GRAND FORKS — As a youth in Grand Forks, John Bennett didn't consider himself a runner.

"I was pretty slow," said Bennett, now 90, living in Middleton, Wisconsin.

His brother Neil Bennett, a former University of North Dakota runner and a World War II veteran, wanted to get his younger brother involved in track and field anyway.

"He said, 'Why don't you try something like the long jump instead of running?'" Bennett said. "He took me to the broad jump and said this is what you do. You run on the runway and hit that board with your feet. Then you propel through the air.

"So, I said, 'OK, let me see if I can do what you're saying.'"

Newsletter signup for email alerts

Bennett made his first career jump.

"Hold on a minute," Neil told John. "I'm going to mark and measure. I think you already have a winning jump."

That was the beginning of John Bennett's long career in track and field that culminated in a silver medal in the Melbourne, Australia, Olympic Games in 1956.

John Bennett, a Grand Forks Central graduate, receives his silver medal at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Submitted photo.
John Bennett, a Grand Forks Central graduate, receives his silver medal at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Submitted photo.

Bennett, a two-time NCAA national champion at Marquette, was sometimes asked about his hometown.

"I would always reply with pride," Bennett said. "I'm from a small city and a small state. I was so fortunate to have the people watch out for me at Grand Forks Central (High School). I was the learning type. I always knew we could do things better. We worked hard to develop a form, got it down pat and that got me going."

Bennett was born in Grand Forks in 1930. His parents both died when he was 10, and he lived his teenage years with his aunt Kathryn, who died of cancer 1963.

Bennett was a multi-sport athlete at Central. He was an all-state running back on the 1949 Central football team and captained the basketball team during the 1949-50 season.

Bennett won two North Dakota high school state track and field titles: two in the long jump and one in the high jump. Bennett never had a chance to defend his state titles in his senior season as he broke his leg one week before the state event.

At Marquette University in Milwaukee, Bennett won the 1953 broad jump title in Lincoln, Nebraska, with a jump of 25 feet, 3.25 inches. In 1954 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, he won the NCAA broad jump again with a leap of 25-10.75.

Bennett graduated from Marquette in 1954 and entered the U.S. Army, where he trained for the Olympics.

After qualifying for the Melbourne Olympics in Los Angeles, the Americans had a long road ahead to Australia.

The 1956 Olympics were the first held in the Southern Hemisphere, which is one of the reasons they were held in November and December.

The Americans gathered in California and departed on 40 hours of flight to Australia, stopping in Hawaii.

"It was a real challenge, but we got there," Bennett said. "We were affected by the atmosphere and time zone."

John Bennett, right, poses with USA track and field legend Jesse Owens during a flight layover in Hawaii en route to the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. Submitted photo.
John Bennett, right, poses with USA track and field legend Jesse Owens during a flight layover in Hawaii en route to the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. Submitted photo.

In the 1956 Games, Bennett, then 26 years old, was outjumped by 6 inches by his American teammate Greg Bell of Indiana University. Bell jumped 25-8.25 to Bennett's 25-2.25.

"It took a lot of effort to get up to that level," Bennett said of his career. "It was gratifying to say the least. We had some wonderful times. I'm always proud of the fact that I came from Grand Forks. They really helped me get where I got."

Bennett keeps his medal in a frame at his Wisconsin home, where his kids and grandkids enjoy to look at all of the history.

Bennett still enjoys following the Olympics, especially the long jump.

"I look forward to that, and I like to watch the techniques and how they've changed and how much difference there is in forms," Bennett said. "It's really fun for me to watch."

After completing his U.S. Army service, Bennett worked in the clothing business and retired in 1990. He still lives with his wife Therese, 93, in the Madison, Wisconsin, suburb. The two have a son and three daughters.

Bennett was inducted into the Marquette Athletic Hall of Fame in 1980, the Grand Forks Central Hall of Fame in 1991 and the North Dakota sports Hall of Fame in 2004.

A newspaper clipping of a photo of John Bennett at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Submitted photo.
A newspaper clipping of a photo of John Bennett at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Submitted photo.

Grand Forks medalists

Only three North Dakotans have won medals at the Summer Olympics: John Bennett, runner Cliff Cushman (400 meters, 1960) and boxer Virgil Hill (1984). All three grew up in Grand Forks and all three won silver.

Only Grand Forks' Ken Purpur (1956 Winter Olympics, silver medal) and Grand Forks natives and women's hockey stars Monique and Jocelyne Lamoureux (silver in 2010 and 2014, gold in 2018) have won Olympic medals in the Winter Games. The Lamoureux twins are the only gold medalists.