Lost and Found: The Story Behind The 1920 Dipsea Winner's Trophy

The 1920 Dipsea Winner's Trophy

As the life of championship trophies go, the one that William O'Callaghan received for winning the 1920 Dipsea Race has had an up-and-down, hide-and-seek adventure symbolic of the race course itself.

For something so rare, this 99-year-old Dipsea trophy has been rarely talked about. It's been lost and found in a bedroom near a garage in the Sunset District in San Francisco then lost and found again in an attic in Sonoma County.

"I actually used it for a flower vase. I thought it was the coolest thing ever," says Pam Sturges, O'Callaghan's granddaughter whom he handed the trophy to some 40 years ago. "I polished it and put a little glass insert inside and my grandfather didn't seem to mind. He was very modest. He didn't want to talk about it. He'd say, `Oh, it's just something.' "

Something special with a special story to tell.

O'Callaghan, raised in an orphanage in Watsonville, was recruited to compete with the Olympic Club team in San Francisco. He was part of their winning team in the 1916 cross city race. He was in good standing with club teammates when he went off to World War I. He was wounded, earned a Purple Heart and stayed an extra year after the war to run with an Army occupational team before returning to San Francisco as a hero in 1920.

However, O'Callaghan, an Irishman, soon after severed ties with the Olympic Club over a bitter dispute involving his friend and their ethnicity.

"His split from the club, so the story goes, is that after returning from WWI he had a meeting with the athletic director to introduce him to Tony Origrio, his army buddy, war hero and also an accomplished runner," Pam says. "The athletic director was most interested in meeting Tony and having him being part of their team. It didn't matter if Tony and my grandfather weren't blue bloods. They were veterans, war heroes and most importantly they could win trophies. My grandfather and Tony were to meet the athletic director in the bar of The Olympic Club.

"The bartender, unaware of my grandfather's importance and standing to the Olympic Club's running team, saw him waiting in the bar with a strange looking Italian fellow. Feeling protective of The Olympic Club's exclusive reputation, the bartender told my grandfather that the Olympic Club did not serve their kind and told them to leave. My grandfather would never speak to anyone from the Olympic Club again.

At Origrio's urging, O'Callaghan decided to run for the Italian-American Club, Unione Sportiva Italiano. According to Pam, Origrio was the first person to introduce her grandfather to tennis shoes while they were in the Army.

"In the Army I believe they ran in their boots," Pam says. "I believe there was one race Tony couldn't participate in so he lent my grandfather his shoes. In those days tennis was played on grass, so I guess they were much better for running than army boots."

So, equipped with new footwear and a motive to show-up the Olympic Club, O'Callaghan entered the 1920 Dipsea, his first competitive race in five years on U.S. soil. According to Barry Spitz's book, Dipsea The Greatest Race, O'Callaghan ran the 1920 Dipsea with a five-minute handicap. He proceeded to win the trail race with the second fastest time – one that would have captured the best time prize in all but four of the previous 15 Dipseas.

It was a prideful moment for O'Callaghan. He had the championship trophy and reason to gloat, yet he didn't show it off. In fact, he lost track of it.

Pam said O'Callaghan's 1920 Dipsea winner's trophy wound up being buried amongst other items in a storage area near the bedroom of her grandfather's brother, Charlie. A merchant marine, Uncle Charlie stored gifts and trinkets such as elephant tusks and China dolls he collected around the world.

"There were crazy things to play with. It was like a wonderland. A treasure trove," Pam says. "Once I spied the dusty trophy I knew it was something special. My grandfather's name was engraved across it and I tried to ask him questions about it, but he responded `Oh, it's just some old thing.' I asked if I could have it and he said `of course' and that was that."

Pam, then attending Capuchino High School in Millbrae, took the trophy to Shreve & Company in San Francisco to have it re-plated and repaired with money she earned as a babysitter. One of its arms was falling off.

"They treated it like a newborn baby and told me how special it was," Pam says.

When she returned with a trophy that looked brand new, her grandfather said Pam could keep it. She was curious as to why he would not want it back. She knew he was a great cook and a kind and generous man who was revered by family and friends, but she never knew he was a Dipsea champion. She wasn't alone.

"He was always so modest and would never talk about his own accomplishments. He taught himself to play the piano by ear, learned to speak German while in the army and was a war hero, but I knew I would never get much of a story out of him," Pam says. "He wasn't boastful. He read the Bible every day. He was so indulgent. He was so sweet. He was always every energetic. My grandmother Alice thought he should stop running because it was bad for his heart."

O'Callaghan died in his 70s of colon cancer. Pam lost her wonderful grandfather, but embraced his trophy as a treasured keepsake.

"I was a cheerleader in high school at the time in 1974 when I found the trophy. There wasn't much for us to do to encourage our athletes, but bake cookies and sit in the bleachers," Pam recalls. "As luck would have it, the coaches asked us to come out to support the runners and the cross country team. I started to ask the coaches if they had heard of the Dipsea race. One actually was a cross country runner herself and knew all about the Dipsea race and was very excited about my grandfather's Trophy and him winning the 1920 race. After hearing her enthusiasm, I started doing my own research at the library."

Pam did more research in Marin. When she moved to Mill Valley and met her husband, Rick Hirsch, she visited the Dipsea trail for the first time.

"I walked it and it's hard," Pam says. "I had to see it, but it's treacherous. It's gorgeous, but not for the meek."

Her grandfather's 1920 Dipsea winner's trophy became a prized possession, her last link to his life and legacy. It sat in clear view on the mantel in the living room with a photo of O'Callaghan next to it.

However, late in 2018, Pam and Rick were in the process of selling their house in San Anselmo. They started packing their belongings in anticipation of moving to a new house.

Somehow, someway the trophy got lost. They fretted for weeks that someone may have taken it during an open house.

"We thought it was stolen," Rick said. "We thought for sure we had put it in a locked cabinet."

In the meantime, Pam took ill. She had to be hospitalized. It inspired Rick to keep looking for the trophy which had not been seen in almost three months. One day Rick asked his sister, Susan, to meet him at their mother's house in Santa Rosa. He had stored some of their belongings from the open house there in the attic.

They finally came upon a discovery. The 1920 Dipsea winner's trophy was found.

"There were literally 30 boxes up there and at the bottom, in the 30th box, my sister opened it up and said `Is this it?' " Rick recalls. "I went to the hospital and showed it to Pam and she just cried."

It's still the coolest thing ever.