For the last seven years, Brigantine's spiritual leaders have been hosting a community prayer breakfast in the St. Phillips annex of St. Thomas the Apostle Church to raise money for people in need.
Last fall, in conjunction with the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the event's keynote speaker was Lt. Joseph Torrillo, a retired New York City firefighter who sustained life-threatening injuries during rescue efforts after the World Trade Center attack. On Saturday, Oct. 7, the speaker was Jim Ryun, a former five-term congressman from Kansas who overcame severe physical and emotional obstacles as a child to become one of the greatest middle-distance runners in history.
Two other special guests Saturday were retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Dave Papek and retired USMC Col. Tom Manion. Manion co-authored “Brothers Forever” with Tom Sileo, a book about two former Naval Academy roommates killed in the service of their country — U.S. Navy SEAL Brendan Looney and U.S. Marine Travis Manion, Tom's son.
Others who spoke to the capacity crowd were Mayor Phil Guenther, former Mayor Andy Solari, the Rev. John Scotland and the Rev. Ed Mayer. Those in attendance included members of Brigantine City Council and Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian.
Guenther, in his speech, said event organizers have shown a flair for finding the right keynote speakers for the right occasion over the years.
“The reason Jim Ryun is the right speaker right now is because there are many people who are famous today who are sending a message of division, not of unity,” said Guenther, who first met Ryun and his wife, Anne, the night before at a dinner gathering. “There are many people who are using their fame for self-aggrandizement and sending the wrong messages about the institutions that make our country great. Jim Ryun is the right speaker for us today in Brigantine and the right speaker for everyone to hear his message of faith and hope.”
In his speech, Ryun, who at age 5 became severely hearing impaired after a bout with the measles, related some sad stories tinged with humor about having been cut from his church baseball team and junior varsity basketball team. Determined to make any team — and with part of the goal to earn a varsity letter jacket to help him find a girlfriend — Ryun went out for cross country in the fall, which would steer him toward track-and-field in the spring.
His Wichita East High School track coach, Bob Timmons, recognized a special talent. Following a particularly strong performance in the mile run as a sophomore in 1963 — one in which Ryun nearly beat the defending state mile champion — Timmons told Ryun he thought he could be the first high schooler to ever break 4 minutes for a mile.
“I thought he was crazy,” Ryun said. “The best I'd run the mile up to then was 4:21, and he's talking about shaving 22 seconds off my personal best.”
Ryun never lost another high school race after being out-leaned at the tape by the defending state mile champ. As a high-school junior at the Compton Relays in California in 1964 — crediting the guidance of Timmons, who died in 2015 at age 91, and coming a decade after Roger Bannister became the first person ever to do it — Ryun's 3:59.0 clocking made him the first high-school boy to break the 4-minute mile. The next year, his 3:55.3 became a national high-school mile record that stood for 36 years.
“Failure is a temporary detour to success,” Ryun said. “I was so grateful I got cut from those teams, because that was not the calling I had. Were they painful moments? You bet they were. But I asked for God's guidance in helping me find the right path in life. And I added, 'Oh, and if could make it in something in sports, I'd like that even better.'”
In 1967, Ryun ran a 3:51.1 mile that stood as a world record for nearly nine years. In the 1968 Olympics he won the silver medal in the 1,500 meters behind legendary Kenyan runner Kip Keino, who took the gold.
“Life is not easy, but you learn some wonderful characteristics from those hard moments,” Ryun said.
After his speech Saturday, Ryun fielded questions from the audience. He was asked how he wound up in politics, having served in Congress from 1996-2007. He said the desire stemmed from witnessing, during a track meet in Dusseldorf, Germany, a runner he recognized named Jurgen May escape from his East German communist chaperons.
“I realized at that time that when you go to those measures, you know freedom is very precious,” Ryun said. “I traveled with the United States team through not just communist but socialist countries, and whenever I got back to this country I'd get down and kiss the ground. There's always a greater appreciation for what a great country we have when you travel overseas.
“It's imperfect, but it's much better than what a lot of others have,” he added. “That started the idea in my mind that maybe some day I'd have the opportunity to serve the people of Kansas. I did that for 10 years, and it was a great opportunity.”