As a young man, Richard Widmark regularly leapt through flaming hoops on ice skates, landing on his feet—most of the time.
“Sometimes you catch a skate on the hoop or the barrels,” says the 75-year-old Northbrook resident.
His impressive career as a skater and cyclist includes world championships in speed skating, cycling and barrel jumping—the sport of leaping over a row of barrels more than 20 feet long. It also includes a decade-long tour of the country as one of the “Barrel Busters,” a group of three young speed skaters who wowed crowds as they jumped through hoops and over obstacles on ice.
“It was the original extreme sport on television,” Widmark says.
Recently, the recognized Widmark’s athletic career by inducting him into the Park District’s Sports Hall of Fame. It’s not the first time Widmark has been honored by the park district, however. In 1993, he was inducted into the community service Hall of Fame for his more than 30 years of work as a coach, volunteer and member of local cycling and skating committees.
He joins Olympic speed skater Anne Henning as the only two people to be inducted into both Halls of Fame.
Skating Career Began On The Playground
Today, Widmark owns and operates a custom finishing shop on Lehigh Road in Glenview. Sitting in a small front office before a desk piled high with papers—including old newspaper clippings detailing his sports career—Widmark speaks quietly, barely loud enough to hear over the whir of machinery in the shop behind him.
But his soft-spoken nature belies his bravado on the ice. Widmark first started skating at age 10, on a rink at a small playground on the north side of Chicago.
He took up barrel jumping while serving in the U.S. Navy. The sport involved ice skaters competing to see who could jump over the greatest number of barrels—each 16 inches in diameter and 30 inches long.
Inspired by a barrel jumper known as “The Fighting Fireman,” Widmark taught himself to skate at top speed toward a row of barrels, then lift his feet in the air and hold them high for as long as he could. Jumping over 16 barrels at the world championships in the Catskills, Widmark was the reigning champion for two years, until a competitor successfully jumped 17 in 1962.
“The barrels, cause they’re cardboard, are kind of comfortable to land on,” says Widmark “It’s the ice that comes up hard.”
Widmark took his prowess for jumping barrels on the road for approximately 10 years as part of “The Barrel Busters,” a group formed with fellow skaters Jim Campbell and Chuck Burke, who was the first speed skater from Northbrook to go on to the Olympics. During the week, Widmark worked a full time job, while on the weekends he, Campbell and Burke drove around the country to perform.
“He’s a very intense competitor,” says Burke, who nominated Widmark for induction into the park district’s hall of fame for sports. But, he said, Widmark also knew how to have fun. He recalled that their years on the road as the Barrel Busters involved several practical jokes and some crazy stories—including one situation where a flaming hoop got out of hand.
Typically, the Barrel Busters used a blanket to smother the blaze, then fastened the hoops and other equipment on top of their car. Heading home to Chicago from St. Louis one day, they noticed other drivers pointing and honking. Turns out, they were driving with a ring still afire on top of their car, which they had to throw in the snow to smother the flames.
“It was just a good time,” says Burke.
Widmark tried out for the 1956 Olympics team in speed skating, but missed a spot by just tenths of a second over 500 meters. Burke made the team to compete in his second Olympics.
While Widmark was disappointed, he says what mattered was competing as best he could. He continued to compete at the world championships of barrel jumping for the next several years, and won the World Trick Skating Championships in 1968.
During the off-season, Widmark got into competitive biking, and later competed in dozens of masters’ tournaments in velodromes around the country. In such races, bikers sprint around and round the 200 to 250 meter tracks for various distances, taking the turns at a 45-degree angle on the banked surface.
“It’s like riding in a bowl,” Widmark explains.
In addition to eight national titles, Widmark also won two world championships in masters cycling. While he no longer skates, Widmark says he still rides for pleasure.
“Speed is probably one of the attractions,” he admits. And the allure of competition, he adds, “ no matter what you’re involved in.”
Contributions to the Community Span 30 Years
Widmark moved to Northbrook in part because of Ed Rudolph, a park district commissioner from 1947 to 1975 who founded Northbrook’s speed skating club, coached several Olympic athletes and was known as “Mr. Northbrook Park District”. Widmark knew Rudolph from participating in ice skating competitions hosted in Northbrook dating back to elementary school.
“He was kind of my inspiration to move to Northbrook,” says Widmark, whose son and two daughters all attended .
Joining Rudolph, Widmark became a fixture at the chalet in , where served on several park district committees over three decades.
“The chalet was my second home for years,” he said.
Widmark coached skating and hockey and volunteered with the Northbrook Skating Club and the Northbrook Cycling Club. He served on several local committees, including the Northbrook bicycle committee, and in 1960, he helped Rudolph bring a velodrome to Northbrook. It is the only bicycle-racing track of its kind in Illinois.
When the park district’s board was considering getting rid of the velodrome in 1985, Widmark teamed up with owner George Garner to convince the board to save the track. Ultimately, they voted 7-3 in favor of keeping the velodrome in Northbrook. Today, it draws athletes from around the country to compete in its popular summer racing series.
“I think he really went out of his way to do a lot of work free at the bike track and on his own time,” says Chuck Burke’s wife Donna, who has known Widmark since they went to kindergarten together.
She and Chuck consider Widmark an unsung hero.
“There’s a lot of things he’s done people don’t know about,” says Burke.
At the park district’s induction ceremony, Widmark was characteristically humble, thanking the board members, his friends in the community and his wife. Then he invited everyone to his home for some food—a gesture that seemed only natural, given the friends and family who packed the room.
“When he’s a friend, he’s a friend for life,” says Donna Burke.