Born to run
Born in a remote community in northern Manitoba, Joe Keeper distinguished himself as an athlete and a soldier
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 01/04/2018 (1818 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Joseph Benjamin “Joe” Keeper’s life began in a remote hunting camp in northern Manitoba. Thanks to his talents as a middle-distance runner, he would go on to thrill audiences locally and on the international stage in a decade-long track and field career.
Keeper, a member of the Norway House Cree Nation, was born Jan. 21, 1886 at Walker Lake, about 130 kilometres north-west of Norway House. He was the youngest of ten children of Matilda and Walker Keeper, for whom Walker Lake is named.
At the age of 12, Keeper was sent to the Methodist Church-run Indian Industrial School in Brandon, about 1,000 kilometres away from his home. There, he trained to be a carpenter and played centre forward on the school’s soccer team.
Rev. Joseph Jones, the school’s carpentry teacher and soccer coach, was impressed by the teen’s stamina on the pitch. He suggested Keeper take up distance running and offered to be his coach.
When the two men reunited at a United Church conference in Winnipeg in 1946, Jones told the Free Press, “(Keeper) was an excellent boy to teach. He would obey exactly all of the training rules. He was always a good sportsman and modest, too.”
He recalled Keeper was so self aware when he ran that he could call his own time before seeing a watch.
In 1910, Keeper made his way to Winnipeg to start his career and further his training. He went to work as a carpenter with the CPR and bought a small house at 807 William Ave. at Tecumseh Street.
Keeper joined the North End Amateur Athletic Club (NEAAC) which met at Magnus Hall on Magnus Avenue and Powers Street. The club was brimming with running talent at the time, producing three Olympians during the 1910s: Cyril Coaffee, John ‘Army’ Howard and Joe Keeper.
Keeper’s first season with the club was 1910 and he started off in May by winning the North Winnipeg Road Race, which wound its way over seven miles of city streets. During the summer, he continued to pile up the wins, including the Fisher Cup as the club’s top five-mile runner.
In September, it was off to the national track and field championships in Montreal where Keeper came third in the five-mile race. He was the only Manitoban to place at the event and it put him in the national spotlight as an athlete to watch.
At the 1910 season-end NEAAC banquet in October, Keeper’s achievements were feted by a number of speakers and he was presented with a leather travel bag by the club’s president.
There were great expectations for the 1911 season and Keeper did not disappoint.
He again won the seven-mile road race in May, finishing 225 yards ahead of nearest competitor. Later that month it was off to Fort William, Ont., where he ran the 10-mile race in a time of 54:05, taking two minutes off the Canadian record. (It would take 25 years for someone to better his time.)
For good measure, Keeper broke the two- and five-mile provincial records at July’s provincial championship meet in Winnipeg.
It was no surprise Keeper was short-listed to represent Canada at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, in the 5,000 and 10,000-metre races. Two teammates, John “Army” Howard and Jack Beckett, also got the call.
The trio planned to compete at a meet in Toronto before heading to Montreal for the final Olympic trials. If successful, they would go straight to Sweden without returning home.
Beckett and Keeper set off on May 28, 1912 while Howard stayed back for one more day to finish playing in a baseball tournament. A large crowd gathered at the CPR Depot on Higgins Avenue before the duo even arrived.
Most of their teammates and delegations from other athletic clubs in town came to sing and cheer them on. There was also a large contingent of the general public who wanted to wish them well. One reporter observed, “even matrons held up their children so that they might view the living illustrations of the apex of athletic prowess.”
At the trials in Montreal only Keeper and Howard made it onto the Olympic team. They were the only two Manitobans on a roster of 36.
The Canadian delegation, particularly the runners, started the Games on a sour note. Some athletes, including Howard, openly bickered with the coaching staff about everything from a lack of organization to bad food. This was all reported back in Canada through news wire stories.
Perhaps as a result of the turmoil, of the eight medals won by Canada at the 1912 Games none were on the track.
Howard made it through the heats in his short distance events, but what was reported as a stomach ailment kept him from participating in the finals.
Keeper came in fourth in the 10,000-metre race behind two Finns and Lewis Tewanima, a Native American from Carlisle Indian School in the U.S. His achievement is still on the record books as the best showing for a Canadian at that distance.
What should have been Keeper’s best event, the 5,000 metres, was anticlimactic.
The way the heats and 10,000-metres final played out over the week, Keeper had to run on each of the four days before the 5,000-metre final. When the time came, he had nothing left to give and finished ninth.
A reporter caught up with Keeper upon his return to Winnipeg and found the Olympian wasn’t bitter about the experience, saying, “I have no kick to make and I had a great time.”
As for the controversy that surrounded the Canadian team, Keeper tried to be diplomatic but admitted there were problems with the food and scheduling issues. On the day of the 5,000-metre final, for instance, he did not eat breakfast because the team didn’t serve it until 9:30 a.m., which was after he had to leave for the stadium.
Keeper also lamented his local trainer was not allowed to accompany the Winnipeg runners to the Games, leaving them to rely on the coaches appointed by the national organization. “We both knew Billy (Law) and if he had been along we would have followed his directions. It would have made a great difference in the races if he had been there,” he said.
Life back in Manitoba after the Olympics brought a few changes. The 1913 street directory shows Keeper moved from his own house to one further up William Avenue where he was one of two lodgers. His occupation that year is listed as a clerk with Eaton’s, though the following year he was back to being listed as a carpenter.
There would be no second Olympic Games for Keeper. Scheduled to be held in Berlin in the summer of 1916, they were called off at the start of the First World War.
Keeper enlisted in May 1916 with the 203rd Battalion in Winnipeg and arrived in England that November aboard the S. S. Grampian.
The following February, Keeper was appointed to the rank of corporal and transferred to the 107th Overseas Battalion, also known as the Canadian Pioneers or Timber Wolves. The 107th was unique in that it is believed that as many as half of its men were Aboriginal.
Not surprisingly, Keeper’s role was that of runner, responsible for couriering dispatches to and from the front lines. He served with distinction, earning the Military Medal in September 1918 for acts of bravery at the Battle of Cambrai in northern France.
Military service did not mean Keeper had to give up competitive running. Sports was a big part of boosting morale and on at least four occasions he was able to compete in sports days.
The biggest event was the 1918 Dominion Day Canadian Corps Sports Day. It is estimated as many as 30,000 Canadian troops and 6,000 spectators, including dignitaries such as Governor General the Duke of Connaught and Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden, attended the event. The site was a field near the Canadian headquarters in France with temporary venues for baseball, tennis, football, lacrosse, tug-of-war, wrestling and track and field, just to name a few.
Keeper showed he was still in fine form by winning the one- and three-mile runs.
After the war, he got one last chance at international competition when he was chosen by Canada to run in the 10,000-metre street race at the Inter-Allied Games held in Paris in June 1919.
Keeper returned to Winnipeg after the war. He raced in a handful of events around Winnipeg the following year, but the club had up-and-coming stars eager to beat the old veterans. In 1921, he disappeared from the local sports scene and the city.
A writer who caught up with the runner in his later years asked him where he had gone. Keeper told him that after the war, the noise and pollution of the city was just too much and in 1921 he knew it was time to return to his childhood home.
At Norway House, Keeper worked at the Hudson’s Bay Company post for 30 years, retiring in 1951. He married Christina McLeod and had five sons and four daughters.
By 1969, Keeper was a patient at Deer Lodge Hospital in Winnipeg, he joked with a reporter that at that point in his life, “I couldn’t walk five yards, much less five miles.”
Joe Keeper died at Deer Lodge on Sept. 29, 1971 at the age of 85 and is buried at the Military Field of Honour at Brookside Cemetery. Since his death, he has been inducted into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame and Manitoba Runner’s Association Hall of Fame.
Christian Cassidy writes about local history on his blog, West End Dumplings.
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