World War I, Plato Redfern and the Drake Relays

Monday, April 24, 2017
Left, Plato Redfern in France in World War I.
Family records

Note: One of the deadliest dangers to Allied soldiers in World War I was from mustard gas, which was outlawed by all civilized nations as a weapon of war at the Geneva Convention in the 1920s. One victim (though not fatally) of this deadly gas was a fellow with McCook ties.) from Gazette Archives.

The Drake Relays, a function of Drake University inx Des Moines, Iowa has grown, over the past 100 years, to become one of the largest and most important track meets in the United States. Although Drake has traditional ceremonies surrounding football and basketball games, it is the Drake Relays that bring alums back to the campus, where festivities go on, almost night and day, for the week of the games.

The names of participants who have competed in the Drake Relays reads like a roster of the Track and Field Hall of Fame — names like Ralph Boston, Bruce Jenner, Marlene Ottey, Wilt Chamberlin, Michael Johnson, Jesse Owens, Jim Ryan, Bob Hayes, Herschel Walker and Frank Shorter — and the list goes on and on.

Today the event attracts hundreds of the finest University and Professional athletes, and the races are attended by thousands of eager and knowledgeable track fans. It wasn’t always that way. When John Griffin, a Drake coach, founded the Relays, in 1910, there were scarcely 100 athletes at the games, and about the same number of fans — all shivering through a wet and clammy April afternoon. (Note: John Griffin directed the games for the first nine years, leaving after World War I to become the Athletic Director at the University of Illinois. He later became Commissioner of the Big 10 Conference).

One of the participants at those early Drake Relays was Plato Redfern, a member of the Drake Track Team. He later became the Supt. of the Maywood, Neb., schools. He was the father of Sherry Marr (Mrs. Stan Marr), grandfather of Steve Marr of McCook.

Plato Redfern took a round about and highly unlikely path to the Drake Relays. He was born in Macedonia, Iowa in 1888. Tragically, his mother died about the time that Plato entered high school. When his father remarried, there were difficulties with his stepmother, which resulted in Plato moving from the family home and fending for himself.

Above, Plato Redfern setting the Iowa High School mile record.
Family records.

For a time Plato supported himself by waiting tables in a restaurant, then working for the railroad. The railroad job took him to Sioux City, Iowa, then to Des Moines, Iowa. An interest in athletics, especially track, caused him to re-enter high school, and eventually to earn a place on the track team at West Des Moines IA High School.

Although Plato was a ‘doughty little man’, he was fleet of foot and got along well with his teammates. In his senior year, he was elected Captain of the Track Team at West Des Moines High, and broke the Iowa State record in the mile run, at 4 min. 40 seconds. He also broke the ½ mile record in 2 min 04 seconds.

‘Little Red’, as he was known in those days, attracted the attention of the Coaches at Drake, and it was quite natural that he would stay on in Des Moines and continue his track career at Drake U, while at the same time keeping up his work schedule. At Drake, again he was successful. He was elected Captain of the Drake Track team and helped Coach Griffin continue the new Drake Relays. Again he set records. In 1914, in a meet with UCLA, he ran a 4 min 33 and 3/5 seconds Mile Run — a Missouri Valley Conference record.

After graduating from Drake U. Plato took a job teaching and coaching (football as well as track and field) at Clarion, Iowa. His teams were successful, but in 1917, along with so many young men, Plato went into the Army during World War I. His first assignment was with the Army’s 10th Field Artillery unit in Arizona. In 1918 Plato’s unit was sent to France, just in time for him to participate in three of the bloodiest battles of the war — The Second Battle of the Marne, July 15-Aug. 5th 1918, Chateau Thierry (a part of the Battle of the Marne), July 18, 1918, and The Battle of Argonne Forest, under the command of Marshall (General) Foch, the great French leader, in the final Allied Offensive, in September 1918.

In the Argonne Forest Battle Plato suffered an attack of mustard gas, at the hands of the Germans. (Note: Mustard Gas is a sulfur product that smells like mustard or garlic. It forms large ugly blisters on the skin of its victims, and burns the lungs, very often fatally, if inhaled. The use of mustard gas was outlawed at the Geneva Protocol, in 1925.) Plato was not severely affected by the gas he received in battle. A greater danger came a few days after the battle.

Plato and a few of his Army buddies had liberated a region and were doing a thorough check of the countryside, when they came across a few bottles of French wine in a cave. As most young men would do, they felt that they should appropriate the wine for their own use, to toast their victory. The wine turned out to be a booby trap, and when the first bottle was opened the men were sprayed with mustard gas. The men, including Plato, were burned some by the gas, and they breathed some of the fumes. Somehow, news of this incident got back to the Iowa papers, and it was reported that Plato had been killed. It was only some weeks later that the correction was made, with the headline, ‘Plato Redfern Lives!’

Fortunately, his encounter with mustard gas was not crippling. Plato went on to compete with the 3rd Army team in the Inter-Allied Olympics, which were held in Coblenz in the months following the German surrender, while Plato was doing Occupation duty in Germany. Apparently, Plato’s running ability was not diminished by the gas, as he competed at a high level, although Sherry said that in later years her father had a persistent cough, which she thought might have been caused by his exposure to mustard gas.

During the tour of duty in France one of Plato’s Army buddies was one, Rex Chamberlin, from Maywood Neb.. When the two returned to the United States Plato accompanied his friend to Maywood for a visit. During this visit, he met Rex’s sister, Ruth. The two fell in love and were married, and Plato resumed his teaching and coaching career when he took a teaching position in the Maywood Schools, eventually becoming Superintendent of the Maywood Schools, in the 1920s.

After a few years, Plato left Maywood for a similar position in the Big Springs, Neb., Schools. It was here that Sherry and her three sisters were born. When a position in the Big Springs Post Office became available Plato left teaching for a government position with the Post Office. He later transferred to the Lincoln, Neb., Post Office, where he remained until his retirement, in 1960.

Plato’s story is inspirational. He proved that in America a young man can succeed, on his own, with no parental backing. He had the good fortune to be blessed with a generous dose of athletic talent that kept him in school, and he had the good sense to accept the encouragement and consul of wise coaches, at West Des Moines High, and Drake University, who steered him in a very positive direction.

Plato Redfern died in 1965 in Lincoln, Nebraska. He was 77 years old.

Source: The Tattler, West Des Moines High School Yearbook, Drake U. Yearbook,

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