Who was Don Lash?
He was a distance runner from Indiana mainly active in the mid 1930’s to the early 1940’s. He went on to become a state policeman, a FBI man (21 years), an Indiana State Representative (10 years), a motivational speaker, built a Christian athletic camp and was a businessman.
Don grew up as the third child of six in a modest blue-collar family in Bluffton and later Auburn, Indiana. Don’s first memories of running came when chasing rabbits on his grandfather’s farm. With no track to run on, Don's high school coach, Zeke Young, had the track team run in a pasture.
When it was time for college, the family pulled together all of their earnings to pay for the eldest son to go and to pay for an emergency operation for Don’s sister. This left only $4.75 for Don to go to Indiana University (minus the $2 charge to travel there). After his first week in college with no money left and hungry, Don talked to his coach about his predicament. Coach E.C. “Billy” Hayes had Don go over to his house, water the lawn and paid him $10 for the service. Coach Hayes then contacted a woman in charge of the IU dormitories and kitchens. She gave Don two meals a day as payment for mopping up the kitchens and dining rooms. The fraternity Delta Chi, interested in talented athletes, gave Don a bed to sleep in. He also managed to get a job handing out samples of Beech Nut chewing gum on the IU campus. From that point on, he was able to develop and train as a collegiate runner.
During his career at IU, Don broke Paavo Nurmi’s world record in the 2 mile run at an invitational meet at Princeton University and broke the world’s record in the indoor 2 mile run. He also was the national champion in cross country for 7 consecutive years. He was within a second of setting the world’s record in the mile run and he and his team mates set a world’s record with the IU 4 mile relay team. Don competed and won many races during his running career, too numerous to mention. Immediately following his 2 mile world record at Princeton in June of 1936, he set out to train for the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Don qualified for the Olympics by winning first place in the 10,000 meter run Olympic trials. Nine days later, Don also set out to qualify for the 5000 meter Olympic Trials held on Randall’s Island in New York City. During training at IU, Don’s teammate Tommy Deckard almost always beat him. Who knows, maybe Don held back his strength for the races. After all, Don was notorious for running back to back races and several races within a week’s time. Tommy was an exceptional runner and Don knew Tommy had what it took to make the Olympic team. As the 5000 meter race began, Don was out in the lead. He looked behind and noticed his teammate was lagging behind enough that he might not qualify for one of the top three coveted spots that allows a runner the opportunity to go on to the Olympics. Knowing that he had already qualified for the Olympic team by winning the 10,000 meter run, Don decided to slow down enough to get next to Tommy and verbally encourage him to move up the ranks. This move allowed the young Californian track star Louis Zamperini, to move up to first place. Once Don figured Tommy could secure a place on the Olympic team, Don sprinted ahead to try and win the race. Don was declared the winner although Louis was a "hairs" length away. Much has been written about this race because how close it was at the end. Many details published in recent history, for whatever reason, have been left out.
The 1936 Berlin Olympics was supposed to be Don’s moment but it wasn’t. 1936 would go down as one of the hottest summers on record. Many of the American runners struggled in their races at Berlin. It wasn’t that they didn’t train hard enough but the trip over on a ship that took 10 days to cross the Atlantic Ocean, depleted their athletic ability. Training on a ship was very difficult due to motion sickness and shin splits from running on the hard surfaces. The runners, from the Depression era, were also treated to some of the finest meals they had ever experienced while traveling on the ship. If you added a few pounds to your frame, stop training and found out that once you arrived in Berlin that your event would take place within the first 2 days of your arrival, your chances were slim to do well. Like many other athletes, Don decided he would come back stronger and more prepared for the 1940 Olympics. Because of World War II, the 1940 and 1944 Olympics were never held crushing the dreams of a generation of athletes.
After graduating from IU, Don married Margaret Mendenhall and continued to run races. He became an Indiana State Policeman and when he wasn't working, he was training and racing. Don won the 1938 James E. Sullivan Award for athletic sportsmanship (citing his act during the 1936 Olympic 5000 meter trials) and achievement.
After three years as a policeman, the birth of his first son and his retirement from racing, Coach Hayes suggested that Don apply for the F.B.I. He did and was accepted. The F.B.I., soon realized they could use Don’s athletic ability for assignments that required chasing an assailant. Although an expert shot who loved to hunt, Don never fired his weapon at anyone.
Two days before the US declared war, Don and another agent were assigned to break into a presumed German spy's apartment in Atlanta to photograph and look for clues. While there, they got the word that the spy was on his way back to the apartment and were instructed to leave immediately. On the way out, Don noticed a little black notebook and without thinking took it with him. When they got back to the Bureau, he was berated for not following instructions by taking something from the apartment. The FBI extracted all of the information. The next day Don and his partner returned to the spy’s apartment and with the grace of God, was able to return the black notebook without getting caught. The German spy was arrested and the information in the notebook provided invaluable details of other German spies within the United States.
Don enjoyed sharing his running and athletic knowledge with kids. After a successful 21 year career in the F.B.I., Don wanted to ‘give back’ by creating a Christian athletic camp (eventually becoming a FCA Camp) by purchasing 365 acres (piece by piece throughout the years) in Parke County, Indiana. He first raised money with the help of his family. By this time, he had two sons Russell and Dave and a daughter Marguerite. They planted and sold Christmas trees in Indianapolis grown on the property and pulled all of their savings together to create a non-profit Christian camp named “Camp Wapello”. The family built log cabins, ponds and athletic facilities. Many Hoosier campers have fond memories of this time period. Don also made a transition to politics as an Indiana State Legislator and continued for ten years until he developed heart problems.
Don and Margaret retired from public life and created a real estate business in Rockville, Indiana which remained in existence by their son David until September 2014. With Don's many life experiences, he was asked to speak at many events throughout the years. He continued to inspire younger generations to use and develop the talents God gave them for greater good.
At the age of 82, Don passed away on September 19, 1994 of cancer. His wife Margaret passed away in June 2014 at the age of 96.
(Much of this information was taken from the book by Don Lash “The Iron Man From Indiana - The Don Lash Story”