The anniversary of one of the most famous fires in Kansas is approaching.
On the morning of Feb. 9, 1917, Glenn Cunningham, his brother, Floyd, and two other siblings walked to school on a bitterly cold day. Floyd was 13; Glenn was 7.
In his book, “Never Quit,” Glenn Cunningham would recall that the school building was so cold when they arrived at the Rolla Sunflower country school, they could see their breath. As Floyd began to stack chunks of coal on top of wood in the potbelly stove, Glenn walked toward him.
Floyd reached for a five-gallon can of accelerant to help start the fire.
“A blinding flash seared my eyes and made my head swim,” Cunningham wrote in his book. “An awful force, as if from hell itself, hurled me painfully back against the wall. Dimly I heard Floyd scream, ‘I’m on fire.’
“I tried to open my eyes to see what was happening. I couldn’t. Nothing but black-red, stabbing pain raced down the throbbing corridors of my mind. Suddenly I realized it. ‘I’m burning, too!’ ”
The local newspaper, the Hugoton Hermes, reported on Feb. 16, 1917: “Mistaking it for kerosene, they put some gasoline in the stove and an explosion followed, the burning gasoline from the busted can striking them on the lower part of the body and the legs; they at once ran to their home two miles away but the saturated clothing continued on fire and the burns were deep.”
The extent of the burns killed Floyd and left Cunningham’s legs so badly burned the family doctor wanted to amputate them. Cunningham recovered, teaching himself how to walk again and then run, becoming one of the greatest track stars of all time.
He once told a reporter: “I was 179 pounds, too heavy for a runner. I also had broken-down arches, bad legs and … badly abscessed teeth — eight of them. … But I just knew I could do it — run and win.”
Nicknamed “The Kansas Flyer,” Cunningham won a silver medal in the 1500 meters in the 1936 Olympics and was a five-time U.S. champion in the 1500 meters. He also set numerous world records in the 1930s.
He won the Sullivan Award as America’s top amateur athlete in 1933 and won the Wanamaker Mile in New York’s Millrose Games six times. He was named the best athlete in the 100-year history of Madison Square Garden.
Cunningham would write in his book that, “In one way the Berlin Olympics was the climax of my running career.”
He would tell a reporter at the Olympics: “I feel I ran a fast race. I broke the Olympic record for the mile. Only one person in the world ran faster.”
Cunningham died March 10, 1988.
The mile run at the annual Kansas Relays in Lawrence is named for Cunningham.