PROVIDENCE — When he entered the 1939 Boston Marathon, Ellison M. “Tarzan” Brown needed to borrow a dollar at the starting line to afford the entry fee.
But he went on to win the race, shattering the American marathon record in a time of 2 hours 28 minutes and 51 seconds — slashing more than 2 minutes off the previous mark.
Brown, a member of the Narragansett Indian Tribe who lived in Rhode Island, battled poverty and discrimination throughout his legendary running career, which included victories in the 1936 and 1939 Boston Marathons, and an appearance at the 1936 Olympics.
While elite runners now chase big prize money and sneaker endorsements, Brown’s victories often brought him little more than a trophy — or, in one race, a couple of bathrobes.
To feed his family, Brown ended up selling many of his trophies. And now — as elite runners prepare to pursue a total of $879,500 in prize money at the 127th Boston Marathon on April 17 — members of Brown’s family are hoping to track down those old trophies.
“There could be a trophy stored in someone’s basement, or maybe loved ones have passed away and it’s stored in the attic,” said his granddaughter Anna Brown-Jackson. “If they don’t want it, if they’re not using it, if it’s just going to be thrown away, we would love to have it.”
Brown’s family isn’t searching for the trophies because they might hold some monetary value, she said. Rather, relatives remain enormously proud of his accomplishments and don’t have a single trophy that would recognize his success, and remind younger generations of Narragansett Indians of all he did, she said.
“It’s what they represent,” Brown-Jackson said of the trophies. “It’s something dear to our hearts. It’s something my grandfather achieved but we never saw, because by the time we came along they were long gone.”
These days, she noted, elite athletes appear on Wheaties boxes and in Gatorade ads.
But Brown-Jackson said her grandfather never had those opportunities. Instead, he used to check out the race prizes ahead of time. “If second place was money, he would come in second on purpose,” she said. “And very rarely was it money. One time it was his or her matching bathrobes.”
Brown-Jackson said some cousins have talked about creating a Tarzan Brown museum someday. But what the family would really like to see is a statue honoring her grandfather, whose victory in the 1936 Boston Marathon gave rise to the name “Heartbreak Hill,” the 91-foot climb at mile 20 of the marathon course. She recounted how Brown broke Johnny Kelley’s heart when the legendary Massachusetts runner caught him on that hill and patted his backside — “as if to say, ‘Good job and move over’ ” — prompting Brown to pick up his pace and surge to victory.
Brown-Jackson, who lives in Narragansett and works as an accountant at the University of Rhode Island, recalled the poverty and prejudice that her grandfather faced throughout his life.
“The discrimination was so deep,” she said. “Trying to survive during Depression time was hard enough for everyone. But not getting a job because you’re a Native American was something that never set well with my grandfather.”
In 1946, Boston Globe reporter Jerry Nason visited Brown in Charlestown, R.I., and wrote a Boston Sunday Globe story headlined “Poverty-Stricken Tarzan Brown Sees Marathon Win Only Salvation: Needs Victory to Lift Wife and Four Children from Two-Room Shack in R.I.”
“Today, as Ellison Myers Brown looks about him, he knows that fame flees swifter than his own legendary limbs; that laurel wreaths won at Marathon racing are not edible; knows that his cups and trophies are gone, that he is a poor man with few of life’s necessities,” Nason wrote.
Brown had worked as a stone mason, wood chopper, tree surgeon, and handyman, and was depending on “odd jobs to feed and clothe his family,” the story said. Brown told the reporter that people in Westerly might pay someone else $75 to remove a big tree, but they’d offer him just $20.
“Lot of prejudice around here,” Brown was quoted as saying. “I had to go to New London (Connecticut) to get my last haircut. They tell me in Westerly ‘We don’t cut your kind of hair here!’”
The Globe article included photos that showed Brown chopping wood, his family standing in front of their two-room shack, and his youngest son, Norman “Thunderbolt” Brown, perched on a stump.
Then 3 years old, “Thunderbolt” Brown is Brown-Jackson’s late father. She explained that he got his nickname when he told his parents that two of his kindergarten classmates were named Norman Brown, so he wanted to change his name. “Tarzan” suggested “Thunderbolt.”
“They were really poor,” Brown-Jackson recalled. But her grandmother — Ethel Wilcox Brown (whose Narragansett tribal name was Morning Star — was neat as a pin,” she said. “Her house was always immaculate.”
While their house had no running water, no indoor plumbing, and a dirt floor, it was often the scene of large family gatherings, she said. “My grandmother fed everyone,” she said. “We had no idea how poor they were, or that we were, because we had a lot of love.”
Brown ran the Boston Marathon for the last time in 1946. He finished 12th, with a time of 2 hours 48 minutes and 47 seconds.
Brown, whose Narragansett tribal name was Deerfoot, died in 1975. The Deerfoot 5K Run is held each year to commemorate his life. This year’s race will take place at 9 a.m. Saturday, April 22, at Ninigret Park in Charlestown.
Brown-Jackson asked anyone with one of Brown’s old trophies to e-mail: TarzanBrownMarathon@gmail.com.
Boston Globe reporter Carlos R. Muñoz contributed to this report.