Thursday, September 12, 2013

One Hundred Years Ago Today . . . and my small connection to it.

Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany

Before there was Mark Spitz or Michael Phelps, there was Jesse Owens, the enormously talented American runner.  Mr. Owens ran to immortality by taking four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany.  He won in the 100 meter and 200 meter sprints as well as in the long jump.  He also won gold as one of the runners in the 4 x 100 meter relay.  To give just a small idea of how dominant a runner he was, he tied the world record in the 100-yard sprint in 1933 as a high school student!

But Jesse Owens also earned a place in history in 1936 by proving that individual performance and not race or national origin is what counts in sports -- and by extension in everyday life when not hampered by virulent discrimination and blind hatred.  Much to the chagrin of Adolph Hitler and his devotees, as shown below Mr. Owens rose to the summit of the victory stand four times -- including for the two premier running events.  He did so in stark, undeniable disproof of the Nazi racial superiority claims AND he did so for all the world to see!

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of James Cleveland "Jesse" Owens.  He was born September 12, 1913 in Oakville, Alabama.  He was the youngest of ten children and when he was nine years old his family moved north to Cleveland, Ohio as part of the Great Migration of 1.5 million African Americans out of the segregated South.  At the time, he was known in his family as "J.C." for the initials of his first and middle names, and so when asked by his teacher in Ohio to state his name for entry into the attendance book he said "J.C. Owens" and she mistakenly wrote down "Jesse Owens" due to her misunderstanding of his heavy southern pronunciation. Owens later attended Ohio State University and became known as the "Buckeye Bullet."  Shockingly for a runner, Mr. Owens became a pack-a-day smoker after his running career and died in Tucson, Arizona on March 31, 1980 from lung cancer.  He is buried in Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago.

In 1969, I was in the Boy Scouts and attended the 1969 Boy Scouts of America National Jamboree held at Farragut State Park outside Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.  I was a member of a temporary  expeditionary Troop formed from registered Scouts in Burlington County, NJ.  I was also what was called a "hometown correspondent" and sent periodic reports to the local newspaper about our trip by bus across the country to the National Jamboree -- so I had a "press pass" at the Jamboree and had access to VIP visitor events at the Jamboree.  Among the VIP visitors was Lady Baden-Powell, wife of the late founder of Scouting, and Jesse Owens.  As a cross country and track runner in high school I was almost beside myself with the opportunity to meet and shake hands with Mr. Owens.  Not only did I shake hands with him, I got his autograph on a page in my notebook!  [I think the other signature is from a Scouting VIP whose name I forget and whose last name I cannot make out.  I have wished many times that I had the foresight to make sure Jesse Owens's autograph was on its own page without any other signatures.]

Autograph of Jesse Owens obtained at the
1969 Boy Scouts of America National Jamboree

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Photograph of Jesse Owens running is in the public domain because its copyright has expired and its author/creator is anonymous.

Photograph of Jesse Owens on the victory stand used under the Creative Common Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license.  The photo is attributed to Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-G00630/CC-BY-SA.,_Sommerolympiade,_Siegerehrung_Weitsprung.jpg

Scanned image of the original autograph of Jesse Owens in the collection of the author.

For more detailed information about Jesse Owens and his life, go to the Wikipedia entry here 
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Copyright 2013, John D. Tew
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  1. I'd shake your hand which touched Jesse Owens', John! A wonderful athlete at a very important time in history. And no drugs to 'enhance' his incredible talent. Thanks for sharing this experience!

  2. Hereby sending you a virtual hand shake Celia! :-) Thank you for your comment. Meeting Jesse Owens, shaking his hand and getting his autograph was definitely a highlight of my Boy Scout years, my running days and my youth.