If you are a Veronan of a certain age, you remember January 27, 1965. That day, a very, very, very tall young man came to your classroom and talked about doing something that no Verona kid had ever done before: Winning an Olympic gold medal. The young man was Jed Graef, and he won the medal for the 200-meter backstroke at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics with a then record-shattering time of 2:10.3. (You can watch the race and the medals ceremony at the end of this news reel.) When he returned from a tour of Asia, Verona proclaimed “Jed Graef Day”, celebrated in the schools and held a banquet at the Richfield, for which the ticket price was a princely $6 per person.
“Graef was the first famous person to come from Verona I’d ever known,” recalls Annie Bettelli. “Then again, I was only 9 years old, but it was a very big deal.”
And, given that this was largely before the age of sports celebrities, that might have been the end of the story. But Verona was so inspired by what Graef achieved that it set out to build the Olympic-size Verona Pool, completed in 1968. Which of course begs a question: Where did Graef train to win his medal?
“Lake Mohawk,” says Graef with a laugh from his home in Vermont. “And a pond in Wayne.” Back then, he concedes, competitive swimming was “sort of odd”, and he was the one and only member of the VHS swim team (he graduated in 1960). In the summer, he swam at his grandparents’ lake house; in the winter, he bounced between indoor pools in Montclair, Harrison and Brooklyn. It seems almost inconceivable to him that some 150 kids turned out for the Verona Waves team this past summer. “Having a pool makes a huge difference,” he says. “People can be swimming seriously and others can be swimming for recreation.”
Graef remembers having a lot of fun on Jed Graef Day. “The kids just ask you anything,” he says. “The younger the kids are, the more outrageous the things they ask.” And for the record, Graef didn’t just seem a giant; he’s 6’7″. “I guess I would have seemed six thousand feet tall to the kids,” he says. “I’m taller than most people even today.”
Except for one meet in Europe later in 1965, Graef didn’t swim competitively after the Olympics. “There was no money on the sport and no support,” he explains simply. “Now, if you are world-ranked you can get help from U.S. Swim like health insurance and training money.” A 1964 graduate of Princeton, he went on to achieve a doctorate in psychology from the University of Michigan. He taught at the University of Toronto for several years, then moved back to the United States. He works in computer programming now and he was also involved in the creation of the Vermont Zen Center, where his wife is the abbot.
And though Graef has swum in many places, there is one pool he’s never been to: the Verona Pool. “My sister took me there once because she wanted me to see what it looked like,” he says, “but I never swam in it.”
Photo credits: Medal images courtesy Jed Graef; flag courtesy David Lenkowsky.
Wow! What a great bit of Verona history . I would have never known if you had not shared it. Thanks for the story and some inspiration on this snowy morning.
Mrs. Graef was my biology teacher at VHS.
I remember the day that Jed came to speak to us students at Brookdale AVenue. At the end of the assembly, he stood at the back of the gym/auditorium holding the medal and we all filed out right past him. I can still see him, and sorry Jed, even more so the medal in my mind’s eye. Being so close to an Olympic medal must have been thrilling since I can still remember! Jed, I recommend the Verona Pool for family, fun and exercise, a real treasure in Verona!
Great Story! I have lived in Verona since 1969 & never knew!
I will never forget Jed coming to Forest Avenue School. What a day for Verona that I will always remember.
I remember the day that Jed came to the Laning Ave. school like it was yesterday. Such a great inspiration. Jed brought a lot of wonderful, positive fame to Verona. Thanks for posting this article.
I remember the day well. It was fun and exciting. Too bad the article didn’t say that his mother was a teacher at VHS at that time.
Why isn’t the VCP dedicated to him? West Orange pool is named after Ginny Duenkle (sp?) who also won gold in Tokyo for swimming.
I was actually in Mrs. Graef’s biology class when the loud speaker came on broadcasting Jed’s race.
It was so exciting listening to the commentator, and needless to say when he won we all went crazy, especially Mrs. Graef! Don’t think any of us will ever forget it.
When I was a swimmer at the Montclair Y I remember someone asking me if I knew Mr. Graef?
I do remember being a student at F.N. Brown and having my picture taken along with 4 other classmates. That picture was published in the Verona-Cedar Grove Times. I have a copy of the picture. Most memorable day!
Thanks for sharing that memory Steven.