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Josh Culbreath, Norristown native and Olympic medalist in the hurdles, dies at 88

Mr. Culbreath, who died Thursday, specialized in the hurdles and excelled despite being only 5-foot-7. He won the bronze medal in the 400-meter hurdles at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.

Norristown’s Josh Culbreath won three straight national outdoor championships in the 400-meter hurdles while at Morgan State in the 1950s, but every time he would fly somewhere to compete, people would see him, point at his 5-foot-7 frame, and laugh.

“They would say, ‘That’s the champion of the 400 hurdles?’” his son, Jahan, recalled Saturday. “But he’d say, ‘It didn’t bother me. I didn’t say anything. The lesson I would teach them is, when that gun goes off, that’s the best thing I can do is to show them what the American champion is made of. No matter how tall or short or whatever I am, they don’t know my heart and my ability.’”

Josh Culbreath, 88, an Olympic bronze medalist at the 1956 Melbourne Games who later became a successful coach at Central State in Ohio, died Thursday in hospice care in Cincinnati, near his son’s home. Jahan Culbreath said his father had been in declining health for the past few weeks.

Mr. Culbreath led a full life for many of his years. He exercised every day into his 80s, going to the gym on many of those days. He also loved to race go-carts, and his son recalled several trips to the indoor tracks when he was 86.

Mr. Culbreath excelled in a variety of hurdles events at every level of competition. He began running the hurdles as a student at Norristown High School, where he ranked second in the nation in the 220-yard low hurdles in 1951 and won the state championship in the event.

In addition to the three national outdoor championships he won from 1953 through 1955, he won the same event in the same years at the Penn Relays, where he was among the inaugural honorees to the carnival’s Wall of Fame in 1994.

After earning his degree in political science at Morgan State in 1956, he served in the U.S. Marine Corps until 1958. He earned a berth on the U.S. Olympic team during that time and medaled at the 1956 Melbourne Games. He also won gold medals in the 400 hurdles at the 1955 and 1959 Pan American Games.

Running for the Quantico Marines, he set world records in the 300-yard and 440-yard hurdles. He was named to the United States team for the 1958 and 1959 dual meets between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the second one being at Franklin Field, where he won the 400 hurdles.

Mr. Culbreath, who has a Masters degree in education from Temple, also was a pioneer for Black athletes who came after him. He participated in meets in the South, where segregation still was in force, but said the camaraderie among the athletes, both Black and white, stayed strong.

“They would pull together,” Jahan Culbreath said. “There was such a bond and unity among them. Those guys and those ladies really helped to build bridges and tear down some walls early on. Dad would talk to me about that a lot. He would share stories about what he went through as an athlete.

“But you go and you show up, you hold your head up high, and you get out there and you kick some tail. You make a difference that way. That was important to him.”

After serving in the Marines, he ran for the Philadelphia Pioneers and later for the Philadelphia Masters. One competition he never missed was the Penn Relays. Dave Johnson, the retired director of the carnival, said he believed Mr. Culbreath’s first victory came in the Suburban A mile relay for Norristown High.

“I guess what I will remember most is that any time you saw him, it would bring a smile to your own face, just reflecting his own smile,” Johnson said. “And being short, there was something about that grin. That smile looked a little sly like, ‘I know something you don’t know.’ It was always a very joyous occasion to see him.”

At the 1985 Penn Relays, Mr. Culbreath played the part of Col. Sanford B. “Tailwind” Turner in an episode of The Cosby Show, racing against his long-time rival, Dr. Cliff Huxtable. His son said his popularity grew when he took over as Central State’s head coach in 1988, noting “everyone knew who Tailwind Turner was.”

“The Penn Relays means everything to us, not just to Dad and I as athletes, but to my family,” Jahan Culbreath said. “We missed the last two years with the pandemic, but a Culbreath always has been there since Dad first went growing up in Norristown.”

Mr. Culbreath was asked to come to Central State for a year and build the men’s and women’s track program by university president Arthur Thomas, a Philadelphia native. But he stayed from 1988 to 1996, leading the Marauders to 10 NAIA indoor and outdoor championships. He was beloved by his athletes, who called him “Pop.”

When Ohio Sen. John Glenn learned of Central State’s exploits, he set up a Rose Garden ceremony at the White House in 1994 with then-President Bill Clinton. Jahan Culbreath, an assistant coach at the time, accompanied the team.

“Bill Clinton came up to my father and said, ‘If you don’t mind, I’d like to call you Pop,’” he recalled the president as saying. ‘So when the president of the United States calls you Pop, it’s just a wonderful thing and it makes you feel really good.”

Mr. Culbreath sent four athletes to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics where Deon Hemmings won the gold medal in the 400-meter hurdles. Johnson said Hemmings was the first Jamaican woman to win Olympic gold.

He impressed other athletes at Central State besides his own. One of them was Hugh Douglas, who would go on to an NFL career that included two tours with the Eagles. Jahan Culbreath said Douglas sent him a text upon hearing of Mr. Culbreath’s death.

“When I met Dr. Culbreath, I had no clue he had accomplished so much in his life,” Douglas wrote. “All I saw was a man willing to help me accomplish my dream. And for that, I will be forever grateful. He will truly be missed.”

In addition to his son, Mr. Culbreath is survived by his brother, Ernest Culbreath of Norristown, and sister Wilhelmina Barnes of Tuskegee, Ala,; son Maliq Culbreath of Greensboro, N.C.; and daughters Sandra Penn of Columbia, Md., and Camille Culbreath of Hyannis, Mass.; along with four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

A celebration of life will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at the chapel at George Washington Memorial Park, 80 Stenton Ave., Plymouth Meeting, with interment to follow.