Phil Luciano: Peoria represented well at first modern Olympic games
Like a lot of Americans, Nancy Jamison McIlvain has been following the Olympics.
She says she especially likes track and field events: "I guess it's just a family tradition."
As far as the Games go, it's the longest family tradition in Peoria. This summer marks the 70th year since the death of her grandfather Herbert Jamison, not only the first Peorian to participate in the games but also its first medalist.
This paper has written about Jamison's role in the first modern Olympics, in Greece in 1896. But those pieces have mostly been on the sports pages, and not for a long time.
And, to be honest, though I've been in town two decades, I'd never run across Jamison's achievements until recently. So I thought the rest of you might want to know about his quiet glory and sad death.
McIlvain didn't even know about much about him until age 31. In 1969, when she was going through a box of photos at her father's home, in Pennsylvania, she discovered a picture of her grandpa in athletic gear. When she asked about it, her father nonchalantly said, "It's your grandfather when he was in the Olympics."
Shocked into curiosity, she has spent the ensuing years getting to know a man who died just months before her birth.
Herbert Jamison was born Sept. 17, 1875, in the family home on Northeast Monroe Street, currently the site of Riverside Community Church. His parents were Mary and Charles Jamison, the latter a Peoria business leader and vice president of Kingman & Co., an ag-equipment manufacturer.
In 1893, Herbert Jamison - 5 feet, 8 inches tall and 152 pounds - led Peoria High School to the state's first high school track and field championship. After he won three dashes - 50, 100 and 200 yards - his teammates carried him off the field on their shoulders.
In his honor, the school's newspaper published this sing-song poem: "Oh, Kalamaso, mazan, Say, who is your favorite man? Why, Ja-mi-son, the man who won the gold medals down at Champaign."
From Peoria, Jamison headed to Princeton University, where he joined the track team. As a junior, he noticed - as did his teammates - that the Olympic Games were being resurrected in their birthplace, Athens. At the time, there was no organized American Olympic team, so he and three Princeton runners joined nine others from Boston to form the a hodgepodge U.S. track delegation.
"It was just a small group that took a boat to Greece," says granddaughter McIlvain.
They would spend 16 days by ship and rail to travel 5,500 miles to Athens. They arrived on the eve of the Games, unable to condition at all.
The rag-tag band did not even have matching uniforms. They simply wore their collegiate gear.
"There were no sponsors," McIlvain says.
The men joined 300 other male athletes from 12 nations at the rehabbed Herodes Atticus stadium. There, a crowd of 70,000 assembled, while 50,000 more watched from nearby hills.
Jamison posted the best qualifying time in the 440-yard dash, 56.8 seconds - slow, because of loose cinders and other sub-par track conditions. In the finals, Jamison ran better, but got nipped at the finish line by teammate Thomas Burke, who posted a 54.2 to Jamison's 55.2.
Still, for coming in second, Jamison got a medal, laurel branches and diploma. Further, some research indicates that he came in third in the 100-yard dash, but a scoring mistake took him down a few notches in the standings.
After the news of his medal reached his hometown, the Peoria Herald said, "While we would have liked very much to have had him hold first place, we can still be very proud of his showing. Indeed, we are honored in being represented at all in this great revival of the Olympian festivals."
The next year, Jamison graduated with honors from Princeton. He competed in athletics no more.
He came home and took a job as a clerk in his dad's company. On Oct. 1, 1901, he married Caroline King Grier, also from a prominent Peoria family. About 200 guests packed the Second Presbyterian Church (now the Cornerstone Building), while hundreds more crowded outside for a glimpse of what was the social event of the season.
The couple would have four children. Jamison went into the insurance business, spending 20 years with Roswell Bills & Co.
The couple had an active social life, so much so that Jamison even served as president of the Country Club of Peoria. Still, during all of the hobnobbing, the humble Jamison almost never mentioned his Olympic days.
But during the Depression, Jamison's life suddenly soured. One daughter died in 1931, and his son died in a National Guard accident in 1933. Meanwhile, his finances took a sharp downturn.
On June 22, 1938, Jamison calmly walked to the middle of the Franklin Street Bridge. He took off his hat and coat, climbed over the rail and jumped in to the Illinois River. His lifeless body was recovered later. He was 62.
Jamison was buried in the family plot in Springdale Cemetery. His 87-year-old wife joined him there in 1967.
Over time, Jamison's medal vanished. His small number of descendants has been unable to track it down.
"It was so long ago, I don't know," says McIlvain, though she still has that team photo she uncovered at her father's house years ago.
Now married and living in Colorado, she often talks to her nephews and nieces about her granddad, a member of the Greater Peoria Sports Hall of Fame.
"I feel it's my job to keep history alive," she says.
Four years ago in Los Angeles, McIlvain joined the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Tom Cruise and other luminaries as bearers of the Olympic torch as it passed through the United States on its global trek. Her excitement was heightened because of the location of those Games: in Athens, just as when her grandfather participated.
"It was a one-in-a-lifetime experience," she says. " ... The family takes pride in his role in the early Olympics."
So should Peoria. When you see the runners round the their turns during the current Games, think of Herbert Jamison, cinders flying underfoot, as the first Peorian to grab Olympic glory, so long ago.
(This story contains information from Peoria Metropolitan magazine, of May 2001.)
Phil Luciano is a columnist with the Peoria Journal Star. He can be reached email@example.com or (309) 686-3155.