall. Some of the faces seemed familiar. “That’s my grandfather’s hobby,” said Henry. “He loves to sculpt his friends.” Henry also noted that his grandfather had been a remarkable athlete, who well into his 60s had amused his friends at parties by walking up stairs on his hands.   

Henry introduced me to this sculptor/athlete/surgeon, Dr. Henry Sage Fenimore Cooper, a lively white-haired man of 85 with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. As a reader of the Leatherstocking tales and an admirer of Natty Bumppo’s wilderness wiles, I asked Dr. Cooper whether he was related to the great author. He said yes, James Fenimore Cooper was his great-grandfather, but he added quickly that he didn’t pay attention to such things. "People who dwell too much on their ancestors are like potatoes," he said. "The best parts of them are underground." I also made the connection to the byline of his son Henry S. F. Cooper Jr., who wrote the New Yorker’s science stories, including many about the space program. Looking at his obituary a few years later, I saw that Dr. Cooper’s great-great-grandfather had founded Cooperstown, New York.

I felt as if I had entered a preserved corner of Old New York, somewhere between Life with Father and Teddy Roosevelt’s boyhood, through a crease in time. This feeling grew stronger as Cooper told me about Johnny Overton. At Yale they had each run legs of the two-mile relay for several years. “In those days,” said Cooper, “one good man could carry three duffers, which was the case with us.” At the Penn Relays of 1916, their time of 7:53 for the mile tied a world record for the event.

“He was a blithe spirit,” said Cooper, “a painter and a lover of life. But on the track he was the kind of competitor who never has a bad race. He had that quality of doing better than he knew how when the pressure was on.”

In 1916, Overton had won the national AAU indoor title in the 1,000 yards with a time of 2:15.4, which tied the 1913 world record set by the legendary Abel Kiviat. At the 1916 Millrose Games, he had won the Wanamaker 1.5 mile, which gave a special sting to Ray’s upset victory over him in that event in 1917.  

At the New York Athletic Club Games on March 7, they had each run their best events —Ray posting a world indoor mark of 9:11.4 in the two-miles while Overton won the Baxter Mile in 4:19.2, a second off another Kiviat record.

Three days later, Overton broke Kiviat’s mark with a time of 4:16 at the Meadowbrook Athletic Club Games in Philadelphia. At the AAU indoor nationals on March 17 in New York, Ray originally signed up for the two-miles but went out of his way to meet Overton in the 1,000 yards. Overton beat him by 15 yards in a time of 2:14, surpassing the Kiviat record he had tied the year before, and setting up the epic mile.    

During most of the spring of 1918, Overton trained with his troops in central France. At a recreational track meet held by the French army near Blois, Overton was asked what he thought of the competitors, which led to him challenge a relay team of three Frenchmen in a mile divided any way they chose. Overton beat them badly.

At his own request, Overton was transferred to the front and assigned on June 14 to the 80th Company of the Sixth Marines. Their operations were in the sector formed inside the villages of Reims, Chateau-Thierry and Soissons, northeast of Paris. This was the Bloody Red Triangle in which 2,000 American servicemen lost their lives within one half-hour period. 

At the height of the Second Battle of the Marne, an allied offensive, Overton’s company regrouped in trenches on one side of a wheat field near Vierzy. Before dawn on July 19, Overton led his men out of the trenches and across the wheat field toward the German lines.

Samuel Meek ’17, a close friend from Nashville and Yale, was also a Marine lieutenant trying to advance his company across the wheat field that day. “In the early hours before dawn,” he told me, “Johnny crossed in front of us. He was marching on about five or ten yards in front of his platoon, and he sort of shouted to me as he went, ‘If I get knocked off today, get my pin and send it to my mother,’ who I knew from Nashville. Then he marched on leading his men into battle.” The pin was that of Skull and Bones, the Yale secret society.

“That piece of leadership was one of the thrilling sights of my life. That quality of heroism and leadership from someone that close to me: it’s a picture I’ve carried with me always.”

Overton was struck in the heart by a fragment of a high-explosive shell and killed instantly, less than a half hour after he shouted to Meek. A runner gave Meek the news, pointing in the direction of Overton’s body. Under the fire of 37-millimeter artillery and machine guns, he maneuvered to the spot and, with the help of another Marine, buried him as best he could and marked the grave with a dog tag attached to a bayonet. Meek wrote a letter to the Overtons in Nashville. For his reconnaissance under heavy fire, Meek was awarded the Croix de Guerre with palm from the French army. After the war, he entered the field of advertising and became a director and head of international operations for J. Walter Thompson.

After the Armistice, Overton’s body was first moved to an American cemetery near Aisne. Later his father brought the body home to Nashville. A crowd of a thousand met the ship bearing his casket when it docked at Hoboken, New Jersey, and a Marine Corps detachment in Nashville was named for him. Grantland Rice, the legendary sports writer, who had been a doughboy himself, wrote a poem entitled “A Marine Comes Home.”

Both Meek and Cooper died within a year of my talking with them. But I remembered something Cooper had said to me: “Look at all of us, those of us who have lived this long. We’re all 85 years old. But Johnny, he’s still 23.”


Brooks Clark, a veteran magaine writer and editor, is project manager for alumni communications at the University of Tennessee. This post was adapted from an article by Clark that was published in our February 1981 issue.

Filed under Johnny Overton, World War I, 1910s, track
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