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The Times and Life of Smokey Joe Mendel
By Tim Waltner
Pine Hill Press, 1992, 127 pages

Book Review by David E. Ortman

Tim Waltner, editor of the Freeman (South Dakota) Courier, has compiled a remarkable book about a remarkable South Dakota Mennonite athlete, "Smokey " Joe Mendel.

Mendel's grandparents were part of the Swiss-German Mennonite / Hutterite migration from Russia to the Midwest in the 1870s. Joseph D. Mendel was born in 1906 on a Hutchinson County farm, north of Freeman, South Dakota.

In 1913, the family moved to Kansas where his father, David, attended Tabor College and studied for the ministry. In 1920, David Mendel was called to be the pastor at the Emmanual Krimmer Mennonite Brethren (MB) Church in Onida, S.D.

As a sophomore at Onida High School, Joe showed enough talent in jumping and running that the Onida Football coach entered Mendel in three events in the 1924 South Dakota State Track Meet. He won the Long Jump and was second in the 100 yd. dash. Use to running on a straight away, he likely would have won the 220 yd. dash had he not had the inside lane and wrongly concluded that he was too far behind due to a staggered start around the curve of the track!

He did not make that mistake again, and in the 1925 South Dakota State Meet as a Junior he won the 220 yd dash in a new S.D. High School record of 21.7. He finished second in the Long Jump, 100 and 440 yd dashes, all to Seniors who had to set state records to beat him. He scored all of Onida's 14 points, one less than the winning total.

Mendel was invited to participate in a national intervarsity track and field meet (Stagg International) in Chicago. But the Mennonite Brethren church elders met with his pastor father and demanded that Joe not attend the Chicago meet. Too worldly. Pastor Mendel allowed his son to go to Chicago where he placed fourth in the 220 and fifth in the long jump, but upon his return, the MB church removed Joe from the membership roll.

As a high school senior, Joe received all state half back football honors and played on Onida's basketball team which went 11-4. But it was at the 1926 State Track Meet that Mendel did the impossible. Winning four events, he won the State Track Meet crown for Onida High School.

Joe long jumped 21' 9 " in the preliminaries for a new state record. Although he wanted to conserve his energy, his teammates encouraged him to take another jump. So he did and sailed a foot farther to 22' 9 1/2", a state record that stood for exactly 50 years (remember, this is South Dakota where the track season is approximately six weeks long). In the 100 yd dash, he ran 10.0 tying the state record. He won the 220 in 22.1, saving something for the 440 yd dash, his fourth and final event. The 440 yd dash finals were run in heats. The first heat was won by Dale Palmer of Sioux Falls Washington tying the State Record of 51.7. In the next heat Joe ran 51.2 for another State Record and the Championship for Onida.

After one year at South Dakota State University, Joe found a more favorable environment at Yankton (S.D.) College. After a meet in Iowa, the Sioux City Journal wrote that he had passed the other relay runners and "left them in a cloud of smoke." From this came "Smokey" Joe Mendel.

In 1930, as a college Junior at the State Dakota Intercollegiate Track Conference meet, he broke his 100 and 220 yd dash records with a 9.9 and 21.2, as well as his long jump with a leap of 23' 2 ". Yankton College won the meet as the half mile relay team, with Joe anchoring, also took first in a record time of 1:30.9.

Also in 1930, at the Drake Relays (IA), Joe ran against Eddie Tolan who held the world record of 9.5 in the 100 yd dash and won gold medals in the 100m and 200m dashes in the 1932 Olympics. Joe ran a strong race against Tolan at the Drake Relays in a very close finish. Some spectators later told Joe they thought he had defeated Tolan, but officials ruled otherwise.

As a Senior he led Yankton College to the 1930 Conference Football title, as well.

In 1931, at the SD Intercollegiate College meet in Huron, S.D., he tied the world record of 9.5 in the 100 yd. dash (equivalent to a 10.4 in the 100 meter run today and not wind aided) and set a conference long jump record of 23 feet 6.5 inches, a mark that stood for 61 years! Joe also took first place in the 220 yd dash and anchored the winning Yankton half mile relay and the mile relay which took forth as Yankton again won the conference track title.

In 1931 at the end of his college career, he had established All time best SDIC College marks of:

9.5 100 yd dash

21.2 220 yd dash

49.3 440 yd dash

24' 1" long jump

And these were the days before starting blocks and today's shoes and all weather tracks.

It is possible that he could have made the 1932 Olympic team, but he decided against it. After graduation he did participate in an AAU meet in Lincoln, Nebraska where "the participants were told to be prepared for a World Good Will Tour representing the United States in preparation for the 1932 Olympics. Joe placed second in the 220, but failed to place in the long jump. He qualified for the finals in the 100, but did not place in a close finish in which spectators reported all eight runners crossed the line at the same time. Joe was not among those who were selected to make the world tour." It was also the 30's, the depression, the dust bowl, his farther had lost his farm. It was time to move on.

After college, Joe married Viola Hofer, but because he was an "outcast church member", the couple was married at the home of Viola's parents. Joe taught school and farmed in the Doland, S.D. area, but after a few years, turned to farming full time. And after two decades, Joe returned to the Mennonite fold, joining the Ebeneser MB church of rural Doland.

The conflicts between conservative views of religion and worldly events are worth examining. "The Times and Life of Smokey Joe Mendel" is an inspiration and Waltner's book is a good documentary of an extraordinary South Dakota farm boy.

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