Thank you to the family of Ken Henry for use of this photo. All rights reserved. Olympic Team 1948 Front row L-R Richard Solem, Arthur Seaman, John Werket, Robert Fitzgerald. 2nd row l-r Manager Benjamin Bagdade, Ken Bartholomew, Louis Rupprecht, Ken Henry, Captain Delbert Lamb, Ray Blum, Coach Miller
Inducted May 24, 1970
Ken was born January 7, 1929 and passed away on March 1, 2009. He was the first American to win an Olympic Games and a World Championship in speed skating. Ken was a member of three Olympic teams and served as the coach in 1968. He was an Olympic gold medalist in the 500m in 1952 and participated in World meets in 1949 and 1952. Ken had the honor of being the torch bearer for the U.S. in the 1960 Olympic Winter games. He was inducted to the National Speedskating Hall of Fame on May 24, 1970 in Buffalo, New York.
Henry won the gold medal in the 500 m at the 1952 Winter Olympics held in Oslo, Norway, in front of 28,000 people at Bislett Stadium in a time of 43.2 seconds. Two weeks later, he won the same title in the annual World Meet at Hamar, Norway. His 1952 Olympic gold medal time was one tenth of one second short of the record time set in 1948 by Finn Helgesen of Norway.
Henry competed in three Olympics. In 1948, he came fifth in the 500 metre event at the Winter Olympics of St. Moritz, Switzerland. The 1956 Winter Olympics were the third for the American in the 500 m event in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. In between, Henry finished fourth overall in both the 1949 and 1950 World Allround Championships.
Henry has always lived in the Chicago area. He began skating when he was nine years old near Edison Park in Chicago. He later starred at Taft High School.
He won the Chicago Tribune-sponsored Silver Skates titles in 1946 and 1947, as well as the Intermediate National and North American Outdoor Championships when he was seventeen years of age.
At Northern Illinois University, he majored in physical education, and played on the golf team. He graduated in 1955. Henry became the golf club professional at Glen Flora Country Club in Waukegan, Illinois.
At the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California, Henry was chosen to light the final torch at the opening ceremony. These were the first televised Olympics, and the outdoor ceremony was produced by Walt Disney. In Lausanne, Switzerland, where the International Olympic Committee has its headquarters, there is an exhibit displaying all the torches from each of the Olympic opening ceremonies. Henry is listed as the final torch bearer, along with some background information on the travel of the 1960 torch itself.
Henry served as a coach on the American men’s and women’s Olympic speed skating team in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Mr. Henry, 80, died of natural causes on Sunday, March 1, at his Lake Bluff home, said his son Ken.
Mr. Henry grew up in Chicago’s Edison Park neighborhood on the Far Northwest Side, and his swiftness on skates earned him championships in the 1947 and 1948 Tribune Silver Skates competition, for many years a wintertime staple.
Training with the Northwest Skating Club, he went on to national championships and in his competitive prime spent so much time in Norway, where speed skating is a huge sport, that he started to learn the language.
Mr. Henry skated in three straight Olympic games beginning in 1948, Burke said. In 1950, he won the world title in the 500-meter event in Oslo. Two years later, the Olympics were held in the Norwegian capital and Mr. Henry arrived as one of the favorites.
A bout with the flu had him bedridden for a couple of days and he was able to do only leisurely training before his 500-meter event. He then false-started several times before completing his race in 43.2 seconds, a tenth of a second off the Olympic record at the time and good enough for first place.
He later said he skated a near-perfect race — “I don’t think I missed a stroke,” he told a reporter.
If the draft board had its way, Mr. Henry never would have made it to Oslo that year. Draft officials told him that he could not leave the country because he might be needed to fight the war in Korea.
Seeking a second opinion, he went to a recruiter for the Marines and signed up, with the agreement that he compete in Norway.
Back home after the Olympics, a miffed draft board put him in the Army, which shipped him to Germany, his son said.
It was a far cry from the reception accorded today’s Olympic heroes. “In those days you went over there, you got a medal, there was a blurb in the paper, you came back and went to work,” his son said.
Mr. Henry put the torch to the Olympic flame to open the 1960 games in Squaw Valley, Calif., and in 1968 he coached the U.S. women’s speed-skating team. In the 500-meter event that year, three American women tied for second, all receiving the silver medal.
A graduate of Taft High School, Mr. Henry started skating at a time when “every neighborhood park [in Chicago] prided themselves on having the best ice,” Burke said.
After the Army, Mr. Henry received a teaching degree from Northern Illinois University and then briefly taught biology at Austin High School and other schools in Chicago while honing his golf game in the summers with an eye toward work as a club pro.
He was an assistant pro at Park Ridge Country Club and a pro at the West Bend County Club in Wisconsin for several years, and from 1965 to 1994 he was head pro at Glen Flora Country Club in Waukegan.
Mr. Henry was well-regarded by the members and known as “a good teacher and a consummate pro,” said Ron Galiene, a friend and Glen Flora member.
“Kenny was one of the best putters I ever played with,” Galiene said.
With Galiene and two other golfers, Mr. Henry traveled to Scotland seven times to compete in an international four-ball tournament, and twice led his team to victory, Galiene said.
He kept a hand in speed skating until just a few years ago as an official and steward at venues including Pettit National Ice Center in West Allis, Wis., but never talked much about his 1952 gold medal. “I think I saw it once,” Galiene said.
Mr. Henry is also survived by his wife, Roselle; another son, Kirk; and four grandchildren.