Author Spotlight: Alan S. Katchen

Book: Abel Kiviat, National Champion: Twentieth-Century Track & Field and the Melting Pot

Alan S. Katchen spent years teaching the history of education and serving as regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, for over 20 years. Since his retirement from the ADL, he moved on to teach as an adjunct professor of history at Capital University where he was awarded the J. Kenneth Doherty Memorial Fellowship of USA Track and Field for research on Abel Kiviat.  He later wrote a book from his research titled Abel Kiviat, National Champion: Twentieth-Century Track & Field and the Melting Pot, published in 2009. In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the original Olympic race on July 10, 1912, Katchen discusses the inside story of his book on the remarkable life of the national track champion, Abel Kiviat.

What inspired you to write about Abel Kiviat?

“I’ve been fascinated by track & field and its history since childhood, and I’ve always wanted to write about it. It occurred to me to tell the story through the life of a great miler, whose long life might reveal the social and cultural changes that impacted his sport during the past century. At that time, Abel Kiviat was frequently in the news as the oldest living Olympic medalist, a man who began running in 1909 and was still involved with the sport in 1991. Part of my interest was because his circumstances paralleled my own. Like Kiviat, I grew up as the son of a rabbi inNew York City. How had being Jewish affected him and his career? I wondered. In a larger sense, what might his life reveal about the relationship between amateur athletics, ethnicity, and assimilation in American life? I hope the book provides readers with some fresh insights into this complex but still timely issue.”

As a teenage prodigy, how did his talent affect his life?

“As a 17-year-old student on Staten Island, Kiviat was the upset winner of both the half-mile and mile runs in the 1909 New York City public schools championships. The Irish-American Athletic Club (I-AAC), a dynamic organization and the world’s leading track team in the pre-World War I era, accepted him as a member that summer. He began immediately to run world-class times in meets. Achieving instant fame as a track star opened up doors of opportunity in other aspects of his life.

The Wanamaker Department Store on lower Broadway hired him as a sporting goods salesman. With his “polite and courteous” manners, good looks, and determination, he was a natural as a salesman. In addition, a leading National Guard unit,Brooklyn’s Thirteenth Regiment, invited him to join. He had to drill one night a week, but that was a small price to pay for having, as an English visitor put it, “an exceedingly pleasant club at his disposal during his service.” In short, his excellence as a middle-distance runner provided experiences unimaginable to most children of eastern European immigrants in turn-of-the-century America.”

Where did the term “the Hebrew runner” stem from?

“In 1911, the Mecca Cigarette Company distributed a set of handsomely colored trading cards of 150 sports champions. Kiviat’s card called him “the Hebrew runner.” It pictured him, round-faced and boyish, and summarized a few of his achievements. Although designed to putMeccaahead of the competition in the burgeoning competition for young Jewish smokers, the card also underscored how the contemporary worlds of media and advertising routinely and casually labeled individuals of so-called non-Aryan “races.” Indeed, the term “Hebrew” was often used in newspapers accounts of Kiviat’s track performances. But there was an upside to this public identification: He became a hero to young Jewish sports fans in serried city tenements.”

What was Kiviat doing for the 60 years he disappeared from the public scene?

“He had a varied, up-and-down life from the time of his last race in 1926 until his rediscovery by the sports world as an aging but still lively character at age 90. At first, Kiviat worked on Wall Street as a bond salesman. Following the 1929 stock-market crash, he secured a position as a recreation supervisor with the New York Stock Exchange. He later served effectively for twenty-nine years as a court clerk for the important Federal Court for the Southern District of New York, finally retiring at age seventy-nine after receiving seven extensions to continue working beyond the mandatory retirement age.

As much as he enjoyed that position, his real passion was serving for a half-century as the volunteer chief press steward for the major U.S. track meets. It was a demanding job but kept him close to the sport he loved and in regular contact with both the top officials and the media. The sportswriters found him indispensable and admired his selfless devotion. They viewed him as an authentic voice from the sport’s “golden era,” able to provide a unique perspective for a new generation of track fans. As if he wasn’t busy enough, he also officiated regularly at high school meets, including my own as a teenage runner.

His personal life was less happy. Divorced from his teenage sweetheart (herself a gifted costume designer for the Broadway stage) upon his return from service on the Western Front in World War I, he lost contact with his son for many years. Kiviat later reconciled with him and made a comfortable second marriage in 1948 that lasted until his wife Isabel’s death in 1981.”

Who in your opinion is the modern day Abel Kiviat?

“Watching University of Texas alumnus Leo Manzano sprint to victory in the 1500-meters race at the recent U.S. Olympic Trials, I was immediately reminded of Kiviat. Manzano is the same height as Kiviat, only 5 feet, five inches tall, and has the same muscular physique, devastating kick at the conclusion of a race, and shrewd sense of race tactics. Like Kiviat, he always manages to work himself into the right position to strike on the final lap. He also shares with Kiviat the difficult experience of being the child of struggling immigrant parents who had to learn a new language and adjust to a new culture. Neither family, the Kiviats fromPolandor the Manzanos fromMexico, appreciated at first their sons’ extraordinary athletic talents. In the case of both young men, Kiviat in 1912 and Manzano today, track & field offered opportunities unavailable to their peers and became a crucial agency for their full integration into American life. I plan to follow Manzano’s Olympic progress at London with interest.”

What was the most difficult in researching Abel Kiviat’s life? Any gaps?

“Early on, I decided I wanted to examine in detail what the experience of early modern track competition and the Olympics was like for Kiviat and his contemporaries. Although he didn’t leave an extensive collection of personal papers, his status as the senior living Olympian made him the subject of media interest in his final years. His keen memory made those interviews a valuable primary source. Happily, his teammates, rivals, and coaches were a highly literate crew, and I discovered unexpected riches – diaries, manuscript files, scrapbooks, and memoirs – in the homes of their surviving relatives. If there is one regret, a systematic search failed to turn up the records and publications (if there were any) of Kiviat’s I-AAC. However, contemporary newspapers featured such a steady stream of feature stories about the club that they more than compensated for the missing documents.”

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  1. Pingback: What SUP from Your Favorite University Presses, July 20, 2012 | Yale Press Log

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