Helen Filkey: How Missing the Olympics Crushed Her Dream of Track and Field Immortality; Essay by Robert Pruter

Helen Filkey was Chicago’s first great female track and field champion, setting national and world records from when she first entered sport in 1923 until her retirement in 1931.

 

 

 

Helen Filkey is an unknown name today, but during the 1920s she was the preeminent women’s track and field star in Chicago, and was defined by some as the most outstanding female track athlete in the country. What has kept us today from a true appreciation of her legacy is her lack of Olympic Games participation. Her teammate in Chicago, Betty Robinson, became the first U. S. women’s gold medalist in track at the 1928 Olympics and at that point became the city’s greatest 1920s female track star—overshadowing Filkey’s remarkable career. The emergence of the Olympic Games for track women in 1928 thereafter has defined what track and field immortality means to many Americans, or so it appears. An examination of Filkey’s career suggests this should not be the case and that this great runner should no longer be left in obscurity

When records were being set by American women in track and track field a number of them came from Chicago, showing that something extraordinary was happening in the city. Young teen girls who came out of the Chicago parks and playgrounds were setting American and world records, notably Helen Filkey in sprints and hurdles and Katherine Lee in the high jump.

Helen Filkey was born on March 18, 1908 in Chicago, in the Ravenswood community on the city’s north side. Her parents were upper middle class; her father was a building contractor. She was fortunate to come of age in Chicago of the 1920s, which provided her a wealth of track and field opportunities. She took advantage of the city’s extensive parks and playgrounds programs, church-sponsored athletic leagues, and athletic clubs with top notch coaching.1

Filkey’s emergence came at just the moment when women’s track and field was launched in the United States. Competition for girls and women in the high schools and colleges was barred by the largely female educational establishment as being inimical to the female’s emotional and physical health. The sport met with approval below high school, however, as the Chicago Board of Education conducted competitive events for girls in its grade schools.2

Thus, Filkey first came to notice in January 1923 as a 14-year old track contestant running for Welles Park at the annual indoor Illinois Athletic Club (IAC) meet. She won the 50-yard dash and took third in the high jump. Running for Cornell Square Park in the Central AAU indoor meet in March, she again captured the 50-yard dash. In a June meet, Filkey representing Blaine Public School, she tied the world record in the 60-yard low hurdles. The sixty hurdles (both low and high) soon became Filkey’s signature event. Filkey during the summer competed in the Church Athletic Association meet for her church, Ravenswood Methodist Episcopal. She won two events, a 50-yard dash and an obstacle race. Whew, all these triumphant meets before she had even entered high school.3

The fifteen year old Filkey broke out on the national stage in early September, 1923, not yet in high school, in an outdoor meet in Chicago, sponsored by the National AAU. Running unattached she set a world record in the 100-yard dash at 11 9-10, and the recognized world record in the broad jump at 16 feet 3/8 inches. She also took second in the 75-yard low hurdles and fourth in the high jump, competing in four events Filkey had now become a star, at least in Chicago, and the papers treated her as such for the next eight years.4

In the fall of 1923 Filkey entered Lake View High as a 15 year old freshman. The first big meet of 1924 was the IAC indoor meet, where Filkey set indoor world records in the 70-yard dash and the 70-yard low hurdles. In February, she broke the world’s indoor record for the high jump, before being put out of commission by a broken ankle. The next month she broke an arm, at which time the New York Times reported she held seven world records and four American records in sprints, jumps, and hurdles. She had become such a celebrity at Lake View High, they ran a big feature on her in their June annual.5

Sometime in early 1923, when Filkey was 14 and racing for her grade school, an old legendary track and running coach, who was coaching at the University of Chicago, Tom Eck, discovered Filkey. He saw her promise and began coaching her. By May of 1924, he said, “Helen is the greatest girl athlete known in the world today. By that, I mean she is an all around champion. She can compete in twelve events and do them all remarkably well.”6

Filkey could not actually demonstrate Eck’s claim, because of the AAU limit for women to three events per meet, and naturally Filkey limited herself to the events she did best in. But in August 1924, three months after Eck made his claim, Filkey competed in a local meet for Chicago area girls that did not have AAU authorization. There she competed in all eight events. She won five them—broad jump, the javelin throw, 100 yard low hurdles, 60 yard high hurdles, and 100-yard dash; took second in two other events—hop, step, and a jump and high jump; and third in the discus.. A few days later, she won all three of her events in the Central AAU outdoor meet.7 

Near the end of August, in Chicago at the Canadian Athletic Club meet, while illegally competing under the colors of her high school, Filkey won the 60-yard low hurdles. Then actually in Canada the following month, Filkey tied the 60-yard hurdles record at a meet in Toronto, a record that had been taken from her in April. She went up there with two of her Lake View classmates, Marie Teichman and Norma Zilk, along with Nellie Todd from another high school. The Chicago Tribune hailed her as “Chicago’s greatest girl athlete.8

To illustrate concept in text.

Helen Filkey, 1925

The year 1925 is considered Filkey’s best year according to one track historian. She won her dashes and hurdles races in the two big indoor meets in Chicago—the IAC meet and the Central AAU. At the latter, she also led a relay team called the Filkey’s All Stars, which took second in the one-third mile to the Midwest Athletic Club. Tom Eck trained the Midwest Athletic Club team, which included practically all the top track talent in Chicago—Mildred Horrocks, Dorothy Smith, Nellie Todd, and Norma Zilk. Filkey participated with various club and park district teams, notably with the Station WHT, which in July 1925 competed in a dual meet with the Midwest A.C. Every female track star in Chicago was there. By May, Filkey competing almost weekly, had established records in the 100-yard dash, broad jump, as well as a variety of hurdle races. Newspapers in Chicago by this time hailed her as “one of the world’s greatest athletes.” Yet, nationally, there was not yet a similar acclaim.9

Then in July 1925, Filkey considerably elevated her national recognition at a National AAU women’s championship held in Pasadena, California, being the lone representative of the Chicago Athletic Association track team. One can assume that the CAA sponsored Filkey’s trip. She shattered the world record in the 60-yard high hurdles and broke the recorded world mark with a leap of 17 feet in the broad jump .Actually the week earlier in California she had set a new world mark of 17 feet ½ inch. She also tied her 100-yard dash world mark, giving her “team” third place in the standings.10

To illustrate concept in text.

When this photo was taken in 1926 Filkey was considered the top all-around female track and field athlete in the country.

The Pasadena meet vaulted Helen Filkey to the very top of female track and field athletes. What caught the attention of the track and field fans was that she established the records in three different events—dash, hurdles, and broad jump. More than a year later Popular Science Monthly ran a long article on the athletic achievements of women during this Golden Age of Sports. One of the photos featured a highly athletic photo of Filkey hurdling. The author asked a track and field expert and coach, George Vreeland, “if any outstanding girl athlete had been developed in the United States?” Vreeland replied, “Probably the best all-around girl athlete we have developed in the United States is Miss Helen Filkey, of Chicago,” citing her Pasadena achievement.11   

As in a trite Hollywood film, Filkey had a back story to her soaring career in track, one in which the press loved to tell with perhaps a bit of exaggeration. She grew up a sickly delicate child (one paper said she was an “invalid”), but at the age of 11 her mother took her to California for a year where she played on the beaches and took athletic training. That turned her life around, becoming a “dazzling specimen of feminine virility,” thus beginning her remarkable ascent to become, as one California report said, “the greatest women athlete in the world” (the year in California probably involved little schooling, as she entered high school at the age of 15). Filkey was considered an example of modern womanhood, someone who could compete athletically but still retain her feminine charm. As an attractive young woman she belied the era’s common stereotypes of women athletes as being “muscle molls” or “hard-boiled.” Filkey’s feminine looks considerably enhanced her celebrity. One newspaper wrote thusly: “Other girl athletes tackle their problems with a certain mannishness. Helen Filkey approaches them like a flapper bent on conquest of male hearts….between events she calmly powders her nose with characteristic flapper grace.”12

In the fall of 1925, Filkey transferred to Senn High, already a celebrity when she entered the school. Almost weekly all spring and summer of 1926 the Chicago newspapers—all which featured a photo page then—would show photos of Helen Filkey, running, hurdling, or jumping to yet another new national or world record. The Chicago Tribune in one issue ran a celebrity-style photo of her under the hood of a car, showing her at Senn High learning automobile repair. These publicity photos would get downright silly, as in a mashup of her racing a greyhound.13

Filkey’s achievements in 1926 were done without the training of the great Tom Eck, however, who was ill much of the first part of the year, and died June 5, 1926. At the big National AAU meet in Philadelphia in July, Filkey perhaps in memory of Tom Eck, joined the Midwest AC girls to take the team to second place at the meet. She certainly did not wear a Midwest uniform. Filkey struggled to take second in two events that she used to own, the 100-dash and the broad jump. But she easily won her pet event, the 60-yard hurdles.14

In October of 1926, the Illinois Women’s Athletic Club opened on the near North Side. Like most athletic clubs of this era, the IWAC also sponsored various athletic teams and competitors, notably in basketball, swimming, and track and field. The first track team was formed in March of 1927, and besides including Helen Filkey it also took in the former track and field athletes who had trained under and competed for Tom Eck.15

To illustrate concept in text

Helen Filkey (third from right), with IWAC team, 1927.

Running for the IWAC, Filkey competed in the AAU National meet held in Eureka, California, in September. Two years earlier Filkey had won three record setting events, but in 1927, as the paper noted, her “star had dimmed a trifle,” but she “maintained her prestige” in the 60-yard hurdles by winning the event in world record time and four yards to spare. The year 1927 was a solid year for Filkey, when the AAU announced records made that year, she was credited with three national hurdles records indoors and the 60-yard hurdles outdoors.16

The year 1928, Filkey, a senior at Senn High, was gearing up for the Olympic Games. In March she set a new indoor world record for the 60-yard low hurdle event at the tenth annual Bankers meet. She also beat a young Betty Robinson in the 60-yard dash, her first ever race. Filkey would race Robinson only one more time, outdoors on June 2, and get barely beaten in the 100 meters. Both qualified to go to the Olympic Trials in July.17

In June 1928, Filkey graduated from Senn High School, where she was president of the Senn Girls Athletic Association, and was special assistant to teacher who directed the Senn Girls’ Track Team. Up through 1927, the girls track team competed in outside amateur meets, and relating to that the 1927 year book reported, “Much help on outside training for special events has been given the girls by the skilful instructions of Helen Filkey, nationally known for her records in several events Because of her outside activities Helen cannot run for the school.” The yearbook devoted a special page on Filkey and discussed the advances of women in track and field and the upcoming Olympic Games. The writer used Filkey as an exemplifier of the great advances modern women have made in athletics. The writer thought the Olympics were unfair to American girls (meaning mainly Filkey) in that they did not have such events as the short dash, hurdles, and broad jump.18

The National AAU and Olympic Trials in Newark, NJ, proved to be a huge disappointment to Filkey. Running for the IWAC, she easily won the 60-yard hurdles, but unfortunately for her that was not one of the five events in the inaugural Games for women. Her chance to get into the Games rested in the 100-meter dash. She easily won her first heat, but in the semi-final heat she was way ahead, but stumbled, and ended up third, and out of the running. Had Filkey made the finals, she would have had an excellent chance to be one of the four finalists to go to the Olympics. Her IWAC colleague, Betty Robinson, in only her second meet, ran away with the trials.19

Filkey spent a fairly quiet year in track in 1929. She was becoming more of a celebrity/socialite than a track runner. In March, she was selected to lead the grand march as Miss Liberty at a Disabled Veterans of the World War celebration. A month later the papers devoted a lot of ink to her eloping with a physician’s son, Beach Van Husen Warren. The marriage got off to a rough start. According to an AP story, Mr. Warren forbade his wife from competing in track. Filkey was quoted as saying, “It is his wish that I do not compete again, so I’m quitting for good.” The reporter with a bit of snark seemed to disapprove of Mr. Warren—subtlety suggesting he was something of an ass and retrograde.20

Filkey later got her husband to agree to let her compete until after the National Women AAU in Soldier field in late July. Thus, as Helen Filkey Warren she appeared on a strong IWAC team at the National Women’s AAU games held in Soldier Field. Having not lost anything from her long layoff, she set a new world’s record in the now 80-meter hurdles. Two other IWAC runners took second and third. Betty Robinson was now the dash queen, and Filkey did not run in those. The IWAC team easily captured the title. Sometime, that year she also obtained a job selling trophies and medals for a trophy firm, which would later result in severe consequences for her.21

January 1930, Filkey made society news again, with the announcement of her being granted a divorce from Beach Warren. Cruelty was cited. Filkey charged Mr. Beach at bridge games would kick her in the shins under the table when she led the wrong suit. Kicking a world class runner in the shins is more than cruelty, it is a high crime. Filkey apparently took all of 1930 off to get back into shape. She had time for celebrity exposure. Here she is at the IWAC with swim Olympian Jane Faunz and opera singer Mary Garden. Come 1931 she was all work, dedicated to making the 1932 Olympic Games, which was going to include the 80-meters hurdles. She spent 1931 training hard and regularly competing. In early July, at the Central AAU meet she set a new American record in the 80-meter hurdles. At the time she also held the world record for the 60-meter hurdles.22

A week later, her dream for participation came crashing down in July of that year, when the Central AAU declared Filkey to be a professional based on her position as a saleswoman for sports trophies and medals, a job she had held for the previous two years. Under the harsh rules of amateurship, even though she was not making money directly from competing, she was using her position as a well-known track star to earn money selling awards and medals. Avery Brundage, president of the AAU publically explained that male athletes were not allowed to sell trophies at track meets so he could not see how women should be exempt.23

Filkey, for the rest of her life became a full-time socialite. For example, a newspaper photo of Filkey as one of the women modeling fashionable shoes at a shoe style show at the Sherman House hotel in January of 1932.   In September 1932, she married William DeVry, son of a wealthy executive of the DeVry Corporation, a camera manufacturing concern. In 1934 she was on the mommy track with her first baby. Her interests were now gardening, bridge (without any shin busting), and raising Siamese cats and Dachshunds.24

Helen Filkey DeVry records lasted longer than she did in track, when in 1940 Stella Walsh broke her last record, in the 60-yard dash. Filkey would remain out of the public eye for much of the rest of her long life—she lived to be 92 passing away in 2000. The two Chicago dailies provided decent coverage to let the public know that this lady was a genuinely famous and an extraordinary track star in the 1920s. Chicago Sun-Times probably said what Helen Filkey had wanted the paper to say….”considered by many as the city’s finest female athlete.”25.

Notes

1. Gerald R. Gems, Windy City Wars: Labor, Leisure, and Sport in the Making of Chicago, 102-110 (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1997); Benjamin McArthur, “The Chicago Playground Movement: A Neglected Feature of Social Justice,” Social Service Review 49, no. 3 (September 1975), 382-84.

2. “Resolutions Adopted by the Conference on Athletics and Physical Recreation Held Under the Auspices of the National Amateur Athletic Federation at Washington, D.C., April 6-7, 1923,” American Physical Education Review 28, no. 6 (June 1923): 284-88; Sarah Addington, “The Athletic Limitations of Women,” The Ladies Home Journal 40 (June 1923): 147; “Young School Girl Sets World Record In Meet,” Chicago Tribune, 15 June 1924.

3.  Wallace Abbey. “Ray’s Mile Win, Girls Sprinters, Feature Meet. Chicago Tribune, 27 January 1923; “I.A.C. Captures Record Crashing C. AAU Games,” Chicago Tribune, 31 March 1923; Walter Eckersall. “I.A.C. Team Breaks 4-Mile Relay Record.” Chicago Tribune, 24 June 1923; “First Lutheran Sprints to Win in Church Meet,” Chicago Tribune, 1 July 1923.

4.  Walter Eckersall. “Osborne Wins in A.A.U. Decathlon 4 World Records.” Chicago Tribune, 4 September 1923; Louise Mead Tricard, American Women’s Track and Field: A History, 1895 through 1980 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1985),  p. 90.

5. Walter Eckersall. “Harold Osborne, I.A.C. Star, Sets High Jump Mark.” Chicago Tribune, 26 January 1924; “A Wonder Girl.” Chicago Tribune, 24 February 1924; “World Records Crack As I.A.C, Wins AAU Meet,” Chicago Tribune, 29 March 1924; “Girl Athlete Breaks Arm.” New York Times, 11 March 1924.

6. “Girl Stars in Athletics are Setting High Records.” Billings Gazette, 25 May 1924.

7. “Helen Filkey Gathers Title in Track Meet.” Chicago Tribune, 21 August 1924.

8.  Ray Runs Fourth in Mile Event at Canuck Meet,” Chicago Tribune, 31 August 1924; “Chicago’s Greatest Girl Athlete Equals a World Record” . Chicago Tribune, 28 September 1924.

9.  “Here Are Summaries of Track and Field Events at I.A.C. Meet.” Chicago Tribune, 17 January 1925; “Osborn Breaks World Mark as I.A.C. Wins Title,” Chicago Tribune, 21 March 1925; “One of the Best” . Chicago Evening American, 30 May 1925; “Girls of Station WHT Win Meet at Gaelic Park,” Chicago Tribune, 6 July 1925; Cowe, p. 46.

10. .“Miss Filkey Sets 3 World Records,” New York Times, 12 July 1925; “Helen Filkey Shatters Two World Marks,” Chicago Tribune, 12 July 1925.

11. Arthur Grahame, “Why Men Beat Women at Sports,” Popular Science Monthly, November 1926, p. 154.

12.  George Britt. “Champion Girl Athlete.” The Bee, 22 January 1924; Lincoln Quarberg. “World’s Champion Girl Athlete Was Invalid Three Years Ago.” Longmont Daily Times, 1 August 1925.

13.  “Training for Speed.” Chicago Tribune, 2 March 1926; “Two Champion Hurdlers” . Chicago Tribune, 19 June 1927.

14. “Tom Eck, Coach at Chicago for 11 Years, Dies,” Chicago Tribune, 6 June 1926; Robert F. Kelley, “2 More Records Set in Women’s Meet.” New York Times, 11 July 1926; “Chicago Girls Who Won Second Place” . Chicago Tribune, 25 July 192

15.  “Here’s A New Swift Club” . Chicago Tribune, 20 March 1927; “I.A.C. Wins Track Games; Marks Fall,” Chicago Tribune, 1 April 1927.

16. “Miss Filkey Clips World Record Time.” New York Times, 4 September 1927; “Records Fall in Girls’ Meet On West Coast.” Chicago Tribune, 4 September 1927; “A.A.U. Selects Robertson to Coach Olympic Track Team.” Chicago Tribune, 22 November 1927.

17.  Walter Eckersall. “Helen Filkey Sets World Hurdle Mark.” Chicago Tribune, 31 March 1928; Cowe, p. 27.

18.  The Forum 1927. Chicago: Senn High School, 1927, p. 210; The Forum 1928. Chicago: Senn High School, 1928, pp. 36, 173, 184. Based on Filkey entering Lake View High in the fall of 1923, she should have graduated in 1927. It appears she did not attend school during the 1924-25 school year.

19. “Miss Cartwright Wins Three Titles,” New York Times,” July 5, 1928; Cowe, p. 72.

20. “Coronation of Liberty” . Chicago Tribune, 7 April 1929; “Helen Filkey Elopes with Physician’s Son,” Chicago Tribune, 14 April 1929; “Helen Filkey, Noted Athlete, Obeys Husband and Quits Track,” New York Times, April 20, 1929.

21.  Eric Cowe, p. 85-86; “Chicago Girls Breaks World Records in A.A.U Meet.” Chicago Tribune, 28 July 1929; “Women Set Five New World’s Records in National Title Track Meet in Chicago,” New York Times, 28 July 1929; “Miss Filkey Clips World Record Time,” New York Times, 4 September 1929; “Filkey is Ruled Pro by Central A.A.U.,” Chicago Tribune, 22 July 1931.

22.  “Girl Athlete Divorces Son of Physician.” Chicago Tribune, 10 January 1930;”She Wins Again” . Syracuse Herald, 12 January 1930; Cowe, p. 95; “Stars in Three Fields Meet” . Chicago Tribune, 30 January 1930.

23.  “Helen Filkey is Ruled Pro by Central A.A.U.,” Chicago Tribune, 22 July 1931; “Helen Filkey Sells Medals, Declared Pro.” San Antonio Light, 22 July 1931.

24. “1932 Styles In Shoes to Be Displayed Tomorrow” . Chicago Tribune, 3 January 1932; “Two Chicago Brides” , Chicago Tribune¸18 September 1932; “Helen Filkey, Track Star, Becomes Mother of Girl,” Chicago Tribune, 10 April 1934.

25. “Stella Walsh Sets New Record in Dash.” Lima News, 10 June 1940; Terry Wilson. “Track Star Helen Filkey DeVry, 92,” Chicago Tribune, 4 December 2000; Lon Grahnke, “Helen Filkey DeVry, 92, World-Class Track Star.” Chicago Sun-Times, 2 December 2000.

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4 Responses to Helen Filkey: How Missing the Olympics Crushed Her Dream of Track and Field Immortality; Essay by Robert Pruter

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