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GRAND FORKS., N.D. – Clifton "Cliff" Cushman was probably one of those guys that you kind of wanted to hate, but couldn't. You know the type –a naturally gifted athlete with boy next door good looks – a big dimpled smile and wavy, blond hair. He was the kind of guy who looks like he could have been cast as the teenage son in a wholesome, family sitcom of the 1950s. (If you look close enough, he almost resembles both Eddie Haskell and Wally Cleaver).
Poodle-skirt, saddle shoe-wearing girls at Grand Forks Central High School in 1956 might have been swooning a bit, but Cushman, who was also an Eagle Scout, was probably too busy helping a little, old lady cross the street to notice.
An exaggeration? Maybe. But there was no denying Cushman had a lot going for him. Born in Michigan, he also lived in Ithaca, New York and Ames, Iowa before moving to North Dakota as he started his junior year of high school. He excelled in sports, especially track and field where he specialized in hurdles, medium distances, relays and broad jumping. He led Central to the state track championship as a senior in 1956, setting three records in the state meet.
Upon graduation from Central in 1956, he was among the most sought-after college track recruits in the nation. He settled upon the University of Kansas where he excelled in the 400 hurdles and became captain of the KU track team his senior year. Cushman went on to win the NCAA 400 meter hurdles championship in 1960, before securing a spot on the United States Olympic Track and Field Team to compete in Rome in 1960.
Once there, the United States swept the event in a very tight race. Glenn Davis, the champion in 1956, repeated his gold medal with a time of 49.3 seconds. Cushman was just three-tenths behind him for the silver medal and Dick Howard one-tenth behind Cushman for the bronze. (See below to find out what happened to all three men in the years to come.)
The letter that changed his life
In 1964, Cushman hoped to compete again in the Olympics in Tokyo. But his hopes of winning a medal were lost when he stumbled over a hurdle at the final U.S. Olympic trial meet in Los Angeles. Most likely the pained expression on his face after he fell on the track had less to do with any scrapes or bruises and more to do with the the emotional blow of losing a years-long dream in the blink of an eye.
Cushman's wife, Carolyn, watched the Olympic trials on television on a delayed telecast. "I was just heart-broken when I saw it,'' she told The Grand Forks Herald. "I knew how much it meant to Cliff. When he hit that hurdle, it changed everything."
But Cushman didn't feel sorry for himself for long. He chose to put words to his pain and try to make lemonade from some very bitter lemons.
Just hours after the meet, Cushman wrote a letter to the youth of his hometown of Grand Forks asking them to not feel sorry for him but instead to set goals for themselves.
"He got the idea for the letter on the plane to express his thoughts. He just thought so strongly that it was something he needed to do. All the things he wrote, he believed in," Carolyn said.
The letter starts off almost defensively, but quickly turns into a rallying cry for the old adage, "The only failure is not to try."
Cushman's letter, which was published in The Grand Forks Herald shortly after he wrote it, is definitely a product of its time as Cushman prods the '60s teens with the question, "Don't you think there are things better than cigarettes, hot-rod cars, school dropouts, excessive makeup, and ducktail grease-cuts?" He later dares any would-be greasers, hoodlums and hippies reading the letter to clean up their language, honor their parents and go to church without being asked.
But he also includes timeless lessons that would resonate with today’s teens about picking yourself up, dusting yourself off and starting all over again.
“I dare you to look up at the stars, not down at the mud, and set your sights on one of them that, up to now, you thought was unattainable.”
- Olympian and North Dakotan Cliff Cushman in his letter to the youth of Grand Forks in 1964.
He writes, "Certainly, I was very disappointed in falling flat on my face. However, there is nothing I can do about it now but get up, pick the cinders from my wounds, and take one more step, followed by one more and one more, until the steps turn into miles and the miles into success. I know I may never make it. The odds are against me, but I have something in my favor – desire and faith."
Cushman continues with, "There is plenty of room at the top, but no room for anyone to sit down. I dare you to look up at the stars, not down at the mud, and set your sights on one of them that, up to now, you thought was unattainable."
The letter was met with praise and published in newspapers all over the state, some which called him "North Dakota's Most Inspirational Olympian."
His former coach at Central, Ken Rio, told The Grand Forks Herald that he wasn't surprised "the greatest track athlete" he ever coached would write the letter, even at a time of such personal disappointment.
"That was Cliff Cushman, as humble as can be,'' Rio said. "He was a quiet kid and such a nice person. 'Don't feel sorry for me, I tried my best.' That's how he was.''
What made Cushman's fall even harder to take was that stumble very likely spelled the end of his track career. When he tried out in 1964, he was already considered by some an "old man" at 26. He'd be 30 years old when the next summer games rolled around in 1968. Even so, Cushman reportedly considered trying to make the team again. In the meantime, he moved on with his life.
While at Kansas, Cushman wasn't all about running track. He was also enrolled in the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC). So when he failed to make the 1964 Olympic team, he had some important irons in the fire. According to his biography on the Grand Forks Central High website, three years earlier, in 1961, he went to Craig Air Force Base at Selma, Alabama, and by October of 1962 had earned his jet pilot’s wings. Following specialized training with the F-102 fighter interceptor, he flew for three years with the Air Force Air Defense Command at Paine Field, Everett, Washington. During that time, he also found the time to marry his college sweetheart, Carolyn Throop of Omaha, Nebraska. In November, 1965, their son Colin was born.
In August 1966, after completing his training in the F-105 supersonic fighter bomber, he was sent to Korat Air Force Base in Thailand, where he flew F-105 missions over North Vietnam. On September 25, 1966, he was shot down somewhere northeast of Hanoi and was listed as missing in action.
In November 1975, after more than nine years in the MIA status, Major Clifton E. Cushman was officially declared by the Department of Defense as presumed killed in action. As a result of the gallantry, heroism, and professional skill he exhibited during his brief tour of duty in Southeast Asia, he was awarded the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, two Air Medals and the Purple Heart.
The legacy lives on
Cushman probably presumed the legacy he'd leave after his death would be his winning an Olympic silver medal, but his imprint on places like Grand Forks go far beyond the 49.6 seconds he ran one day in 1960. His letter to youth has been printed and reprinted in North Dakota newspapers for 57 years.
His wife Carolyn and son Colin survived following the devastating loss. They participated in a program called "No Greater Love," which was set up by American athletes to support children of servicemen missing or killed in action in Indochina. Carolyn Cushman remarried and is now Carolyn Cushman Blaine. The family, including Colin, a guitar instructor, continues to call Fargo home. Carolyn said despite Cliff only living in North Dakota for two years before going to college, he had wanted to settle in North Dakota and perhaps attend law school following his career in the Air Force. But, of course, that wasn't to be.
Cushman's legacy also lives in the schools he touched, from Kansas to Grand Forks. Cushman Field, where Grand Forks football, track and soccer athletes compete, is named after him, as is the annual football game between Grand Forks Central and crosstown rival, Red River High School. While The Cushman Classic is played between the football teams, The Cushman Cup goes to the winner of the boys soccer match between the two high schools.
Teammates, coaches and his wife say the humble, low-key, quiet Cushman might think all of this attention on him is a little unnecessary.
"Cliff didn't do anything to draw praise or recognition to himself,'' said Carolyn Cushman Blaine "He was an athlete. He worked hard to accomplish the things he did. He certainly would have appreciated all that's been done. I know it would have meant a lot to him.''
What happened to the other guys who medaled with Cushman in 1960?
It's sad to note that two of the three men who medaled in the 400 Meter Hurdles in the 1960 Olympics met untimely ends.
Cliff Cushman - left, silver medalist was reported "Missing in Action" in 1966 while flying a combat mission near Hanoi, North Vietnam. His remains were never found. He was presumed "Killed in Action" in 1975.
Dick Howard - right, bronze medalist, fell on hard times after the Olympics. Three weeks before Cushman died, customs agents arrested Howard on drug charges. Agents said they had seized 28 pounds of marijuana and 3¾ ounces of heroin from two vehicles tied to the former Olympian. He was convicted and was awaiting sentencing when his body was found in Hollywood dead from an apparent heroin overdose.
Glenn "Jeep" Davis - center, won the gold medal for the second time, repeating his victory from 1956. The only one of the medalists in the event that lived a long and seemingly full and happy life, he went on to play professional football for the Detroit Lions for a short time. After his playing days were over, he was a popular teacher and coach in Ohio for 33 years. He also owned a favorite hangout for his students, Jeep and Joe's Pizza. He also was the owner of Jeep's Olympic Driving School. He died at the age of 74 in 2009.