Jesse Owens will always be remembered for that one incredible week in Berlin when he made a mockery of Adolph Hitler's "master race" theory, but perhaps an even greater legacy is the way he used his fame in later years to help steer thousands of youngsters down the right path.
"This is the big thing in my life now -- working with kids and trying to guide them," the hero of the 1936 Olympics told me just last year in his final visit to Boston. "The only thing you can do is say what you feel and hope to have enough charisma that some lives are going to be affected.
Owens, who passed on Monday, certainly had that charisma, as he demonstrated traveling around the country for many years giving hundreds of speeches annually. The words may have been the standard platitudes about hard work, perserverance, honesty, etc., but Jesse's simple eloquence and obvious sincerity gave them an impact far beyond their literal meanings. He could move any audience, of any age group, to the height of emotion -- and of course it didn't hurt his cause with today's hard-to-reach young people that he stood there himself as the personification of the very virtues he was preaching.
As a youngster, Owens had it at least as tough as most of those he later counseled. Born Sept. 9, 1913, in Danville, Ala., he spent his earliest years helping his sharecropper father, four brothers, and four sisters pick cotton. When he was nine the family moved to Cleveland, which was an improvement, but it was still no easy lot for a black youngster growing up during the Depression era of the 1920s and early 1930s.
Young Jesse's rapidly emerging brilliance in track and field propelled him into the headlines even in junior high school, however, and after a record-breaking collegiate career at Ohio State he climaxed it all with that fabulous Olympic performance -- winning both sprints and the broad jump, then earning a fourth gold medal as leadoff man on the victorious US 400-meter relay team. He got no recognition, however, from Hitler, who developed a habit of being absent from his box at times when he might otherwise have been expected to congratulate Jesse for his triumphs.
I first met Owens in 1972 -- once in Boston where he was promoting one of the many youth track and field meets he ran annually throughout the country, then again in Munich where he was an official guest at the first Olympics held in Germany since those infamous 1936 Games. Naturally I asked him about his recollections.
"Frankly, I didn't know too much about what was going on at the time," he told me. "I was concentrating on the guys I was running against, not on people sitting in the stands. You know as much about the incidents as I do. I saw Hitler every day. I didn't come there to shake hands with him.
"The people in the press box always get a much better overall view of what's going on than the competitors. What they saw is what they wrote about."
Was the part about Hitler snubbing him blown out of proportion, then, as some later historians have suggested?
"No, I don't think it was out of proportion," he said. "I think it probably all happened as reported. It certainly seems consistent with his policies and theories. He left the stadium on occasions when I was competing, for what reasons I don't know. Because I was winning, destroying his myth, or whatever."
Owens was famous in track and field circles even before 1936. In 1933 he set a national schoolboy 100-yard dash record of 9.4 seconds which stood for two decades. And in 1935 in one incredible burst at the Big Ten Championships he set three world records (in the 200 meters, the 220 yard low hurdles, and the broad jump) and tied another (in the 100) in a space of 45 minutes. But it was Berlin that made him a household name -- and he was the first to realize that his athletic feats were only part of the reason.
"We were very fortunate from the standpoint of competing," he said to me, "but of course it was the place and the time in history that gave the moment its special significance. Here was a man who affected the lives of the entire world. I was over there competing in his own backyard. He was on the rise, preaching his doctrines, and we just happened to make his doctrines not come true -- because I'm sure not blond and blue-eyed!"
After the Olympics Owens tried to exploit his fame, but those times were a far cry from today with its million-dollar TV and advertising opportunities for Olympic heroes, and many of his early ventures failed to pan out.
"That was a time when the blacks of America had a tough time economically and recognition-wise," he explained. "The opportunities just weren't there. America was just beginning to awaken to the realization that God made us all, and if a man has ability, the color of his skin doesn't matter. It took a long while to learn this, and of course we still have pockets of resistance, but we've come a long way since the 1930s and 1940s."
Eventually Owens found his niche, though, building his own public relations firm into a successful business and directing most of his other available time into community service, especially youth work. His pet project over the last several years was an annual competition called the Jesse Owens Games, consisting of track and field meets for boys and girls between the ages of nine and 15, starting on a regional basis and culminating in a national championship. He felt very strongly about the positive effects of such competitions in bringing people together -- from youth meets like this all the way up to the Olympics.
"When you see thousands of young people together -- eating, dancing, singing, practicing together, then competing against each other," he said of the Olympic atmosphere, "you know it just has to eventually bring a new kind of understanding of other people and other nations' folkways. This is a wonderful thing, because these young people are the greatest commodity the world has."
Despite this feeling, Owens issued a statement earlier this year supporting President Carter in his decision that the United States should not go to Moscow this summer.
"As a member and backer of the Olympic Committee and advocate of the Olympic movement, I am first, last, and always an American," Owens said. "If the president feels that for political reasons we should not go, I'll back the president 100 percent. I regret that it has to be that way, and hope the political situation will cool down."
My own fondest memory of Jesse is from that appearance in Boston a few months earlier. Since speaking with him in 1972 I had occasion to talk with his Olympic teammate Mack Robinson, who had finished second by four-tenths of a second in the 200 meter race. Robinson reminisced about how his shoes were not right, how he was supposed to have gotten a new pair, and how he was sure the result would have been different if only someone hadn't made a mistake and failed to get them to him. So just to see what Jesse would say, I mentioned this to him.
The winner of all that Olympic gold could easily have pooh-poohed the whole thing, as indeed a lot of athletes would have. But Jesse wasn't about to take himself that seriously.
"Well, I'm glad he didn't get those shoes then," he said with a smile.