The Glen Cunningham Story

One of my favorite stories is about Glen Cunningham.  He grew up on a small farm his family rented in rural Kansas. One February day he followed his older brother to school where there was an accident and Glen was badly burned. The community doctor told Glen’s mother he would not live unless his legs were amputated. The fire in the accident had burned off the skin on Glen’s feet and legs. The doctor explained infection would set in and likely take Glen’s life unless he removed Glen’s legs.

Glen had overheard the doctor talking with his mother. When his mother returned to the room Glen was laying in, he begged his mother not to let the doctor cut off his legs. The pleas of the little boy convinced his mom. Glen explained he needed his legs to run. The doctor had told Glen he would never walk again much less run and if the legs were not removed he would die. Glen continued to defend himself and state he needed his legs to run. Eventually Glen convinced the doctor not to amputate.

Glen survived and over the next two years the Cunningham family had a nurse come to the home to help care for Glen.   He would request every day for her to move his legs back and forth. Glen was so weak he could not move his legs himself.  The nurse was kind and obliged Glen. It was painful for Glen as the movement stretched out his scar tissue. He would sit through the excruciating pain as the kind nurse bent his legs back and forth.

Glen became strong enough to crawl across the front porch and yard to the white picket fence bordering the property. He would pull himself up the white fence and peg by peg drag himself around the perimeter of the yard. Eventually his upper body strength was strong enough he could crawl into the pasture and pull himself onto the backs of cattle. As the cattle would run through the pasture Glen would pretend to pump his legs as if he was running.

After several years Glen was walking again. On one Sunday afternoon Glen was walking with family through town and saw a medal for the mile run in the general store window. Glen was in 6th grade and his parents told him if he had the energy to play games he had the energy to do chore around the farm. Glen’s father forbid him from running in the race.

Like many 12 year old boys would do when their parents tell them not to do something Glen disobeyed. Glen ignored his father and went to the High School track on a Saturday to run the race anyways. Glen showed up in his canvas work clothes and his work boots and won the mile race that day.  Before the awards could be given out Glen ran home so his parents would not know he had gone. Glen thought to himself on Monday he would go to school and get his award and be a hero. But on that Monday his father had heard about the little boy who had beaten all the older boys in a race. Glen’s father punished him for not following his rules.  This, however, did not deter Glen.

Glen Cunningham went on to be what many people consider to be the best American mile runner of all time. Glen set numerous world records in the mile and 800 meter runs. He won world championships in the mile and 800 meters.   In 1936 in the Olympics in Berlin Germany Glen won a silver medal. The world press interviewed Glen and asked if he was disappointed.  Glen’s response was, “I ran the fastest time in the history of the world today. One other man has run a mile faster and he happened to be in the race with me today.  Of course I’m disappointed but I did my best.”

Glen said his greatest achievement in life was not developing a new therapy for burn victims as a child, it was not being one of the best runners in the world, it was not earning a PHD in education, but it was helping to raise over 9,000 boys in two group homes he set up in the southern United States. Glen gave thousands of speeches in his lifetime and he had one simple message.  “Never, ever, ever, give up.”

I like sharing this story with clients as a symbol of motivation and perseverance.  It’s an example of what the human spirit can endure, overcome, and achieve.   I hope you enjoyed this story as much as I have over the years.  Whatever you may be going through or challenged with today… Never, ever, ever give up!

Jonathan Tyler, MA, LPC