When I was the television critic for the Hollywood Reporter, invitations to appear on panels and speak at colleges and universities poured in. In 1977 I was invited to be on the judging panel for the Mrs. America Pageant in Las Vegas at the Hilton Grand Hotel. There were eight of us VIP’s and we were all honored guests of Barron Hilton. I spent a week in a luxurious suite with the hardly rigorous daily task of judging competitions such as Talent, Personality, Bathing Costumes, Evening Gowns, etc.
Among my illustrious co-panelists was the great Olympic athlete Jesse Owens. We often sat together during the judgings and soon became great friends. This was the very week that the miniseries ROOTS was being broadcast each night on ABC and after dinner everyone hastened off to their suites to watch. I had already reviewed the first four hours of this magnificent show and praised producer David L. Wolper for bringing this important history to life.
However, I found that I could no longer watch the rest due to the ongoing brutality. I mentioned this to Jesse and he shook his head.
Its important that people know just how brutal slavery was, he told me.
But what will it do to young people? I asked. Young black people will be horrified to learn what slavery was really like.
It’s the truth, and they need to know, he said simply.
As the week progressed we became even closer (his wife Ruth was there so don’t misunderstand what I mean by closer, okay). I learned that he now spent his time traveling throughout the country talking to young people about their lives and using himself as an example of how anyone could rise above impossible odds.
At the 1936 Olympics in Germany, Jesse won four gold medals: 100m sprint; 200m sprint; 4x100 sprint relay, and his record breaking long jump. The racist dictator Adolph Hitler claimed that the Aryan race were superior and legend has it that Jesse’s triumph so enraged him he walked out before the awards ceremony.
Since even now Jesse seemed too slender and graceful to have once had an athletic past, I asked him to explain how he became an athlete. He told me the story of what set him on the path to greatness. It also explained how encouraging youngsters became the mission of his life.
When I was nine my family moved from Alabama to live in Cleveland, Ohio. I was a skinny kid and had no interest in joining in sports since I considered myself small and weak. Then one day an Italian man who had won the marathon at the Olympics came by to speak to our school. I looked at him in amazement. He was a tiny little man, hardly what one imagined a runner to be.
As the other students left I went up to him and said, “You ran 26 miles and won the race?” “Si,” he said, beaming at me. “But how could you have,” I blurted out, “You have such short legs.” He winked at me and said, “You don’t run with your legs - you run with your mind” and he tapped his temple and grinned. The next day I decided I could certainly run with my mind and that’s when I started running.
When we parted Jesse and Ruth said if ever I was in Phoenix to call and come and visit them as they lived nearby. One of my major regrets in my life is I never did get to Phoenix before he died in 1980.