NORRISTOWN — Josh Culbreath — Olympic medalist, track coach and pride of Norristown — passed away July 1 in Cincinnati. He was 88 and in hospice care due to declining health.
A memorial service will be held this Saturday at 10 a.m. at George Washington Memorial Park on Stenton Avenue in Whitemarsh Township.
A grandfather of four and great-grandfather of one, Culbreath was survived by four children: Jahan, Maliq, Sandra, and Camille. He was predeceased by another child, Khaliq.
Jahan followed in his father's footsteps and became an All-American 400m hurdler, as well as the coach at Central State in Ohio, where Culbreath had a successful run after becoming head coach in 1988. He later became the athletic director at Moorehouse College.
“When you grow up with a person like my father, he kind of becomes like superman to you and your hero with different things,” said Jahan Culbreth. “Dad was always an inspiration, not just to me but to people in general.
“He never pushed myself, or any of my siblings, into doing track and field. He just let us do our own thing. I remember, as a kid, telling him that I wanted to run. I was so little that they didn’t have hurdles for little kids, but he made me these little wooden hurdles in the backyard. He taught me how to run hurdles before I could even run hurdles in a race.”
Culbreath is remembered for his excellence in track and field. His primary event became the 400 hurdles. The hardware in Culbreath’s trophy case includes a bronze medal from the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and two goal medals from the Pan American games.
He was the national outdoor champion three successive years (1953-55) and won the event those same years at the famed Penn Relays, which is the last time that feat was accomplished. In 1957, the year after the Olympics, he set the world record in Oslo, Norway.
He was the first active-duty Marine to both participate – and win a medal – in the Olympics.
In 2008, 50 years after his three-year hitch in the Marines ended, Culbreath was inducted into the United States Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame in 2008. He was an active Marine during much of his success.
Culbreath earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from Morgan State in Baltimore, while starring on the track team. He later earned a Masters degree from Temple and taught students in Norristown who were labeled as “unteachable.”
Added Jahan: “He always said that those were some of the best years of his life.”
When Culbreath came out for the Norristown track team as a sophomore, he faced a bit of a conundrum.
The spikes needed to run on the cinder track at Roosevelt Field were property of the school and only handed out to those already on the team.
Any hopeful for legendary coach Pete Lewis’ squad had the challenge of out-pacing an existing letterman while wearing the familiar Converse basketball sneakers that many in the working class community bought at a local pawn shop.
He walked away, in silent protest, vowing to clear the figurative hurdle being laid in his path.
In 11th grade, Culbreath – after already running for track glory in middle school events at the Penn Relays – decided to take matters into his own hands.
Or feet, that is.
He decided to run barefoot on the cinders.
Culbreath – who also played basketball and football at Norristown High — made the team, and the rest is track and field history.
“I knew I was capable,” said Culbreath when he was 81 and living in North Wales and about to be inducted into the Montgomery County Coaches Hall of Fame. “I paid the price, but I proved my point.”
And Culbreath continued to fight injustice in his own way.
Sometimes he paid the price, but he kept on proving his point.
Such was the case when he was summoned from the campus of Morgan State in Baltimore for the 1955 Pan American Games in Mexico and met up with the team in Houston.
Culbreath and his fellow black teammates were not allowed to stay in a hotel, instead being put up on a local Army base.
When the same hotel arranged for the athletes to have steak dinners brought in, Culbreath refused.
In a previous interview, he quipped “They said, ‘Oh no, you can’t do that,’ … I said, ‘Oh, yes I can, and you don’t want to get me started,’” shaking his head from side to side, still displaying a combination of disbelief in the scenario and pride in his stance.
“And they didn’t,” he added. “They knew better.”
Before scoring his scholarship to Morgan State, Culbreath was hoping against hope to use athletics as a springboard to a college education, but was prepared to follow his older brother into the Navy.
He taught and coached in the Norristown School District, getting a Masters’ degree in education from Temple University, often using unconventional methods to get across to students labeled unteachable.
He moved on to instruct young people around the world in track and field.
In 1988, Culbreath took the job as head track and field coach — for men and women — at Central State in Ohio.
Winning 10 NAIA titles – men and women, indoor and outdoor – had him and his team at the White House Rose Garden, being honored by President Bill Clinton.
Again, like that high school junior running barefoot on a cinder track, Culbreath was willing to stay true to himself.
Known as “Pop” to his athletes, he was willing to pay the price of losing a top athlete to prove a point.
“Dad was never a yelling, screamer type of coach,” said Jahan, a Wissahickon High graduate before a stellar collegiate career. “He was a motivator who was always very positive.”
When Deon Hemmings, a female runner from Jamaica, said she didn’t want to run anymore at practice, Culbreath famously offered to help her to pack her bags.
She stayed, and went on to win a gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics (where three of his other athletes also competed) and two silver medals at the 2000 Sydney Games.
“What’s interesting is that all the athletes called him ‘Pop,’” said Jahan. “He was such a father figure to them. It wasn’t about calling him that because I did. It was about who he was and how he was with each one of them as student-athletes.
“I’ve received so many video testimonies. It’s just been overwhelming.”