There was a stir among the local athletic crowd when news broke on Tuesday, March 31, 1925, that current track and field coach and former University of Illinois standout baseball player, “Cap” Crossley, had resigned and was being replaced by two-time Olympic middle-distance runner Ray Watson.
In their Daily Journal sports column for April 1, 1925, writers Haley and Jacquin overheard two high school boys talking while hanging out at a local cigar store. “’Dja sees where Ray Watson is going to coach the track team. Yeah. Wonder how they come to get HIM? Musta been an accident. It couldn’t ‘a happened-on purpose. But he won’t be here long, somebody else will get him away from Quincy.’”
Ray B. Watson was born in Garden City, Kansas in 1898. A hunting accident at age 14 cost Watson his right hand but the handicap never stopped him. He graduated from Kansas State Agricultural College (now Kansas State University) in 1921. That same year he became the school’s first NCAA track champion, winning the mile run in a time of 4:23.4. More significant is the fact that Ray Watson holds the distinction of being the first Kansas State Olympian. In the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, Watson placed seventh in the 3,000-meter steeplechase.
Reporter Edwin N. Jacquin wrote in the April 1, 1925 Quincy Daily Journal: “I had seen Watson in competition many times. . .. He had dazzled the Missouri Valley conference for three years by his spectacular performances in the half mile and mile and his great ability had been the reason for many invitations to compete in . . . meets all over the country. . ..” Jacquin noted: “His fame was made more remarkable by the fact that one arm was off at just above the wrist, the result of an unfortunate accident in youth.”
Jacquin continued…“Came the Olympic meet of 1920, Watson was selected for the American team. He was again selected for the Olympic team in 1924, the greatest ambition of every track and field athlete.” Jacquin went on saying, “And this is the same gentleman who has come to Quincy to teach chemistry and higher arithmetic and of more importance . . . to teach the high school students the fundamentals of track and field work.”
The 1981 film Chariots of Fire is based on the true story of two British track athletes at the 1924 Summer Games in Paris. Undoubtedly Ray Watson crossed paths with Eric Liddell, the Scottish Christian who ran for the glory of God, and Harold Abrahams, an English Jew who ran to overcome prejudice.
Eight months prior to accepting a teaching position in Quincy, Ray Watson was in the men’s 1,500 meters Olympic finals. Twelve runners, three from the United States, started that day. Paavo Nurmi, known as the Flying Finn, and the world record holder in the event with a time of 3:52.6 was the favorite. The July 11, 1924 Daily Herald carried an Associated Press article that reported: “Ray Watson, the American star, provided the chief thrill when he stuck gamely to the heels of the flying Finn until 300 meters from the tape. Watson wilted near the end and was unplaced.” He finished seventh out of field of 12. Nurmi took home the gold medal.
On September 2, 1925, Watson confided to the Daily Journal sportswriter, Harry C. Haley, that he was done with track and wished to concentrate on teaching. Haley broke the news to the Journal’s readers with this headline: “Ray Watson, famous runner, now Q. H. S. instructor, has retired from track game.” Haley noted that Watson was the American record holder for 800 meters. Watson informed Haley that “’the old shoes were hanging on a nail, and they are there to stay.’” He also told Haley: “’I have found that teaching and participating in various races about the country do not go hand in hand and for this reason I have decide to give up the sport.’”
Fred Gray in his May 20, 1928, Herald-Whig sports column wrote: “Ray Watson’s decision to try for a place on the 1928 Olympic team has pepped up the interest of the Quincy sport followers in this outstanding event of the athletic world. The Q. H. S. track coach has been a member of two Olympic teams and stands a dandy chance of making his third Olympic entry---this time in the 800-meter race.”
In 1927, Watson had returned to competition and became the national American Athletic Union 800-meter champion. At the Olympic 800-meter trials he finished third and was named to the 1928 team, which traveled to Amsterdam, Netherlands for the Summer Games.
The 800-meter run preliminaries were held on July 29 with the finals on the 31st. “Watson Among Qualifiers for The Semi-Finals Of 800 Meter Event Monday,” was the Herald-Whig’s sports page headline for July 30, 1928. Having finished third in his heat, Ray moved on to the semi-finals where he ran a time of 1:56.8 coming in second in his heat and made the finals.
What started out as 49 runners from 24 countries was down to nine men and six nations. Douglas Lowe of Great Britain, the 1924 Gold Medalist claimed the medal again while setting an Olympic record of 1:51.8. Unfortunately for Ray Watson, it was not his day as he finished a disappointing ninth in 2:03. Prior to the Olympics Ray ran a personal best 800 meters of 1:51.6.
The young chaps at the cigar store were wrong. Ray Watson stayed in Quincy; and after 39 years of teaching and five years as track coach, retired in June 1964. He passed away September 7, 1974 and is buried at Quincy Memorial Park cemetery.
For a decade Raymond Bates Watson, the one-handed runner from Kansas and later Quincy, Illinois High School teacher and track coach, was one of America’s leading middle-distance runners. And three times, he represented the United States in the Olympics, where he ran against men like himself---the best in the world.
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Watson, Ray B. The 1921 Royal Purple. Manhattan, Kansas: Senior Class Kansas State Agricultural College, 1921.