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Ellery Clark: Cohasset’s Olympic Hero

Jane Lane

Reproduced, with permission, from Treasury of Cohasset History, ed. J. M. Dormitzer (Town of Cohasset, Mass., 2005), pp. 140-142.

Ellery Clark, whose name is often preceded with . . . “Cohasset’s own,” was and always will be an Olympic hero. Almost 100 years have passed, but the skill and dedication of this scholar-athlete will not diminish . . . As an undergraduate at Harvard, Clark was an outstanding track and field athlete. When he was chosen along with several . . . classmates to compete in the first Olympics of the modern era, Clark probably did not comprehend the magnitude of the task before him or the consequences of his efforts. He was not alone in his misconception regarding “The Games.” In a letter signed by a university official, dated March 4, 1896, it was written, “We have decided to let you go to Greece . . . of course you take your own risks as far as courses are concerned.”

The first modern Olympics were reinstituted the spring of 1896 in Athens, Greece. The befuddled coaching and the confusion surrounding the date of the Olympic competition have been well documented. [Clark arrived in Athens just one day ahead of the events in which he was to compete, because of differences in the calendars used to schedule the Olympic Games.] But despite all hurdles placed before him, Clark will always be remembered as the magnificent American runner who won two first-place medals at the games. No one seizes those memories more tirelessly than his son, Ellery Clark, Jr., an author and avid fact finder . . .

Clark’s efforts did not conclude with Olympic competition, as his son remembers. He was a track and field superstar before that label was so carelessly tossed around. For twenty-three years he competed in various local and national amateur events, a record for longevity. In addition, he continued to compete in twenty-one different events, another record yet to be equaled. [In 1897 and again in 1903 he was the A.A.U.’s National All-Around Track and Field Champion.] . . .

It was during his senior year at Harvard [that] Clark made the long voyage to Athens. His first-place finish won him a medal in the high jump with an effort of 5 feet, 11 ¾ inches. He also won the running long jump with a 20-foot, 9 ¾-inch attempt. That year, Clark participated in what has been called the father of the modern decathlon. Ten grueling events comprised the competition, including the running high jump, the running long jump, the pole vault, the 56-pound weight, the 16-pound shotput, the 16-pound hammer, the half-mile walk, the one-mile race, the 100-yard dash, and the 120-yard high hurdles. In recognition of his outstanding efforts and ability, Clark was also presented a special award from King Constantine of Greece . . .

Clark was born in West Roxbury [in 1874] and later competed in amateur athletics with the Boston Athletic Association. He never turned to professional athletics. “He was a purist amateur,” his son claims. His family summered in Cohasset, participants for many years in “cooting,” duck hunting, a family passion for many years, he explains [see Josephine F. Clark, “Cooting,” p. 000.] Clark bought the Jerusalem Road home in 1902 and resided there for more than forty years. His long, muscular frame was a common sight along Cohasset streets, running along Jerusalem Road and Atlantic Avenue, near Marsh’s Corner, his son notes. He practiced many of his events on the old Williams estate off Atlantic Avenue.

After the international heroics of the Olympics, Clark settled back into collegiate life and earned a law degree from Harvard. He later became executive secretary of the Massachusetts Humane Society and was a distinguished author and poet. He was an instructor and coach at various times at Harvard and at Brown and Nichols in Cambridge. His life was filled with honor and achievement. But his son, a noted historian, author, and athlete himself, said that above all, his father was “a generous and gracious man. He was very modest. Everything that happened to him was like Christmas for him. He couldn’t believe what was happening in his life.”

In a moment shared by father and son, the elder once told his young child that the proudest moment in his life was standing aside the American flag as it was raised twice in that foreign land—a tribute to the best athlete in the world.

 From Jane Lane, “Cohasset Hero Remembered,” Cohasset Mariner, July 12, 1984. Reprinted by permission of the Cohasset Mariner.