12 Sep 1913 1
Oakville, Alabama, 2
31 Mar 1980 2
Tucson AZ 2

Related Pages


Personal Details

Full Name:
James Cleveland Owens 2
Full Name:
Jesse Owens 1
12 Sep 1913 1
Oakville, Alabama, 2
Male 2
31 Mar 1980 2
Tucson AZ 2
Cause: Lung Cancer 2
Mar 1980 1
Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago. IL 2
Last Residence: Phoenix, AZ 1
Social Security:
Card Issued: Arizona 1
Social Security Number: ***-**-8043 1

Looking for more information about Jesse Owens?

Search through millions of records to find out more.


Jesse Owens Dies of Cancer at 66; Hero of the 1936 Berlin Olympics

Jesse Owens, whose four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin made him perhaps the greatest and most famous athlete in track and field history, died of lung cancer yesterday in Tucson, Ariz. He was 66 years old.

In Berlin, Mr. Owens, who was black, scored a triumph that would come to be regarded as not only athletic but also political. Adolf Hitler had intended the Berlin Games to be a showcase for the Nazi doctrine of Aryan supremacy.

A member of what the Nazis mockingly called America's "black auxiliaries," Mr. Owens achieved a feat unmatched in modern times in Olympic track competition. The year before, with a wrenched back so painful that he could not dress or undress without help, he broke five world records and equaled a sixth, all within 45 minutes.

But the Jesse Owens best remembered by many Americans was a public speaker with the ringing, inspirational delivery of an evangelist. Later in his life, he traveled 200,000 miles a year making two or three speeches a week, mostly to sales meetings and conventions, and primarily to white audiences. With his own public relations and marketing concern, he earned more than $100,000 a year.

Mr. Owens, a pack-a-day cigarette smoker for 35 years, had been hospitalized on and off since last Dec. 12. Doctors said the cancer was inoperable, and since January he had received radiation and chemotherapy treatment at hospitals in Phoenix and Tucson.

He re-entered the University of Arizona Health Sciences Center in Tucson a week ago. He lapsed into a coma Saturday night and died at 3:40 A.M., Tucson time, yesterday without having regained consciousness. His wife, Ruth, and other family members were at his bedside.

No Response to Drugs

Dr. Stephen E. Jones of the university hospital, who headed the medical team treating Mr. Owens, said his patient had remained "remarkably optimistic and hopeful that he was going to survive." However, Dr. Jones said, there was no positive response to experimental drugs tried on Mr. Owens.

The White House issued a statement yesterday in which President Carter said, "Perhaps no athlete better symbolized the human struggle against tyranny, poverty and racial bigotry."

In Vienna, Simon Wiesenthal, who has spent years tracking former Nazis, proposed that an avenue leading to the Olympic Stadium, now in West Berlin, be renamed for Mr. Owens. Mr. Wiesenthal said that when he made similar suggestions in the past, he was told that streets could not be named for living persons.

In Phoenix, which had become his hometown, Mr. Owens's body will lie in state tomorrow in the Capitol Rotunda. His burial will be in Chicago, but details were still pending late yesterday.

Father Was a Sharecropper

James Cleveland Owens was born Sept. 12, 1913, in Danville, Ala., the son of a sharecropper and the grandson of slaves. The youngster picked cotton until he and his family moved to Cleveland when he was 9. There a schoolteacher asked the youth his name.

"J.C." he replied.

She thought he had said "Jesse," and he had a new name.

He ran his first race at age 13. He became a nationally known sprinter at East Technical High School in Cleveland, slim and lithe at 163 pounds. He ran with fluid grace. There were no starting blocks then; sprinters merely dug holes at the starting line in tracks of cinder or dirt.

After high school, he went to Ohio State University, paying his way as a $100-a-month night elevator operator because he had no athletic scholarship. As a sophomore, in his first Big Ten championships, he achieved a harvest of records even greater than the Olympic glory he would attain a year later.

A week before the Big Ten meet, which was held in Ann Arbor, Mich., Mr. Owens and a fraternity brother were wrestling playfully when they tumbled down a flight of stairs. Mr. Owens's back hurt so much that he could not work out all week. Coach Larry Snyder and teammates had to help him in and out of the car that drove him to the track for the meet.

There, in a vain attempt to lessen the back pain, he sat for half an hour in a hot tub. He did not warm up or even stretch. At the last minute, he rejected suggestions that he withdraw from the meet and said he would try, event by event.

He tried, and the results are in the record book. On May 25, 1935, from 3:15 to 4 P.M., Jesse Owens successively equaled the world record for the 100-yard dash (9.4 seconds), broke the world record for the broad jump, now called the long jump, with his only attempt (26 feet 8 1/4 inches, which remained the record for 25 years), broke the world record for the 220-yard dash (20.3 seconds, which also bettered the record for 200 meters) and broke the world record for the 220-yard low hurdles (22.6 seconds, which also bettered the record for the 200-meter low hurdles).

Kenneth L. (Tug) Wilson, the Big Ten commissioner, watched in awe and said: "He is a floating wonder, just like he had wings."

The next year, with the Italians occupying Ethiopia, the Japanese in Manchuria, the Germans moving into the Rhineland and a civil war starting in Spain, the Olympic Games were held in Berlin. Despite pleas that the United States boycott the Olympics to protest Nazi racial policies, American officials voted to participate.

10 Blacks on Team

The United States Olympic track team, of 66 athletes, included 10 blacks. The Nazis derided the Americans for relying on what the Nazis called an inferior race, but of the 11 individual gold medals in track won by the American men, six were won by blacks.

The hero was Mr. Owens. He won the 100-meter dash in 10.3 seconds, the 200-meter dash in 20.7 seconds and the broad jump at 26 feet 5 1/2 inches, and he led off for the United States team that won the 400-meter relay in 39.8 seconds.

His individual performances broke two Olympic records and, except for an excessive following wind, would have broken the third. The relay team broke the world record. His 100-meter and 200-meter times would have won Olympic medals through 1964, his broad- jump performance through 1968.

Actually, Mr. Owens had not been scheduled to run in the relay. Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller were, but American Olympic officials, led by Avery Brundage, wanted to avoid offending the Nazis. They replaced Mr. Glickman and Mr. Stoller, both Jews, with Mr. Owens and Ralph Metcalfe, both blacks.

Hitler did not congratulate any of the American black winners, a subject to which Mr,. Owens addressed himself for the rest of his life.

"It was all right with me," he said years later, "I didn't go to Berlin to shake hands with him, anyway. All I know is that I'm here now, and Hitler isn't.

"When I came back, after all those stories about Hitler and his snub, I came back to my native country, and I couldn't ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door. I couldn't live where I wanted. Now what's the difference?"

Having returned from Berlin, he received no telephone call from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was not asked to visit the White House. Official recognition from his own country did not come until 1976, when President Gerald R. Ford presented him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Three years later, President Carter gave him the Living Legends Award.

Nor were there any lucrative contracts for an Olympic hero after the 1936 Games. Mr. Owens became a playground janitor because he could not find a better job. He ended his career as an amateur runner and accepted money to race against cars, trucks, motorcycles, horses and dogs. He toured with the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team.

"Sure, it bothered me," he said later. "But at least it was an honest living. I had to eat."

In time, the four gold medals changed his life.

"They have kept me alive over the years," he once said. "Time has stood still for me. That golden moment dies hard."

He became a disk jockey, then ran his public relations and marketing concern, first in Chicago and then in Phoenix.

Celebrated as a Speaker

He also became celebrated as a speaker, using about five basic speeches with interchangeable parts. Each speech praised the virtues of patriotism, clean living and fair play. His delivery was old-fashioned spellbinding, a far cry from the days when he stuttered. Even in casual conversations, he spoke in sweeping tones.

"When he enters a room," wrote Jon Hendershott in Track and Field News, "he doesn't so much take it over as envelop it."

William Oscar Johnson, writing in Sports Illustrated, described him as "a kind of all-round super combination of 19th-century spellbinder and 20th-century plastic p.r. man, full-time banquet guest, eternal glad-hander, evangelistic small-talker. . .what you might call a professional good example."

Not everyone agreed. During the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, when Mr. Owens attempted to mediate with militant American black athletes on behalf of the United States Olympic Committee, critics called him "Uncle Tom." He wrote a 1970 book, "Blackthink," decrying racial militancy, and a 1972 book, "I Have Changed," saying the ideas in his first book were wrong.

In his later years, Mr. Owens walked two miles every morning and swam and lifted weights at the Phoenix Y.M.C.A. He weighed 180 pounds.

"I don't jog," he said, "because I can't run flat-footed. And at 60 years old you're crazy to be out there running."

An Owens Sampler

On American black athletes who question the value of their gold medals: Any black who strives to achieve in this country should think in terms of not only himself but also how he can reach down and grab another black child and pull him to the top of the mountain where he is. This is what a gold medal does to you.

On dignity: Regardless of his color, a man who becomes a recognized athlete has to learn to walk 10 feet tall. But he must have his dignity off the athletic field.

On material rewards: Material reward is not all there is. How many meals can a man eat? How many cars can he drive? In how many beds can he sleep? All of life's wonders are not reflected in material wealth.

On the value of sport: We all have dreams. But in order to make dreams into reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline and effort. These things apply to everyday life. You learn not only the sport but things like respect of others, ethics in life, how you are going to live, how you treat your fellow man, how you live with your fellow man.

On the moment before Olympic competition: You think about the number of years you have worked to the point where you are able to stand on that day to represent your nation. It's a nervous, a terrible feeling. You feel, as you stand there, as if your legs can't carry the weight of your body. Your stomach isn't there, and your mouth is dry, and your hands are wet with perspiration. And you begin to think in terms of all those years that you have worked. In my particular case, the 100 meters, as you look down the field 109 yards 2 feet away, and recognizing that after eight years of hard work that this is the point that I had reached and that all was going to be over in 10 seconds. Those are great moments in the lives of individuals.


Ralph Metcalfe, Sam Stoller, Jesse Owens possibly at 1936 Olympic Trials



FORTY— FIVE years ago today, Jesse Owens won his fourth gold medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games when he led off the victorious 400-meter relay team that included Ralph Metcalfe, Foy Draper and Frank Wykoff. It was a race Jesse Owens was not supposed to run.

Forty-five years ago today, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, both Jewish, lost their chance to win an Olympic gold medal when they were told in a meeting before the qualifying heat of the 400-meter relay that they could not run. The meeting was called by the United States Olympic track coach, Lawson Robertson, and his assistant, Dean Cromwell, who was also head track coach at the University of Southern California. All six sprinters involved attended the meeting.

Much has been said about what transpired during that prerace meeting. The most dramatic story was that the president of the United States Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, along with Robertson and Cromwell, had bowed to pressure from Nazi officials to remove the Jewish runners so as not to embarrass Adolph Hitler's regime.

For many years, stories circulated that the Nazi minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, had appealed to the American officials not to enter a relay team that consisted of two black and two Jewish runners. The fact that Brundage later became associated with the America First Committee, a group that many believed was sympathetic to Hitler and the Nazi regime, only added strength to the reports.

Glickman vividly remembers the Berlin meeting. Over the last decade while filming ''The Olympiad'' television series, I also interviewed Owens, Metcalfe and Wykoff for their recollections of the circumstances.

''We were told,'' says Glickman, ''that the first three finishers in the 100-meter final tryout at Randalls Island in July 1936 would run the 100 meters in Berlin. We were also told that the runners who finished fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh in the 100-meter final tryout would make up the 400-meter relay team in Berlin.''

Owens, Metcalfe and Wykoff confirmed that this was their understanding, too. ''Owens, Metcalfe and Wykoff finished 1, 2, 3 in the final Olympic tryout,'' recalls Glickman. ''Foy Draper was fourth, I was fifth, Sam Stoller sixth and Mack Robinson, Jackie's brother, was seventh.''

Glickman maintains that only he, Stoller and Draper were certain to run on the relay team because they were not competing in the individual events.

Owens should have been the last of the seven considered. He would have to run four races in the 100 meters, four in the 200 meters, and do extensive jumping to qualify in the long jump. In order to reach their finals, Metcalfe and Wykoff would each run four races in the 100 and Mack Robinson would have to run four in the 200. Owens, Metcalfe, Wykoff and Robinson made it to the finals in their events.

Metcalfe died in 1978. In his interview with me, he said: ''Marty Glickman is right: You'll recall that in the 1932 Olympics, when Eddie Tolan, George Simpson and I each qualified for both the 100 meters and 200 meters, the coaches reasoned that it would be better to have four fresh sprinters run the relay who would have the benefit of practicing their baton passes while we were running the individual races. Neither Tolan, Simpson or I were even mentioned about running in the relay in 1932.''

Glickman, Stoller and Draper appeared certain to run the relay. It was assumed that Wykoff would be the fourth runner even though he was competing in the 100 meters. Wykoff was on the previous United States Olympic 400-meter relay teams that won gold medals in Amsterdam in 1928 and in Los Angeles in 1932.

This belief was confirmed by an Associated Press dispatch in The New York Times on Aug. 5, three days before the qualifying heats of the 400-meter relay.

On Saturday morning, Aug. 8, a few hours before the qualifying trials of the 400-meter relay, the pre-race meeting was held. ''Lawson Robertson announced that because of the rumors that the Germans were hiding their best sprinters in preparation for the relay, Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe would replace Sam Stoller and me on the relay team,'' recalls Glickman. ''We were shocked. I remember saying, 'This is ridiculous, how is it possible to hide world-class sprinters?' ''

Before he died last year, Owens told me that he felt terrible for his friends Glickman and Stoller. Glickman confirms Owens's recollections of the meeting.

''Jesse was magnificent,'' says Glickman. ''He said, 'I've had enough. I won three gold medals. Let Sammy and Marty run.' '' Glickman remembers that Robertson and particularly Cromwell were adamant. ''Cromwell would not accept Jesse's offer,'' says Glickman. Glickman and Metcalfe have different versions of Metcalfe's participation in the meeting.

''Metcalfe was fairly quiet,'' says Glickman. ''He had two silver medals in the 100 meters in both Los Angeles and Berlin. Apparently he was hoping for a shot at a gold medal.''

However, Metcalfe reacted angrily when recalling his reaction to the 1936 meeting. ''I thought at the time it was terrible,'' he said. ''It was unjust to leave two athletes off the team just because they were Jewish.''

Wykoff, who died in 1980, said: ''We hadn't worked with Jesse or Ralph at all. I think that if Glickman and Stoller had run, we would have had just as fast a time, if not faster.''

''The decision to keep the only two Jewish athletes on the United States team out of the competition was made by American Nazis,'' Glickman says, ''Both Avery Brundage and Dean Cromwell were members and supporters of the America First Committee who were sympathetic to the Nazis.''

I spent five years researching the 1936 Games for my film, ''Jesse Owens Returns to Berlin.'' The United States came close to boycotting the Berlin Games because of Hitler's Nuremberg laws, which deprived German Jews of their citizenship and protection under the laws of the Third Reich. The anti-Olympic feeling forced Brundage to make a pre-Olympic visit to Germany. His conclusions decided the matter. He reported that Germany had fulfilled all the obligations required under the Olympic charter. So sensitive were the Nazis to the protests from the United States that they bent over backwards to quiet stories of Jewish persecution in the months preceding and during the Games. Several Jewish athletes competed for Germany in the 1936 Olympics.

The real culprits in the Glickman-Stoller affair appear to be Robertson and Cromwell, in deciding to eliminate the two qualified Jewish runners, and then, in giving the shameful explanation that their decision was made to protect an American victory against a mythical superteam of German sprinters.

Glickman, who was an 18-year-old freshman at Syracuse University in 1936, later gained national fame as a sportscaster. He'll never forget Aug. 9, 1936.

''I remember watching the 400-meter Berlin final,'' Glickman says, ''and I still have a feeling of frustration and sadness that I was not out there, was not running. Something I had pointed to all my young life. When they mounted the victory stand and they played the National Anthem, I thought, I ought to be out there, I should be out there ... and I wasn't ...'' --------------------------------------------------------------------- Bud Greenspan won an Emmy Award for ''The Olympiad'' television series. His production, ''The Heisman Trophy,'' will be shown in December. 

Jesse Owens on a 1971 UAE stamp

Jesse Owens poses with Henry Dawkins, Ross Miller, Ken Carpenter, Mack Robinson and Ulis Williams, 1970s

About this Memorial Page