Legendary North Shore sprinter Harry Jerome never raced for personal fame, but if he were alive today, his sister says, he would be touched by this week’s announcement officially naming the soon-to-be rebuilt track at West Vancouver Secondary in his honour.
What would have thrilled him much more though, says Valerie Jerome, is knowing the future Harry Jerome Oval will be a safe haven where North Shore youth can train, compete, play, learn and grow.
“He wasn't out looking for glory,” says Valerie, who was an elite sprinter herself, competing alongside her brother at the 1960 Rome Olympics. “He was far more interested in helping the next generation along the path, or getting other young people to find the joy that we had in athletics.”
Despite his greatness on and off the track, Harry encountered chilling racism throughout his life, some of the worst of it coming right here on the North Shore. But the track was always a sacred place for Harry and the Jerome siblings, Valerie says.
“We had utter joy at our track practices. Yes, we worked really hard and often it was snowy or rainy and the water was up over the tops of our running shoes or spikes, but the community of people that we got to train with – that's what he really wanted for young people. Not for his name necessarily to be on things, but for more young people to find a sense of peace and happiness and acceptance and dignity, which is what we found in our track club and amongst the people we trained with.”
A facility to be proud of
The Harry Jerome Oval may have a new name, but there is still a lot of work needed to get it completed. The idea for a badly needed upgrade of the track, sports field and surrounding area at West Vancouver Secondary was first floated five years ago when a team of dedicated volunteers started an ambitious campaign, dubbed the West Vancouver Place For Sport, to raise close to $5 million for the massive renovation. They haven’t yet reached their fundraising goal, but the District of West Vancouver has pledged $2.2 million while West Vancouver Schools, the West Vancouver Foundation and West Vancouver Football Club have all made big contributions as well, along with some corporate donors and local citizens. They’re still more than a million dollars short of their goal, but organizers feel the new name will help get the project to its fundraising finish line.
More than that, however, is a strong desire to honour a great North Shore resident, says West Vancouver Mayor Mary-Ann Booth, who came up with the idea of recognizing Harry Jerome and got the ball rolling on the name change by contacting Valerie Jerome to collaborate on the campaign. The more she spoke to Valerie and learned the story of the Jerome family and Harry in particular, the more determined she became to see the name change through, says Booth.
“There were so many elements and angles to this story that was, yes, about a really talented track athlete, but also his story of resilience and what we could learn from that story and what children could learn from that story,” she says.
Racist reaction to family’s arrival
The story of Harry Jerome and his place in North Shore history is much more than the story of a record-setting sprinter, although he certainly was that. In the 1960s Jerome held a legitimate claim to the title of world’s fastest man, setting a total of seven world records over his career. He also earned bronze in the 1964 Olympic Games in the 100-metre dash and gold at the 1966 Commonwealth Games and 1967 Pan American Games.
But for all his success on the track, Harry spent much of his life battling blatant racism off of it. The Jerome family moved from Winnipeg to North Vancouver in 1951 and were given a despicable welcome – before they arrived, their soon-to-be neighbours on their street in the Ridgeway neighbourhood petitioned city council to prohibit them from moving in because they were Black (city council rejected the petition). When the Jerome siblings walked to Ridgeway Elementary on the first day of school, they were met by a mob of students – more than 100, says Valerie – who hurled rocks and insults at them and chased them back home.
“They were ready for us that morning,” says Valerie. “The people on that street, aside from one family, never spoke to us.”
But the family persisted, and Harry soon made a name for himself on the sports fields of the North Shore. He excelled in any sport he tried – Harry starred on club and school teams in baseball, soccer, rugby and football – but he never could outrun the racist harassment he would receive on the field, says Valerie. She recalls well-known North Vancouver sports organizer Fenn Burdett, who supported Harry and coached him in baseball, telling him he might need to try an individual sport to get away from the abuse he often heard from opponents, spectators, and even his own teammates. Harry eventually found a welcoming home in the starting blocks, and his ascension to the top of the sport of track and field was lightning fast. Following in the speedy footsteps of his grandfather – John Armstrong Howard was Canada’s first Black Olympian to run in the 100-m and 200-m, at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics – Harry was just 19 years old when he competed in the 1960 Rome Olympics.
Injury, criticism, and perseverance
His successes, however, were tarnished by unfair criticism, often resulting from devastating injuries. Torn leg muscles forced him to withdraw from the 1960 Olympics and 1962 Commonwealth Games – and forced him to the sidelines for long and gruelling rehab stints – but many members of the public and sports punditry of the time accused him of quitting in those big races.
“When the second injury happened, the Vancouver Sun headline was Jerome Quits Again,” says Valerie, adding that even in death Harry couldn’t escape the criticism. “When he died in 1982, Maclean's Magazine ran his obituary: ‘and Harry Jerome ignominiously withdrew from his semifinal in the Rome Olympics.’ I don't know what's so shameful and embarrassing about being injured. … He was an extraordinarily determined person, but no, that isn't what many people remember. They seem to think that he quit.”
Harry, however, was far from a quitter. He fought hard to get back on the track after injuries – a new surgical procedure was used to reattach his quadriceps muscle to his knee following its complete rupture in 1962. When the full truth of the injury came out, many thought his competitive career was over. But he was back on the world stage two years later, winning Olympic bronze, and when he tied the world record in the 100-yard dash in 1966, it was heralded as “one of the greatest comebacks in sport.” Sport BC now gives out the Harry Jerome Comeback Award at its annual awards banquet.
A dedication to education
Harry kept on achieving after retiring from competitive sport. He earned bachelor and master’s degrees in physical education from the University of Oregon, taught in schools in Richmond and Vancouver, and in 1968 was appointed by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to the National Fitness and Amateur Sport Program where he worked to promote fitness and sport in high schools across Canada. He also spoke up for racial equality, petitioning the CRTC in 1979 for better representation of minorities in broadcasting.
Harry died suddenly of a seizure in 1982 at age 42, but not before he got to see the launch of the BC Premier's Sport Awards Program, a campaign he dreamed up – which is still going strong today – to encourage students across the province to be active in sports.
In 1970 he was made an officer of the Order of Canada, and one year later was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame.
Harry and Valerie both trained predominantly with the Optimist Striders at the Brockton Oval in Stanley Park, but they also frequented the West Van track. Geoff Jopson, a key organizer of the fundraising campaign for the Harry Jerome Oval, remembers going with his track-loving father to see Harry compete on the West Van track shortly after 18-year-old Harry broke a national men’s record in the 220-yard dash set 31 years earlier by the great Percy Williams.
“I recall dad saying to me, ‘you know, Harry Jerome … he's going to be one of the fastest runners in the world. We need to go up there and see him train, because he's here,’” says Jopson, adding he knew he was looking at greatness just watching Harry train. “These days we would have Instagram photos, and we'd be sharing it all over the world.”
Black History Month
The fact that Harry became an educator after his racing days were over just adds to the powerful legacy the new name of Harry Jerome Oval will hold, says Carolyn Broady, chair of the West Vancouver Board of Education.
“Just the history of Harry on the North Shore and what he brought to athletics is absolutely fabulous … but also that piece for our kids going forward of learning that history,” says Broady. “My hope is actually that what it does is starts a conversation about the history of both athletics and Harry and what he accomplished on the North Shore, but also around the topic of Black history in Vancouver and on the North Shore.”
It’s fitting that this announcement comes in Black History Month, says West Vancouver's mayor, adding that the legacy of the Harry Jerome story is part of a conversation about race and racism that is ongoing on the North Shore and across the country.
“I think as Canadians – they call it exceptionalism – we think that this is something that happens in the States and not up here,” says Booth. “And I think to truly move forward, to heal, there has to also be an acceptance and an understanding that this did go on here, and it was really bad. … We had, and have, racism in our country, in our community. And there’s still work to be done.”
There are other facilities and monuments named in honour of Harry Jerome – including a rec centre in neighbouring North Vancouver – but this will be the first ever track named after him, says Booth.
“I think that when you do have a hero, someone that you're really proud of as a Canadian, I don't think you can have too many places named after that person,” says Booth.
Valerie Jerome, who like Harry was a teacher and followed her track career with a lifetime dedicated to education and to fighting for racial justice, has nothing but praise for the Harry Jerome Oval project.
“I didn’t take this project to Mary-Ann Booth, she brought it to me,” she says. “She deserves some recognition for her courage. She doesn’t have to do this – it’s not going to bring her many votes in West Vancouver, if any at all. But she is trying to make her community a more inclusive community.”
This is a step in the right direction on a long journey, says Valerie, who has been busy this month, speaking to classes across the Lower Mainland and beyond in recognition of Black History Month.
“I don't really think that Canadians have faced up to their own racism,” she says. “It's nice to know that now we're bringing [Harry’s] name to attention, because I think there are many people who are Brown and Black living in this region who don't see Black people being acknowledged, whether it's Harry Jerome or Emery Barnes or Rosemary Brown. I think we desperately need to let young people of colour know that there are precedents, there are people who came before them, and that we can be in the history books.”
There are incredibly troubling aspects of the Harry Jerome story, but this new chapter is another cause for celebration, says Valerie. That’s what her brother would have wanted.
“Harry certainly was able to take his disappointments in life and turn them into positive experiences,” she says. “He was very interested in having good outcomes. And that's why he really worked hard. That's what's so wonderful about this Oval being named for him – after he retired from athletics, he spent the rest of his days working to provide athletic opportunities for other young people to get the satisfaction that he was able to get from participating in sport. He was really dedicated to that.”
Prime Minister Trudeau has shared a video message at today’s virtual unveiling that you can view here on the West Vancouver Place for Sport website, where you can also learn more about Harry Jerome and the Oval project.