In his latest column, John Cross ’76 looks back through the summer haze at the towering achievements of Harry Cloudman, Class of 1901, who will enter the Bowdoin College Athletic Hall of Honor this year as arguably the greatest athlete in Bowdoin history.
The familiar summer image of a child learning to ride a bicycle on the campus sidewalks evokes strong memories for me. In the late 1950s and early 1960s my brother, my sister, and I could ride our bikes around and across the quad, secure in the knowledge that there was no vehicular traffic to contend with, that few pedestrians might be put at risk by our miscalculations of balance and momentum, and that a cushion of grass would absorb the shock of an occasional tumble. After taking in the view from astride one or the other of the lions flanking the steps of the Walker Art Building, our next stop was the marble drinking fountain located between Sargent Gym and the old Curtis Pool Building (now Studzinski Hall). The bowl-and-pedestal fountain is still there, although the challenges of maintaining a seasonal outdoor plumbing system proved to be too great, the bubbler was removed long ago, and now the fountain is often mistaken for a bird bath.
A weathered inscription around the rim of the fountain reads “HARRY H. CLOUDMAN – 1901 – FIRST ATHLETE OF HIS TIME – GIFT OF HIS ASSOCIATES – 1897- 1901.” The fountain was dedicated on Alumni Day in November of 1938 in a ceremony that followed the dedication of the granite polar bear statue, which had been given by the Class of 1912. Dr. Harry Howard Cloudman was on hand to accept the honors from his contemporaries and accolades from his classmate President Kenneth C. M. Sills, who described Cloudman as the greatest athlete that the College had produced. There is ample evidence to support that claim.
A native of Gorham, Maine, Harry Cloudman arrived at Bowdoin in the fall of 1897 and made an indelible impression, as described in the Bugle: “No one of the class of 1901 will ever forget the first meeting it held in Freshman year, when Cloudy took the chair with the ease and grace that have ever characterized him. ‘Gentlemen,’ said he, ‘let’s have a class meeting. Yes, gentlemen, I’ll take the chair.’” When it came to photos, Harry Cloudman always stood out in a crowd; he had a great head of hair, and a physical presence and confidence that drew the eye and created a zone of personal space within a group. In a sea of celluloid collars and dark suits in 1901’s class photo on the steps of the Walker Art Building, Cloudman is easy to spot in his white sweater.
He was once described as a man who could “run a hundred yards in ten seconds over a plowed field in rubber boots,” an outsized remark that turned out to be closer to the truth than anyone might have imagined. In a freshman track meet against Colby, Cloudman showed up wearing baseball shoes instead of track spikes, and a pair of cotton duck pants that had been turned into shorts with freestyle scissor-work. That day he won the 100 yard dash, the 220, the long jump, and the hammer throw, while placing second in the shot put and third in the high jump. He was an offensive lineman on the football team for four years, and was once called the fastest guard in the country by legendary football coach Walter Camp. He also played baseball, was on the fencing squad, and was the anchor man on the relay team. Cloudman stood 6’2” tall and weighed over 180 pounds. In a 1903 article describing the body types of world-class sprinters, Harry was included, though he represented an outlier at the large/heavy end of the range.
In the Maine State Meet in 1899 he set a new record of 9.8 seconds in the 100-yard dash, tying the world record. The hand-held times were recorded by veteran officials, the watches were verified as accurate, and the course was measured and found to be longer than 100 yards by more than a foot. That time has since been matched by the late Howard Mostrum ’27 and by Gordon Milliken ’53, but it has never been bettered. It is the longest-standing athletic record at Bowdoin, and it will not be surpassed, since track and field events have used the metric system since the late 1970s. For two consecutive years – in 1900 and 1901 – Cloudman won the 100-yard dash, the 220-yard dash, and the long jump at the New England Championships. Without the benefit of a starting block and running on rain-soaked tracks, Cloudman tied the meet record for the 100, set new records in the 220, and shattered long jump records. The long jump records were disallowed because the rains had so thoroughly soaked the pit that its level stood below that of the take-off point. In the 1901 national intercollegiate championships in New York Cloudman finished 4th in the 220 on a cold, raw day, and on a track that was under a half-inch to two inches of water. Leo Dunn ’75, a former co-captain of the Bowdoin track and field team, has done a thorough analysis of Cloudman’s track career and compared it to the top collegiate and Olympic athletes of the day. Viewed from a national and an international perspective, Harry Cloudman was indeed among the very best athletes of his age.
I have but pursued the even tenor of my way, and the ‘green’ that I have accumulated has been moss rather than currency.
From 1902 to 1908 Cloudy coached football and track and was director of physical education at the University of Vermont, earning a medical degree there in 1905. In 1909, two years after Oklahoma had become a state, he opened a medical practice in Oklahoma City and became the director of health and school physician for the city’s school system. He instituted a record-keeping program that followed each child through the school system, was instrumental in establishing an interscholastic athletic association, and brought all schools in a segregated system under the supervision of his office, a total of nine high schools and 45 grade schools. He served in the Army Medical Corps during World War I and World War II. Each year he and his wife, Maebelle, would drive to Maine for Commencement/Reunion and for a few precious weeks at their cottage at Higgins Beach in Scarborough. He retired to Gorham in 1946, and summed up his career in typically modest fashion: “I have but pursued the even tenor of my way, and the ‘green’ that I have accumulated has been moss rather than currency.”
On Homecoming Weekend this fall, two days shy of the 135th anniversary of Harry Cloudman’s birth, his name and those of five other extraordinary athletes from the College’s history will be entered on the rolls of the Bowdoin College Athletic Hall of Honor. We won’t need the plumbing of the Harry H. Cloudman Fountain to be operational in order to drink in the example of his remarkable life and spirit.
With Best Wishes,
John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations