He’s been honored by two sitting U.S. presidents, competed in the Olympics, coached at Central State University, had a track built inside a stadium built for him and more. And now, this Saturday, he’s being laid to rest. Learn about the full life of Josh Culbreath from the eyes of his son, Jahan Culbreath in a Dayton Daily News article written by Tom Archdeacon below.
Jahan Culbreath pondered the question for several seconds:
With all the accomplishments of his 88-year-old father, Josh Culbreath – who died last week in hospice care in Cincinnati and will be memorialized Saturday back home in suburban Philadelphia – how should he best be remembered?
“Oh Man! I guess most of all for the love he had for everything he touched and everybody he met,” Jahan said. “He was a hard worker, loyal and committed, and he did it all with such love.”
While there was lots of love, there was also a dislike for those who would over-look, undervalue or try to pigeon-hole him or others.
As was the longstanding practice at Norristown High School in the late 1940s, the school owned the sets of track spikes the varsity runners wore on the cinder ovals back then. A younger kid trying out for the team could challenge one of the letterman for a spot, but would wear Converse sneakers – often bought at a local pawn shop – while the older runners got the spikes.
Culbreath once told me how he’d balked at that inequity and in protest ran barefoot on the cinders.
He not only made the team, but ended up the Pennsylvania high school hurdles champ and in 1951 was rated No. 2 in the nation in the 220-yard low hurdles.
While at Morgan State College, he won the first of his three straight national championships in the 400 meter hurdles at Dayton’s Welcome Stadium. His mentor then, Jahan said, was Dave Albritton, the 1936 Olympic silver medalist, Dunbar High School track coach and longtime Ohio state representative.
In 1955 – a year after that championship here – Culbreath made the U.S team that would compete in the Pan American Games in Mexico City. In preparation, the American athletes trained in Houston, where Jim Crow segregation laws were in full force.
He was not permitted to stay in the team hotel or eat in the same restaurants as the white athletes.
But once in Mexico City he would not be denied and won the gold medal in the 400 meter hurdles. At the Pan Am Games four years later in Chicago, he won gold again.
» A year after Mexico City – in 1956 – he was drafted by the Army, but joined the Marines instead.
“Dad wanted to make his own choice,” Jahan said. “He thought the Marines were the best and plus, he said, they had the nicest uniforms.”
That year he got an even more impressive uniform – the one worn by U.S. Olympians at the 1956 Games in Melbourne, Australia, where he won a bronze medal in the 400 meter hurdles. He was the first active Marine to medal at an Olympics.
Some three decades later he was the track coach at Central State and his teams – men and women – won 10 NAIA national tiles.
No Marauder then had a more impressive story than Deon Hemmings, who came from Jamaica as an unheralded athlete. Culbreath once told me he had been recruiting five other Jamaicans, but their coach insisted he also take Hemmings, just to make sure she pushed the others academically.
Culbreath switched her to the 400 hurdles – offered tough love when she wanted to quit – and she became CSU’s most celebrated track athlete ever.
She won the 1993 world championships in Toronto and then took gold in the 400 meter hurdles at the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996.
She became the first Jamaican woman to win Olympic gold and the only CSU grad to do so.
She’d medal at four more world championships and win two bronze medals at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.
Several of the years Culbreath was the CSU head coach, Jahan served as his assistant. Later Jahan took over the program and became the school’s athletics director.
A couple years ago, Jahan – who lives in the Mason area – brought his dad from Pennsylvania to Ohio to look out for him.
Over the years his dad was enshrined in several halls of fame, including the U.S. Marines’, CSU’s and the Penn Relays Wall of Fame. He was honored by two sitting presidents and twice in the mid-1980s he appeared on The Cosby Show, which starred Bill Cosby, also a Philadelphia schoolboy athlete, who later ran track at Temple University where Culbreath got his master’s degree.
Back in the early ’90s, Crosby donated $238,000 to CSU to build a track inside McPherson. Stadium. His one stipulation was that it be named after Josh Culbreath.
“My dad inspired a lot of people from all walks of life,” Jahan said. “He inspired me. He was my best friend and my hero.
“Honestly, growing up with him was like growing up with Superman.”
A favorite son of Philly
Culbreath grew up in Norristown, Pa., in the same neighborhood as former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda and jazz musician Jimmy Smith.
Over the decades Culbreath remained a favorite son of Philadelphia and no place more so than at the Penn Relays, where he won the 400 meter hurdles three years in a row from 1953-55. Later Jahan – who became an All-American hurdler at Abilene Christian – ran there, as did many CSU athletes.
Josh and Jahan also served on the board of directors of the Friends of the Penn Relays, which supports the annual competition.
“Since my dad first competed there as a boy, there’s always been a Culbreath at the Penn Relays,” Jahan said as emotion welled up in his voice. “In 2014 my dad and I won the Family Heritage Award for the number of years we’d been going there. Combined, it was over 100.
“When you grow up with it in your back yard and you’re a track person, it becomes a focus in your life. More of our family would get together there than we did at Christmas, no kidding.”
In the mid-1980s Cosby wasn’t the polarizing figure he is now. He was Cliff Huxtable, the beloved dad on The Cosby Show and he included Culbreath in two shows as Col. Sanford B. “Tailwind” Turner, his track rival from college.
“Dad already was well-known, but appearing in that show took it all to a whole new level for him,” Jahan laughed.
At CSU the athletes eventually came to refer to Culbreath as Pop. And in 1996 he had to feel like a proud father when four of his athletes competed in the Olympics.
But that same year CSU shut down its entire athletics program for financial reasons and Culbreath went on to Morehouse College in Atlanta as the athletics director.
When CSU restarted track in 1998, Jahan took over as coach until 2011 and had significant success.
The school is now finishing work on a new track to go with the new synthetic turf field it just installed.
But amidst the changes, one thing will remain the same
The track still will be named after Josh Culbreath.
As he was going through his dad’s scrapbook the other day, Jahan said he came across something he’d never seen before:
“It was a letter of congratulations – dated December 12, 1959 – from President Dwight Eisenhower.
“They’d had a special day in Norristown for my dad and Al Cantello (the Olympic javelin thrower and longtime U.S Navy coach). Eisenhower wrote a special note to Dad.”
A quarter century later President Bill Clinton – with the help of Ohio Senator John Glenn – honored Culbreath and the CSU track team in the White House Rose Garden.
At that gathering Jahan said Clinton asked his dad if it would be OK if he too called him Pop:
“How about that! The President of the United States calling you Pop. It doesn’t get any better than that!”
Between those two presidential connections, Culbreath worked for the U.S. State Department as an “international ambassador.” He went to India, Iraq and Africa to coach track teams and spread goodwill.
Jahan said his name comes from his parents’ days in India when they named him after Shah Jahon, the emperor who built the Taj Mahal.
Jahan is the youngest of the five Culbreath children – there’s also Sandra, Maliq, Camille and Khaliq, who passed away – but he’s the only one who truly immersed himself in track.
When he was a little boy, his dad made him a scaled-down set of hurdles for the backyard. Besides mentoring his track career, his dad also gave him advice on life, Jahan said:
“Every time I started a new job, even at Central State when I just moved to a different role, he’d say, ‘Look your best. Remember to wear a shirt and tie.’
“When I first started at UPS unloading trucks during college, I came in wearing a shirt and tie.”
Jahan said he appreciates all the time he had with his dad at every stage of life:
“I was his son, his athlete and his colleague. Each one was rewarding. And at the end of his life when I cared for him, I was more in a parent role. That was different, but rewarding, too. It’s a whole different part of love.”
Saturday’s Celebration of Life will be at the George Washington Memorial Park in Plymouth Meeting, a suburb of Philadelphia. It begins at 10 a.m. and Jahan said one other thing is certain:
“I’ll be wearing a shirt and tie.”