Iron Man Athlete John Gracey Remembered
Iron Man. Natural athlete. Inspiring. Generous. John Gracey was all of those words and even more to those who knew and watched the northern Fulton County man move up the ranks from high school baseball standout to senior track and field star.
Even though he had big aspirations of continuing his success at the Pennsylvania Senior and Keystone games and expand upon his new-found love of pole vaulting, a diagnosis of pulmonary fibrosis sidelined John in 2009. Since that time, the local athlete’s daily routine has been devoted to spending one-on-one time with his wife of 51 years, Mary.
John peacefully passed away in his sleep last Wednesday, June 13. He was 80 years old.
In spite of his age and recent health issues, over the last 15 years John holds the distinction of being specially featured in the “News” for his athletic ability more times than any other local athlete regardless of age or sport. The headlines range from being named master athlete by the Pennsylvania Senior Games to clinching a gold medal as a member of the United States Crossbow Team and pole vaulting at the age of 76.
According to wife, Mary, she and John met while he was playing baseball for teams at Green Hill and Shade Gap. Later he would play for Hustontown and Waterfall. Not realizing he would turn out to be a “crazy athlete,” Mary said regardless of his ranking or finishing time John would always strive to better himself. Arriving at their residence in New Grenada following each competition, John would sadly report to Mary he could have done better.
“He was never content. He always wanted to do more,” Mary told the “News.”
Employed through the Bureau of Forestry for 31 years working at the old CCC Camp in Wells Tannery as well as Sideling Hill, John always found time to exercise and train around his work schedule. Running in the mornings along Summit Road with former Pennsylvania State Police officer Bob Albright, he could also be seen in the evenings biking along Wells Valley Road or in-line skating up Robertsdale Mountain.
It would be his relentlessness and perseverance that served as an inspiration to adults and children alike growing up in northern Fulton County. In fact, Mary touted John as being influential in turning several individuals, including Mike Newman and Dan Worthing, into running enthusiasts.
In the 1970s, John is remembered for running at Camp David. While President Jimmy Carter suffered a fainting spell and was unable to complete the race, John not only stopped to lend a helping hand to the president but was still able to successfully finish the event. Following open heart surgery in 1980, John amped up his performance level even farther, eventually competing twice in the Boston Marathon and in 1985 participating in the Iron Man Competition in Hawaii.
“There was karate, marathons, triathlons, cross-country skiing, archery and track and field,” said Mary of John’s growing list of sporting interests. Never competing for money or fame, John merely wanted to be able to say he could do something and do it to the best of his ability.
Fort Littleton resident Damon Schoen recalls seeing John on one of his biking excursions at least 30 years ago. Schoen said he and Mary (Thanos) Huston were horseback riding when they encountered John pedaling up the fire road leading from the Narrows to Cowans Gap State Park.
“The entire time we could see him he was sitting down on the seat, cranking that bicycle up that steep fire road. I saw him later and he explained to me that at least once a week he left his house, went over the mountain to Cowans Gap, up the valley to Spring Run, over the mountain to Shade Gap and up to Orby before heading home. That was his bicycle exercise circle,” said Schoen. “Incredible! I never forgot it!”
Hustontown resident and local historian Ken Keebaugh referred to John as a man among men and one of the most inspirational people he has ever encountered. Keebaugh said he was fortunate to run into John several days before he would compete in the Iron Man Competition. It was in the midst of a cold, foggy rain near the “Y” and John had a vehicle following him. Immediately following the competition, John would tell Keebaugh his training on the hills and valleys of Fulton County would do little to aid him in the Hawaii-based event as he wasn’t accustomed to maintaining a steady pace on the flat terrain.
Living in Wells Valley only a short distance from the Gracey home, Becky (Worthing) Ford said she was fortunate to have known John her entire life. Ford’s mother and Mary were close friends after having gone to the same high school in Chambersburg. In addition, the couple’s son, Johnny, and the Worthing children were playmates over the years.
“When we were little I remember when we’d see John that he’d always make us flex our biceps, and he’d feel them and tell us if we had big muscles. We always looked forward to that because he’d grasp our bicep and then think about it a bit and tell us how strong we were getting,” recalled Ford.
While he was undoubtedly a great athlete, Mary said John also had a giving heart and a generous spirit. Always willing to lend a hand, Mary said her husband would often send anonymous cash donations to family or others in the area who were struggling.
It was perhaps that same big heart that led him to secure a home for a shelter dog he would name Chipper. Chipper soon joined in on John’s daily walks, logging numerous miles. However, just like John, he too would be sidelined by injury.
Not satisfied to sit at home, John would take Chipper to visit those at the long-term care unit of Fulton County Medical Center and local school children. Those visits sparked a relationship with longterm care resident Tamie Rittenhouse, who suffers from Huntington’s disease.
According to Rittenhouse’s sister, Tawnie House of Fort Littleton, “I will always be very grateful for John being so dedicated to Tamie. He was a constant in her life while she was still aware. She loved that dog as much as she thought of John! We never had grandpaps as they had passed away by the time we were born, so I think she took to John that way.”
“I cried when he announced one of his wins was dedicated to Tamie. He even gave her the medal he won,” said House. “He stopped by one day just to ask about the disease Tamie had. He wanted to know everything he could about it. He sat and cried with me when I told him the whole long horrible story and that there was no cure. He told me people thought he was such a strong man, but Tamie was probably stronger than all of us.”
In addition to his wife, John is survived by two children, Joni Park and husband Andy of Fort Littleton, and Steve Gracey and wife Lisa of Hustontown. The couple’s son Johnny Gracey preceded him in death.
Memorial contributions can be made in his honor to Bedford County Humane Society, 1108 Lutzville Road, Everett, Pa. 15537; or to Home Nursing and Hospice of Chambersburg.