CM . . .
. Volume XX Number 1. . . .September 6, 2013
Mighty Jerome = Le Grand Jerome.
Charles Officer (Writer & Director). Selwyn Jacob (Producer). Tracey Friesen (Executive Producer).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2010.
83 min., 38 sec., DVD, $99.95.
Order Number: 153B 9911 255.
Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.
Review by Frank Loreto.
Years ago, a former student was a recipient of the Harry Jerome Award. I knew that this was quite an honour and had a vague idea that Harry Jerome was an Afro-Canadian athlete, but beyond that, I really knew nothing about him. As a result, Mighty Jerome had much to offer. While this film celebrates Jerome’s life, it does not follow the typical birth to death format of a biography. Rather, it is told by those who knew and loved Jerome with accompanying clips of his races and interviews. The film is much like a jigsaw puzzle that piece by piece presents Jerome not only as an incredible athlete, but as someone worth remembering and deserving of honour.
Harry Jerome was born in Prince Albert, SK, and named after his father. The family moved to North Vancouver where Harry and his sister Valerie were the only Black students at the high school. Harry was very shy. Paul Winn, another Black student, moved to the school from Toronto. He states that, until he arrived, “Harry thought he was white”. Winn was a “cool kid”, and he and Harry became friends and competitive athletes together. Winn tells much of Harry’s story.
When Harry began breaking records in 1959, he was suddenly thrust onto the world track stage. Running in the Inter High Track Meet before 15-20 thousand spectators, he became an overnight sensation. According to Dr. Bruce Kidd, when Harry ran 9.9, the officials “couldn’t believe a Canadian could run that fast”, and so they “rounded the time to 10.0—tying the world record”. The current record holder questioned the accuracy of the officials. Allan Fotheringham states that there were “insane expectations on a 19-year-old kid. He was figured to win gold in Rome.”
It was different times then for Olympian athletes. While Canada was excited to have Jerome in the Olympics, he arrived in Rome “mainly on his own.” Journalists hounded him and wanted him to pose for photos on a hill overlooking Rome before his event. In the 44 C temperature, he said, “Not before the race”. This was seen as rude. According to Andy O’Brien in the Toronto Telegram, “the effect of his sheer bad manners has placed this young Negro down at the bottom as an athlete ambassador for Canada.” Harry, late for his heat, took a taxi. The traffic was so bad that he left the cab and ran to the stadium. He did not warm up properly and did poorly. Afterwards, Harry stated, “I could have finished the race. I would have had to crawl on my hands and knees to get to the finish line”. The papers had a field day. Accusing Harry of faking his injury, they wrote that “he should have been sent home right away.” He had the reputation of being “a spoiled kid”. Harry states that he was shy but that he “came off as cocky—maybe I was”. He fully expected to win.
Elsie Jerome-Sumpton, Harry’s mother, talks about the difficulty the family had when moving to North Vancouver. They were not welcome to buy a house. In fact, “a petition was drawn up to have them move out of the area.” She points out that these were the times of the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. Canadians saw the treatment of American Blacks as being wrong. However, when she pointed out that “similar things happen here”, she was accused of being “overly sensitive”. Rather than lash out, Harry tried to emulate Jackie Robinson who would not react to racist treatment—“he reacted with his bat”. Harry ran.
Harry was invited to the University of Oregon where their athletes,“were treated like stars”. There he met his future wife, Wendy Jerome. A white woman, she was dissuaded from dating Harry. When she refused, she was removed from her teaching duties. On the track, however, Harry continued to set new records and was in “phenomenal shape” for the 1962 Commonwealth Games in Perth. Once again, expectations were high, but on the day of the race, in the high heat and feeling feverish, he was injured and “placed dead last”. Again the media accused him of, “not being able to handle the pressure”.
Harry’s injury was huge. The muscle from his knee to his thigh had to be reattached. Such a procedure had never been done before, and the speculation was that, if he could walk after, he would be lucky. The general feeling was that “he was through”. These were dark days as Wendy was let go from her teaching job when she was three months pregnant. When the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame wanted some of Harry’s things for their collection, Harry said no, “Because that was for people who were finished running. I’m not finished. I’m going to run again.”
In 1964, he ran and equalled the world record. He was the record holder in the 100 metre and 100 yards. At the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, he placed third. Critics said, “Maybe we were wrong”. After the Olympics, he became a Phys Ed. teacher. Training was difficult while working: “It was not the same as university with the weekly matches.” However, on 15 July 1966, he ran the 100 yards in 9.1 beating his own record. At the Pan Am Games in Jamaica in 1966, he won gold. In Winnipeg in 1967, he won gold for the 100 metres. In Mexico for the 1969 Olympics, he was “not in great shape” but still placed seventh. Harry competed in three Olympic Games as a sprinter.
A quiet worker for civil rights, Harry “wrote letters rather than take a public stance.” He wanted to get into schools to motivate students about track. He was awarded the Order of the Office of Canada in 1970. He began having seizures in his 30s and died at 42. No one was at his burial as his sister did not want a media circus.
Mighty Harry presents the achievements of a phenomenal athlete and a role model for determination. As it is told over many recollections, Harry’s imperfections are not overlooked. His ex-wife points out that he was not always faithful—seduced by the many women who find athletes appealing. He was “not a comfortable dad”. His daughter also shares several experiences. All who speak in the film are devoted to Harry, and one friend weeps when telling of the last time he saw Harry alive. Clearly, Harry was an incredible athlete, but a regular human being who was loved by many.
The Harry Jerome Award, was instituted by Denham Jolly because “Black achievement deserves to be recognized”, and he wanted to immortalize Harry’s memory. He feels that “youth emulate people who achieve.” Much much more should be made of Harry Jerome’s story. Before viewing the film, I really knew nothing more than the name. I am embarrassed by my ignorance. However, I have since recommended Harry’s story to many students who are looking to study people of achievement in Canada. Most do not know who he was.
This film can be used in so many areas. Athletics, of course, but Sports History, Canadian History, Civics, Media, Sociology. It should be seen by all teachers as Harry’s story is motivational to everyone. I would hope a copy of the film is given to each recipient of the Award. Mighty Jerome is a worthy tribute to someone who was written off as finished by many and can serve as motivation to anyone who has been told that the future holds no promise.
Frank Loreto is a teacher-librarian at St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School in Brampton, ON.
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