Jesse Owens and Me
“Race” is a new movie about the heroics of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. I’m pleased to see this, as Jesse Owens is an American hero that has never been given the respect and attention he deserves, both as an athlete and as a human being.
One of the finest events of my life is the weekend I met him.
Imagine Mr. Owens in 1936. He is representing the United States at the Olympics in Berlin. Adolph Hitler has bragged that these Olympics will “prove” the superiority of the “Aryan” race. Ironically, Hitler was not a member of this race, a fact which seems to have been brushed aside at the time.
You are racing in a stadium full of people who hate you, representing a country that often exhibits the worst that racism has to offer. Imagine how people look at you, and the sea of hatred in which you are asked to perform at your very best. How do you respond? Four gold medals! His performance at the 1936 Olympics is one of the most astonishing feats in all sports history.
When I was in junior high I was asked to attend a “leadership conference” for teens. I have no idea which member or members of the Deephaven Junior High faculty thought this was a good idea. I had been the president of the 7th grade class, a member of the student council, and started on both offense and defense for the football team, but other than that I was a loud-mouthed smart aleck whose academic performance rarely matched his seeming potential.
That last part drove my parents and a counselor to distraction, as I always scored in the top 1% on standardized tests. There were reasons for that I did not dare explain at the time. For one, both of my older brothers were straight A students, and I saw a lot of evidence at home of what that involved. They did homework after school, and then after dinner. A lot of it.
I was more interested in playing hockey on the lake in front of our house, or any other sport the seasons brought in Minnesota. I could usually earn a solid B while not intruding on my many other interests. Secondly, the standardized tests at that time were all multiple choice, and I enjoyed the mental challenge of figuring out what the writer of the test had in mind. I guessed the correct answer a lot of the time by eliminating all the answers that were probably incorrect.
I was in 8th or 9th grade at the time, and found myself on a bus on the way to St. Cloud with a bunch of other kids, almost all of them in the upper years of high school. Very few of the attendees were mere junior high students.
I have three enduring memories of the conference, which I will describe in ascending order of importance.
There was a girl I fell totally in love with. I liked how she looked, and was so impressed with how she presented her ideas. I liked how she fixed her hair, how she waved her hands when she spoke, how she tilted her head, the whole deal. Of course, I never spoke to her.
At the conference we were put up in homes of local residents. I shared a room with a young man who appeared to be to be a god. He was a senior, and a football player. I had never known that football players at that level shaved their ankles, so the tape they applied before games would not stick. I had played football for a few years and had never heard of that. He was also about 6’ 3’ in height and weighed about 220 pounds. And good looking. I was intimidated to be sharing quarters with him, and so relieved that he was genuinely friendly and kind toward me.
On the Friday night many of the older kids went “out on the town” to some degree, while little nerdlings like me went back to our rooms and went to bed. My hero crept in at about 2am. He reset all the clocks in the room so they read 9am, and then shook me awake. He looked alarmed, and urged me to get dressed because we had overslept and were about to be late for the conference sessions, to say nothing of breakfast. I leapt out of bed and threw my clothes on in a panic. When I was all set to go, he collapsed in hysterical laughter and explained his trick. I have always hated practical jokes, but on this occasion I was not resentful at all. The fact that a person of his social standing would even bother to play a trick on me was a great compliment. He was a great guy, and I hope he went on to a long and happy life.
Remember that Boys Club TV ad that ran for years? A school bus is rolling along somewhere, full of teens. It stops at a random place and onto the bus strides – Denzel Washington. I loved that ad, because I pretty much lived it, except it was Jesse Owens. The school bus carrying us to the conference stopped somewhere, and into our midst he stepped. Jesse Owens! I knew who it was immediately, as did everyone else on the bus. Nevertheless, he took the time to stop at each seat and introduce himself.
“Hi, I’m Jesse Owens.” Each person would tell him their name, and he would chat for a moment or two and move on. Most of the students, like me, had never met a truly famous person. In addition, there were not that many black people in Minnesota in those days. I knew one black student.
He ended up sitting in the seat next to mine, and chatted with my amiably about all sorts of things. I cannot remember anything he said, but what I do remember was that he seemed so utterly normal. There was no ego, no pretentiousness, and he was interested in anything anyone had to say. He was also, quite obviously, a very kind man.
He was the keynote speaker at the conference, and of course I cannot remember a single word of his speech. But I’ve always remembered that it is possible to achieve incredible feats on the world stage and still retain humility and humanity.
An incredible man.
Copyright 2016 David Preston