Granddaughter of Canada's first black Olympian, sister to a Summer Games star and a track icon in her own right, Valerie Jerome is still putting hard-earned experience to use in the classroom.

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The first day at a new school carries inherent unease. In 1951, for Valerie Jerome and her siblings, that dynamic was steeped in far more sinister elements. Jerome’s father, Harry Vincent Jerome, worked as a porter for Canadian National Railways — one of the better options among limited employment opportunities for black men at the time. When Harry Vincent was transferred from Winnipeg to the west coast, it meant young Valerie would begin Grade 2 in North Vancouver’s Ridgeway Elementary. Harry Vincent — whose job took him away from home for chunks at a time — had moved the family to that neighbourhood believing it would be one of the safer options in the city. Still, the transition was anything but seamless. “The people on our street signed a petition to keep us from moving into our home,” Valerie says.

After the official attempt to bar the Jeromes failed, residents reached for more rudimentary battle instruments. When the Jerome kids arrived for their first day at Ridgeway, they were met by a white wall comprised of hundreds of students who pelted them with rocks. “I can still remember that so clearly,” says a now 73-year-old Jerome. “That has never, ever left me.”

Jerome has had no shortage of searing experiences in life. At 16, she was an Olympian at the 1960 Rome Games alongside her brother, Harry, the two — more or less unwittingly — following in the footsteps of their maternal grandfather, John ‘Army’ Howard, Canada’s first black Olympian. Track-and-field offered a joyful space Valerie couldn’t always find at home. Her mother, Elsie, never spoke of — let alone bragged about — the achievements of her Olympian father. She did, however, suggest that a teenage Valerie become self-reliant by selling her body on the street. Her closeness with Harry sustained Valerie through any number of trying life events and 35 years after his sudden passing, she still draws strength from the bond they shared.

Not everything Jerome does requires transportation. But as an on-the-go, single senior, downtown Vancouver — with busses buzzing in and out — is a great spot for her to live. Athletics long ago awakened a love of movement and, today, she’s on the board of a couple of dance companies. Though she stopped jogging a few years back, Jerome still gets to the gym. She’s a voracious reader, belongs to a book club and takes piano lessons. On Mondays, she babysits a little boy named Gabriel, the son of friends who moved to Canada from France. Right now, her already-crammed calendar is a touch busier as she strikes out to speak with students during Black History Month.

First Family of Fast
Valerie ran the 100-m. and 4x100-m. at the 1960 Olympics when she was just 16. Harry was a seven-time world record holder and won bronze in the 100-m. at the 1964 Games in Tokyo.

With nearly four decades’ worth of experience teaching kids from Grades 3 through 7 under her belt, Jerome is very comfortable in the classroom. What makes her a little unsettled, though, is contemplating racial and gender divides in 2018. Within the past decade, she’s been harassed by men on a city bus. Their vulgar, sexual comments met with no resistance from other passengers or the driver. It’s also not unheard of for Jerome, when she wanders into certain shops, to be hit with patronizing questions about whether she’s in the wrong store. She keeps close tabs on how Muslims, Indigenous people and other minorities are treated and her takeaway is that more Canadians need to stop thinking racial tension is an American problem and start doing things to make this a more inclusive country. “It’s nuanced sometimes,” she says of discrimination, “and it’s sad to say, sometimes it isn’t too nuanced: It’s right in front of people’s faces.”

There was certainly nothing subtle about what Jerome faced on the schoolyard nearly 70 years ago. After the stoning, the Jerome kids stayed home for most of the week until Harry Vincent returned from work and marched them right into the school. While Valerie and her siblings did become Ridgeway students, her daily ritual was agonizing. “I would sit at home and gag down my porridge,” she says. “And then finally, after I’d heard the bell ring and I knew the kids were in their classrooms, I’d run across the street, throw up in the washroom — and [I sat] through Grades 2 and 3 like that.”

“Harry might make the front page of the Vancouver Sun for setting a world record at Empire Stadium, but he still couldn’t rent an apartment.”

While anguish festered in Valerie, Harry channeled the hostility into fuel. He was active in a variety of team sports and when a misguided fellow student told him sliding into second base was easy compared to sprinting, Harry dusted the kid in a race and immediately uncovered an appreciation for track-and-field. Though Valerie began running in junior high before her brother discovered it as a high-schooler, it was Harry who threw himself full-force into the new endeavour. He badgered his timid sister to join the Vancouver Optimist Striders with him and, after taking five top finishes at the first inter-club meet she attended, Valerie knew she’d tapped into something precious. “The track club just changed our lives completely,” she says. “We loved this group of people we trained with. I never wanted to leave practice.”

Beyond the camaraderie, athletics also altered the terms that previously dictated Valerie’s interaction with the world. Suddenly, how she was judged had to do controllable elements, like how far into the long jump pit she could fling herself or how quickly she could whiz past a finish line. “Your worth was measured on that,” she says. “It was just a nice metric other than the colour of your skin.”

The numbers posted by Valerie and Harry told an impressive story. The former was just 15 years old when she competed in the long jump, high jump, 60-m., 100-m. and 4×100-m. relay for Canada at the 1959 Pan-Am Games in Chicago. The following year, she was standing on an Olympic track in Rome, running in both the 100-m. and the 4×100-m. relay. Harry, meanwhile, established himself as one of the fleetest men on Earth. At 18, he broke a 31-year-old Canadian record in the 220-yard sprint previously held by legendary Olympian and fellow Westerner Percy Williams. In 1960, he equaled the world record in the 100-m. with a time of 10 seconds flat. A three-time Olympian, Harry took home bronze in the 100-m. at the 1964 Tokyo Games and set new world marks in the 100-yard and the indoor 60-yard dash before his career ended in 1968.

The achievements garnered accolades from all corners of society, but support was not unconditional. Harry battled through debilitating injuries in the early 1960s, including a torn hamstring in Rome and a serious thigh muscle injury in ’62 that threatened to ground his career entirely. Significant factions of an unsympathetic press and public labelled him a quitter. When he recoiled from that negative attention, he was dubbed aloof. Even in the good times, there were always reminders that, just as painted lanes marked his place on the track, barriers were in place that limited his freedom in life. “For Vancouverites, we were still just black people,” Valerie says. “Harry might make the front page of the Vancouver Sun for setting a world record at [Vancouver’s] Empire Stadium, but he still couldn’t rent an apartment. It seems we always needed white people to go and find homes for us.”

Twice as Good
Harry, seen here in bib No. 56 winning bronze in Tokyo, was lauded for his sporting accomplishments but also endured unjust criticism and scrutiny during his career.

The hard, bleak realities of an unfair world surely had a hand in shaping Valerie’s other family members, too. After running the 100-m., 200-m. and 4×100-m. for Canada in the 1912 Stockholm Games, Army Howard fought for his country in World War I. While overseas, he met a white Englishwoman named Edith Lipscomb and the two eventually settled in Manitoba, where Army went to work as a porter and met Harry Vincent. Following Army’s death in 1938, Harry Vincent travelled over 300 km northwest from Winnipeg to the town of Dauphin to check in on Army’s children. Army and Edith had divorced earlier in the decade and Edith’s new, white husband wanted little to do with his wife’s three biracial children. Harry Vincent wound up marrying the much younger Elsie.

Elsie was in her late teens when she met her future husband and she spent much of her 20s having kids, beginning with Harry in 1940 and followed by Carolyn, Valerie, Barton and Louise. When Harry Vincent was home, a measure of peace and comfort came with him. When he was gone, the roof caved in under Elsie’s excruciating rule. “She was not a happy person,” Valerie says of her mother.

For that reason, Valerie believes Elsie may have just been searching for an awful thing to say the night she suggested her daughter venture into prostitution. Valerie had spent the day sobbing over a hamstring tear she feared might torpedo her career and it’s possible Elsie wanted to aggravate the wound and reinforce the fact Valerie could now be as miserable as her mother. Whatever the case, something had to change. Valerie snuck out of the house at 11:30 p.m. that night and wound up spending the final two years of high school in foster homes, initially staying with Dr. Harry Cannon — who was president of the track club — then with Jim and Shelia Thompson.

“I still have this great sense of wanting to give back some of the generosity that’s been so freely given to me through the context of sport.”

In 1962, Jerome met Ron Parker, a white man who was a fellow athlete with the Optimist Striders, and the two married in 1964. One of her last major forays into track-and-field came during the 1966 Commonwealth Games in Kingston, Jamaica. Before the event, female competitors were subjected to the crudest form of gender testing one could imagine. Upon arriving at their dorms, they were asked to strip naked, wrap themselves in a beach towel and cue up in a line that stretched through the campus of the University of the West Indies. “We were in this line for several hours while each woman individually walked into a room, sat on a chair in front of three doctors [and] opened [her] legs,” she says. “The [doctors] looked at our crotch and then you closed your legs and left.

“That was extremely degrading; you could never forget that.”

That awful memory endures, but there were also many life-enriching experiences and relationships Valerie forged on the track. Athletics remained part of her life long after she hung up her spikes and she worked as an official at numerous competitions, including as the chief judge of long and triple jumps at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. “I still have this great sense of wanting to give back some of the generosity that’s been so freely given to me through the context of sport,” she says.

Harry felt the same urge. An Order of Canada recipient in 1971, he worked as a physical education teacher and on multiple national and regional programs aimed at empowering youth through sports. Harry suffered a seizure in 1981 and when a second occurred 15 months later, he was hospitalized. He left the facility while doctors were still conducting neurological tests because he desperately wanted to attend the funeral of Percy Williams, the double gold medallist from the 1928 Games. Four days after the service, on Dec. 7, 1982, Harry suffered a seizure that proved fatal while riding as a passenger in a car. He was just 42.

'Be Tough'
Jerome lost her brother young, but his memory still gives her strength. A bronze statue of Harry in full-flight is a staple of Vancouver’s Stanley Park, where it provides inspiration to the public.

His absence is still felt by Valerie, and her voice shakes slightly when talking about the steadfast nature of her brother’s support. It was there in good times like their heydays on the track and the birth of her son, Stuart, and it was a pillar she leaned on during a difficult childhood and at the end of her 13-year marriage to Ron.

The love between the siblings was explicit, even if unspoken. “He’d hug me, then he’d give me this little punch on the shoulder and say, ‘Be tough,’” Valerie says.

Being strong is a lot to ask at times, but actively engaging in the world around you is often an effective antidote to sadness. In the aftermath of Harry’s death, Valerie helped establish the Harry Jerome Commemorative Society and a bronze statue of him in full-flight is a staple of Vancouver’s Stanley Park. She’s also learned more about her grandfather, Army, in the past decade than she had in her entire life. Greenspace and the environment in general became a concern for Valerie via Stuart, who served as leader of the B.C. Green Party from 1993 to 2000. Valerie ran for office with the Greens in six elections at the federal, provincial and civic levels, and had her students way ahead of the curve when it came to the health of the planet. “I loved my job,” says Jerome, who was at the blackboard until 2001. “I felt really blessed to have found a career I got so much satisfaction from.”

One of the aspects she enjoyed most about teaching was trying to instill a sense of compassion in kids. Black History Month offers Jerome another opportunity to do that not only by telling her family story, but also that of a lifelong friend who stood beside her in a defining moment. In 1951, Annabelle MacKenzie was a Grade 2 classmate of Valerie’s. Annabelle’s family — including mother, Muriel, and brother, Ken — were the only household not to sign the petition to keep the Jeromes out of the neighbourhood. When Harry Vincent led his children back to Ridgeway Elementary just days after they’d been the target of rocks, Annabelle — all red hair and thick glasses — stood beside Valerie in a meeting with the principal, just as Ken did with his classmate Harry.

It’s a tale Valerie has shared on return trips Ridgeway, where she can still take students to the window and point to the house people tried to ban her from.

“I’d say to the kids, ‘Dare to be an Annabelle,’” she says. “Do it. Do something.”

Photo Credits

John Lehmann/Globe and Mail; Jochen H. Blume/BILD-Zeitung/Simon Fraser University; Keystone/Getty Images; John Lehmann/Globe and Mail.