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A Flying Leap 

Remembering Vermont's Summer Olympics gold medalist

click to enlarge MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen

Vermont has produced a number of Winter Olympics gold medalists — from Rutland’s Andrea Mead Lawrence in 1952 to Norwich’s Hannah Kearney in 2010 — but, so far, only one Green Mountain State athlete has earned the top honor at the Summer Games: Albert Gutterson. And that was 100 years ago. Gutterson captured the gold medal in the long jump (then known as the broad jump or the running broad jump) at the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm. Yet today he is associated more with the University of Vermont field house that bears his name than for his athletic accomplishments.

Albert Lovejoy Gutterson was born on a farm in Andover, Vt., on August 23, 1887, the second of three children of Charles Milton Gutterson and Rozzie Elizabeth Lovejoy Gutterson. He attended the two district schools in the Andover area, but by 1903, Gutterson had exhausted the educational opportunities available in these one-room schoolhouses.

That summer, Charles Gutterson sold the homestead in Andover, which had been in the family for nearly a century, and moved the family to a farm near Springfield so 16-year-old Al could enter the high school as a freshman. He excelled there as an all-around athlete, playing first base, pitcher and catcher on the varsity baseball team, and captaining the varsity basketball team. He also served as class president each of his last three years. The young Gutterson’s greatest achievements to date, however, came at the Green Mountain Interscholastic Athletic Association track meet in Claremont, N.H., where Springfield competed against teams from both sides of the White River.

In this first meet, Gutterson tied for third with a jump of 4 feet, 11 inches; the next year, he improved to second with a jump of 5 feet, 1 inch. Elected captain of Springfield High School’s track team as a junior, Gutterson won the high jump at the GMIAA meet with a jump of 5 feet, 2 inches, and the discus with a throw of 84 feet. During his senior year, in 1907, Gutterson finished third in the 220-yard dash, second in the discus throw (104 feet) and long jump (20 feet, ½ inch), and first in his best event: the high jump. Using the scissors technique, he set a new GMIAA record of 5 feet, 8 ¼ inches.

After working a year to save money for college, Al Gutterson enrolled in the fall of 1908 at the University of Vermont. At the time, track and field at UVM was far less popular than football and, especially, baseball. The previous spring’s baseball team, led by future Boston Red Sox stars Ray Collins and Larry Gardner, had been New England champions. “Track athletics, though established at the university not a great deal later than baseball, is dependent on the work of a few faithful and enthusiastic men and fails to get the universal support that is due this branch of college activity,” editorialized the Vermont Cynic.

With his blond hair neatly parted on the side and wearing rimless eyeglasses, Gutterson looked more like the mechanical-engineering student he was than a track star, but he earned his varsity letter as a freshman. And he was the standout of UVM’s dual meet against St. Lawrence University at Centennial Field on May 12, 1909, winning both hurdle races and the long jump and finishing second in the high jump and 220-yard dash.

Gutterson sprained his ankle during that meet and was unable to compete at the New England Intercollegiate Athletic Association meet, but at the following year’s competition he won first place in the long jump with 23 feet, 5/8 inch. Elected captain of UVM’s track team as a junior, Gutterson enjoyed his best Centennial Field performance on April 22, 1911, when he personally accounted for 33 of the school’s 52.5 points in a dual-meet loss against the University of Maine.

At the NEIAA meet that year, Gutterson was the greatest individual point winner, finishing first in the long jump (23 feet, 1 3/8 inches) and third in the high jump, and breaking the low-hurdle record with a time of 24.6 seconds. His performance incited a parade and bonfire that escalated to a near riot in Burlington. “The celebration last Saturday night was all that could be desired by the most radical freshman, but it must be admitted that there was some excuse when Vermont shut out Dartmouth [in baseball] with a score of 10 to 0 and news of Gutterson’s wonderful track work came over the wire,” reported the Cynic.

Gutterson then won the low hurdles and set a new long-jump record (23 feet, 5 ½ inches) at the New England Amateur Athletic Union meet in Boston, before competing at the AAU’s National Championship in Pittsburgh. There he lost by half a yard in the low hurdles to New York’s Jack Eller, who equaled the world record for hurdles on a curved track.

Again elected president of his class and reelected captain of the track team, the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Gutterson was a big man on the UVM campus in his senior year. But it was an Olympic year, and many observers predicted that he would soon make his mark on the world stage.  

“A.L. Gutterson is probably the best broad jumper in the country, being consistent at the midway between 23 and 24 feet,” wrote the Boston American. “In competition he has never done himself justice in the broad jump, as he has always been obliged to compete in several events, thus detracting from each, but though handicapped in this way, he has to his credit the best broad jump made in 1911.” The article further noted that Gutterson had “gone well over 24 feet on many occasions” at practice, and declared him “entitled to a place on the [U.S. Olympic] team.”

Gutterson began his spring season on April 27, 1912, by competing in the prestigious Penn Relays at Franklin Field, a brick, horseshoe-shaped stadium that had been built in 1903 as the home of the annual Army-Navy football game. Until the first NCAA national championship track-and-field meet in 1921, each event at the Penn Relays was considered the “Championship of America.” On a cold and rainy day that turned the field to mud, Gutterson advanced a few inches with each of his attempts until he set a mark of 24 feet, 5/8 inch on his fifth effort, beating the second-place finisher by more than two feet.

“The news of Gutterson’s splendid victory at Philadelphia has filled the heart of every loyal Vermont man with joyful pride and awakened the college to the fact that Vermont has a track as well as a baseball team,” crowed the Cynic.

In a dual meet against Colgate University on May 13, Gutterson set a new UVM long-jump record, but injured his heel when he landed in Centennial Field’s new jumping pit. It prevented him from entering the high jump or hurdles during that meet. The injury also kept Gutterson out of the running and jumping events at a dual meet against Massachusetts Agricultural College on June 1, though he did take first in the discus throw (106 feet, 3 inches) and third in the shot put. The heel was still bothering him at the time of the U.S. Olympic Trials at Harvard Stadium on June 8. “I was lucky to make the 1912 team,” Gutterson said decades later to a reporter at a Claremont, N.H. newspaper. “I had a sore heel during tryouts and barely qualified.”

At the graduation ceremony on June 26, UVM president Guy Potter Benton announced Gutterson’s name as the recipient of a BS degree in mechanical engineering in absentia. The athlete was aboard the SS Finland, en route to the Olympic Games in Stockholm. “May he bring added glory to the Green and Gold and to the Stars and Stripes,” Benton stated at the commencement podium. 

According to that same Claremont newspaper account, on the afternoon of Friday, July 12, 1912, as Gutterson lay on the rubbing table before his event, he received some advice from the staunchly Catholic coach of the U.S. Olympic Team, Mike Murphy of the University of Pennsylvania. “Al, get up in the air and say as much of the Lord’s Prayer as you can and you will win,” Murphy advised the Congregationalist Vermonter.

It’s not known whether Gutterson took that advice. But minutes later, as straw-hatted officials crowded around and 30,000 spectators watched from the double-decker grandstand, Gutterson sped down the runway, cleared the foul line and sailed 7.6 meters (24 feet, 11 ¾ inches), shattering Frank Irons’ 1908 Olympic record and falling only a half inch shy of the world record set by Peter O’Connor in 1901. Though he made five more jumps, neither Gutterson nor any of his competitors was able to improve on his first effort.

Gutterson’s Olympic record endured until 1928, when American Edward Hamm jumped 25 feet, 4 ¾ inches in the Amsterdam Games. The current world record, set by Pennsylvania’s Mike Powell in 1991, is 8.95 meters — almost four feet and five inches longer than Gutterson’s winning jump.

When Al Gutterson returned to Vermont on August 5 with his gold medal — and a laurel wreath presented to him by King Gustav V of Sweden — friends and neighbors met him at the train station in Bellows Falls and escorted him by automobile to Springfield. In the town square, one of the leading citizens presented him with a Tiffany-made bronze statue of Mercury — the mythological wing-footed messenger of the gods. In addition, UVM president Benton finally gave Gutterson his diploma. The day’s only disappointment came when Gutterson delivered his thank-you speech. In an era before electric amplification equipment, the modest athlete’s voice was inaudible to all but a few of the hundreds in attendance, according to the local newspaper.

In the center of the Precision Valley, the home of Vermont’s then-thriving machine-tool industry, Springfield was Gutterson’s home for the rest of his life. Within a month of his return, he joined the Jones and Lamson Machine Co., where his uncle, Fred Lovejoy, was the chief draftsman and special tool designer. In 1916, Gutterson married Florence Greer, an English teacher at Springfield High School. He remained with Jones and Lamson until 1925, and then spent the next 25 years selling equipment for the petroleum industry.  

From 1950 until his retirement in 1963, Gutterson was president of the Lovejoy Tool Company, which his Uncle Fred had started after leaving Jones and Lamson in 1917. Gutterson remained a loyal and active alumnus of UVM, succeeding Ray Collins on the board of trustees in 1954 and serving through 1960. In 1961, the UVM Varsity Club awarded Gutterson a Varsity Letter in Life.

By that point, UVM athletics had fallen on hard times. With no indoor ice rink, the school had not fielded an ice-hockey team since 1952, and the old gymnasium (now the Royall Tyler Theatre), built in 1902, was so obsolete that the basketball team had not played there since the ’30s. Along with Larry Gardner, Albert Gutterson spearheaded UVM’s campaign to construct a state-of-the-art athletic complex, contributing $10,000 from his own pocket toward the cause. After raising $2.93 million from donors, with the state of Vermont issuing a bond for another $2 million, Gutterson wielded the trowel when the cornerstone of the Roy L. Patrick Gymnasium was laid on June 9, 1962. Less than a year later, on February 23, 1963, he was present at the dedication of the Albert Gutterson Fieldhouse, which contained an ice rink, an indoor track and a full-size baseball diamond.

Gutterson was 77 when he died on April 7, 1965, at Burlington’s Mary Fletcher Hospital. He had been ill for several months and was transferred from Springfield Hospital three weeks earlier. Gutterson never had any children; he left behind his wife and two sisters. His body was cremated and the ashes buried in the family plot in Springfield’s Summer Hill Cemetery, a short walk from his longtime home at 49 Cherry Hill.

When UVM’s Athletic Hall of Fame opened in 1969, Gutterson was one of seven original inductees. Amazingly, his school record in the long jump still stands, a century after he set it.

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