Dr. Leslie J. Judd

Father of American Exhibitional Gymnastics

Born in 1888, in Victory, Australia, Leslie Judd developed an early love for all sports, including track and field, swimming, and diving, doing well in all of them.  But gymnastics was the sport that would come to dominate his life.

In his teenage years, he also became fascinated with the art of Indian Club swinging.  Through self training, he was able to become quite proficient with the clubs.

At the age of 17, he entered the 1908 National Club Swinging Championship of Australia, and won first place with a final score of 97 out of 100 points for his routine.  Judd also began to share his talents, teaching other kids.  An early indication of his teaching abilities is that in the 1909 Club Swinging Championship, he only managed to win second place.  But that was because first place went to a student that Judd had personally trained.

Befriending some Americans who came to visit Australia, Judd first learned about Springfield College in Massachusetts.  With his love of sport, Judd developed a desire to attend Springfield, which had a strong physical education program.  Finally in 1913, Judd came to America.  Although he originally planned to stay in the United States only long enough to earn his degree, it would actually be three decades before Judd returned to his homeland for a visit.  

On reaching America, he took up instructorship at a YMCA in Brooklyn, New York, to raise money until in 1915, he finally achieved his goal of enrolling at Springfield College.  He joined the school's gymnastic team in 1916, and, because of his natural leadership abilities and popularity, he was voted captain of the team by his teammates in 1917, his junior year.

But his student career was interrupted by World War I. Volunteering his services to his native country, he went on to serve in YMCA facilities, under the jurisdiction of the Australian military, in England and in France, as an honorary Second Lieutenant.  His job was to set up activities for the wounded.  He became proficient at putting together shows, along with other soldiers, to entertain his fellow countrymen.  Gymnastics was, of course, a part the repertoire.

It was during one of these shows, in October 1918, that Judd suffered an accident that almost took his life.  While he was performing a high bar routine, his hands slipped from the bar because the performers in a previous clowning act had accidentally left grease on it.  Dropping twelve feet to the floor, Judd sustained a fracture and dislocation between the fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae in his neck, an injury that was generally considered to be fatal in those days. 

Special attention from Sir Alfred Gould, the private physician of King Edward VIII of England, as well as the personal ministrations of Muriel Norman, the woman who would one day be his wife, were invaluable to Judd during this crisis.  But perhaps most importantly of all, through his own will power and a self-imposed regimen of exercises for different muscle groups, done even while he was still in a cast, Judd was able to recover.  In fact, he was able to return to his duties, in a limited capacity, by December of the same year. 

In late 1919, Judd was discharged from military service after which he returned to Springfield College and, despite the experience of his injury, to the gymnastic team, once again being elected captain by his teammates.  In June of 1920, he graduated from Springfield and was appointed to the faculty.  In addition to his teaching responsibilities, he took on the position of coaching the Springfield gymnastic team in 1921.

Under his leadership, the team began to deviate from the rigid discipline of gymnastics skills and routines, to put more exhibitional types of activities into their performances, including dance, Indian Club Swinging, pyramids, comedy, and hand balancing.  The popularity of the team grew to the point that in 1925, it was putting on performances throughout the country, and even in Mexico.  During that year's travels, the team members had the honor of meeting President Plutarco Calles of Mexico and President Calvin Coolidge of the United States. 

Judd was famous among his students for his humor and calm manner as exemplified by an incident which occurred after the team had performed in Canada and was trying to return to the United States.  The incident was reported in the Springfield Union, on March 28, 1939.

"The team was stopped before crossing the International Bridge and the process of identification was begun.  The official in charge seemed to doubt the identifications offered and seemed doubtful that the students were the gymnasts they claimed to be.  Almost entirely surrounded by large trunks and all sorts of other baggage, Coach Judd offered to prove their gymnastic ability, and with his team did a handstand on the benches there.  The official was finally completely satisfied and allowed the team to come back into the United States."

In addition to becoming known as the father of American Exhibitional Gymnastics, Judd is credited with the creation of the art form of Living Statuary.  It is believed that his team first performed the act in 1934.

With the advent of World War II, Judd once again provided service, this time to the United States, by setting up a physical training program for the Army Air Corp Unit at Springfield College.

After the war, he continued to coach the gymnastic team.  In 1953 he was scheduled to retire, but since an adequate replacement could not be found, he continued to coach until April of 1955. 

In honor of his long service to Springfield College, on November 20, 1953, the West Gymnasium was officially renamed the Leslie J. Judd Gymnasium.  And in his memory, the Springfield gymnastic team gave a performance of Living Statuary at the 1996 Olympic Gymnastic Trials.  Both are appropriate tributes to a man who seems to have served as an inspiration to every one of his students.

One of those students was Hartley D. Price who would later go on to found the original Gymkana Troupe at the University of Illinois.  In a letter to Judd biographer, Walter Ersing, Price wrote,

"Coach Les Judd has made a great contibution to the growth of gymnastics in the United States...  His philosophy of exhibitional gymnastics has had great influence upon the development of Gymkana, both at the University of Illinois and Florida State University...  His showmanship, his close attention to details, his patience, his encouragement, his fairness, and his strong character have greatly influenced my own coaching career."

 

(Acknowledgement to The Life and Work of Leslie James Judd, a thesis by Walter Fritz Ersing, 1955)