CONWAY, Ark. -- Famed runner Glenn Cunningham, who became one of the greatest milers in history after suffering leg burns as a child that doctors said would prevent him from ever walking, died Thursday at age 78.
'Mr. Cunningham passed away this morning at his place about 4 miles west of town,' said Merrelle Conner of Roller-McNutt Mortuary. Conner said the family planned to make funeral arrangements Friday.
He said Cunningham lived in Conway and raised exotic animals on his farm.
Known as the 'Kansas Flyer,' Cunningham held the world mile record of 4:06.7 from 1934 to 1937 and was America's premier middle-distance runner of that decade.
But it was only after surviving a near-fatal fire when he was 7 that Cunningham was able to achieve world-class fame as a miler.
In the winter of 1916, Cunningham and his brother, Floyd, were building a fire in their school's potbellied stove. Neither boy was aware the can that normally contained kerosene to prime the stove had been filled with gasoline. The resulting explosion when the boys lit the stove left both engulfed in flames. Floyd Cunningham died and doctors told the boys' parents that Glenn was burned so badly that he wound not likely walk again.
After Floyd's funeral, the doctor changing Glenn's dressings diagnosed his burns as being so severe that 'amputation might be necessary.'
But Glenn Cunningham would not listen to such sad news and for four months he waited for the scar tissue to heal while the tendons and muscles in his legs remained unresponsive and, for all intents and purposes, useless. Soon, however, Cunningham began a ritual of daily massage and six months after the near-fatal accident, doctors were amazed to see him walking.
Two years after that, Cunningham further confounded the skeptics by running -- everywhere. By the time he was 12, speed, strength and even grace had been restored to his legs. One day, after peering at a magnificent display of medals in a store window that were to be awarded at the local schoolboy races, he decided to enter the mile. He won.
In 1929, Cunningham entered the University of Kansas and, despite the Depression and his family's inability to pay for his education, supplemented his income by working for farmers in the nearby area.
In the meantime, he maintained his running career, winning his first major race in 1932 -- the AAU outdoor 1,500 meters. He later won the NCAA 1,500 meters that year and qualified for the U.S. Olympic team. He placed fourth in the 1,500 meters at Los Angeles.
After winning both the AAU 1,500 and 800-meter titles and the NCAA mile championship in 1933, Cunningham made history at Princeton, N.J. in 1934 when he set a world record for the mile of 4:06.7.
A year earlier, New Zealander Jack Lovelock had run a 4:07.6 mile at Princeton, which inspired Princeton Athletic Director Asa Bushnell to stage another dream mile on the New Jersey campus with Cunningham and Princeton's own star, Bill Bonthron of Detroit.
Lovelock did not compete in the second Princeton classic, but Bonthron, with his devastating finishing kick, and the relentless, barrel-chested Cunningham staged one of the greatest races in track and field history.
Gene Venzke, who held the title of 'King of the American milers' before Cunningham, was also in the race and set the early pace. After lagging at the outset, Cunningham opened up at the three-quarters mark and ran a 59.1 final 440 yards to finish some 40 yards ahead of Bonthron in 4:06.7.
Cunningham got a chance to duel Lovelock in the 1936 Olympic 1,500 meters at Berlin, but failed to win. In a disastrous bit of strategy, Cunningham tried to outrun Loverock on the third lap and wound up being outsprinted down the stetch by the New Zealander who won in a world record of 3:47.8.
Cunningham added the 1937 and 1938 AAU titles to his booty. And on March 5, 1938, giving six Dartmouth runners handicaps ranging from 5 to 600 yards on the oversized track in Hanover, N.H., Cunningham ran the fastest indoor mile in history to that day, 4:04.4.
The boy who was supposed to never again walk, now held the fastest mile times in the world indoors and out.
Upon retiring from competition, Cunningham became director of physical education at Cornell College in Iowa before returning to his native Kansas in 1947.
With his wife, Ruth, he established an 840-acre 'youth ranch' in which, without compensation, he housed some 8,000 children through the years, counseling them and teaching them to live in harmony with one another.
'Each is lovable in his own way,' Cunningham once said of the children sent to him by parents, social workers or juvenile courts, 'and all are equally precious. God has granted Ruth and I 8,000 miracles and we are humbly grateful.'