1918 ~ 2019
Honolulu resident Gladys Ottelia “Glady” Burrill ~ Beloved Friend, Mother, Grandmother, Great-grandmother, and the oldest woman in recorded history to complete a marathon ~ passed away on November 7, 2019. She was two weeks shy of her 101st birthday.
Glady’s miraculous life over the past 100 years mirrored a century of progress across the United States – ups and downs, wars and triumphs, and through it all, an unshakeable resolve. Glady was a survivor, and her story was the American story.
Her life began as a first-generation Swedish-Finnish immigrant, entering the world on November 23, 1918 as the first child in her family born on American soil. Growing up, Glady endured polio, two world wars, the Great Depression, and crushing poverty.
With her late husband Gene, Glady rose out of poverty and played a critical role in building one of Southern Oregon’s most prominent timber businesses of the 20th century. The Eugene F. Burrill Lumber Co. in White City, OR proudly employed hundreds of people in the Rogue Valley for decades, with Glady and Gene settling down in nearby Prospect to raise their family.
Through their business success, Glady and Gene became philanthropists in Southern Oregon, supporting Rogue Valley Medical Center, Mercy Flights, and Glady’s cherished Medford Seventh Day Adventist Church. Each year, Glady and Gene proudly endowed scholarships for graduates of Prospect High School, the school their children once attended.
Glady wore many hats. She was an avid hiker and camper, a prolific gardener, a licensed multi-engine pilot, a world traveler, a faithful Christian, a devotee to her Swedish and Finnish heritage, a mother of six, grandmother of 18, and great-grandmother of 34 and counting. For the past three decades she carried with her the memory of her youngest son, Kevin, who tragically passed away from cancer in 1985.
In her final act, Glady survived one last time – transforming into one of the most inspirational athletes in modern times as a marathon runner here in Honolulu, where she resided from 2009 until her death.
Starting in 2004 at the age of 86, Glady put her body into peak physical shape and trained with the annual goal of completing the Honolulu Marathon. She would finish those 26.2 miles, no matter how long it took. From 2004 to 2010, Glady finished the marathon five out of seven times, and in 2010, at age 92, she earned the record of Oldest Female to Complete a Marathon from the Guinness Book of World Records. Her record stands to this day.
Glady’s record and athletic success – an unimaginable feat for most people at any age – quickly earned her international press and attention. Besides official commendation from the Governor and legislature, Glady – now known to most as the “Gladyator” – became a symbol of inspiration for countless aspiring marathon runners. Athletes visiting from countries across the world sought her counsel and wisdom, and oftentimes a selfie too.
Glady the Gladyator became a ceremonial leader for the Honolulu Marathon, greeting finishers every year, giving encouragement at the Sunday Marathon Clinic, and high-fiving practicing runners headed up Diamond Head every week. Her words had a common theme of positivity and drawing upon her own Christian faith and spirituality. As a runner, she felt closer to God when pushing her body to its physical limit. She encouraged everyone, no matter their abilities, to exercise and let a greater spirituality in to their lives. Whether it was for God, nature, or some other force, she valued connectivity and community above all else.
Glady radiated happiness, good cheer, and immense love to anyone who would listen. While she spent the first 90 years of her life building a family, in Honolulu she loved her chosen family, a collection of runners, friends, and fellow churchgoers at the Honolulu Japanese SDA Church who shared her passions. Even in her final days, she adamantly told anyone who would listen that she would be at the marathon this year with her best friend George McCarthy to cheer on the 2019 participants.
Glady Burrill was a shining light on this world – someone we neither deserved or probably fully appreciated while she was with us. From her earliest traumas growing up with polio and in poverty, from building an enormous four-generation family of adoring offspring, from standing by her husband as they built a successful business, and from pushing her body beyond what humans believed possible, Glady did more than survive. She thrived, and shared her positivity, compassion, and love as far and wide as possible.
The little Scandinavian girl with polio lived for a century and became a world record holder. Through nearly 101 years, she saw wars start and end and Presidents come and go. Glady buried her husband, her son and daughter, and multiple grandchildren – and through it all, she came out the other side full of positivity, hope, and resilience. Glady Burrill was, and is, our hero. She was the Gladyator. And her legacy will never be forgotten.
Glady is survived by her children: Celeste Sweat (Prospect, OR), Michael Sr. (Central Point, OR), Sandra Knudson (Medford, OR), and Gina (Coupeville, WA); 18 grandchildren; and 34 great-grandchildren with more to come. She was preceded in death by her husband Gene, daughter Helen Ashley, son Kevin, son-in-law Leonard Knudson, granddaughters Tami Walling and Carly Houser, and great-granddaughter Maddy Baird. Her families – in Hawaii, Oregon, and across the country – will carry on her memory.