It was the Spring of 1980. I was living and working in Tucson as sports director at the CBS affiliate, KOLD-TV. I learned that one of history’s greatest athletes was being treated for a terminal illness at the University of Arizona Medical Center.
The news staggered me. I’ve always been a track buff and an amateur Olympic historian. There was no American athlete for whom I had more respect and even reverence. When I was a very young child, my former sprint champion father taught me to revere his name and legacy.
That Jesse Owens. The American hero who debunked Hitler’s myth of Aryan Supremacy by winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, right under Der Fuhrer’s nose. Jesse Owens. The American hero who was snubbed by the White House when he returned from The Games.
Jesse Owens, who won a total of eight NCAA track and field championships at Ohio State, but was never awarded a scholarship. Jesse Owens, who had to eat at black-only restaurants and sleep in black-only hotels, apart from his Buckeye teammates.
Jesse Owens, who on May 25, 1935, achieved perhaps the greatest feat in track and field history, setting four world records in a span of 45 minutes.
Also Jesse Owens, who after facing down Hitler was forsaken by his fellow Americans. Four-time Olympic champion Jesse Owens, who returned home only to have to fight to scratch out a living as a gas station attendant, a playground janitor, a dry cleaner and a barnstormer. Jesse Owens raced against horses at county fairs because, as he said, “I can’t eat four gold medals.” Jesse Owens, who never surrendered his dignity.
And now Jesse Owens, who was dying of lung cancer in a Tucson hospital.
I did not labor over my decision. I contacted the hospital, expressed my admiration for Mr. Owens, and requested an extensive television interview. I was of course preparing for, and expecting, my request to be denied. But a day later I got a call from the hospital. “Mr. Owens said yes.”
Mr. and Mrs. Owens were staying in a well-appointed suite at the hospital. His cancer was untreatable. He had been a pack-a-day smoker for 35 years. He was very well aware that he had only a short time remaining.
I was 25. And very nervous, as was the photographer with whom I was working. We were greeted at the door to the suite by Mrs. Minnie Ruth Owens, Mr. Owens’ wife of 45 years. Mrs. Owens was a striking woman with a warm and gracious manner. She led us to a living room in the suite. Mr. Owens rose from his seat to greet us. He was impeccably dressed in a well-pressed shirt, a tasteful tie, a snappy sport coat, sharply creased slacks and mirror-shined shoes. His smile was easy and welcoming. He already knew my name without introduction. His first question to me and my photographer? “Can I get you gentlemen something?”
I was pretty close to tears. I’m pretty close to tears now simply recounting this moment. Jesse Owens, dying of cancer, just asked two young television shlubs if he could get us something, a question he repeated regularly throughout the five hours—five hours–we spoke. Concerned for his health, stamina and comfort, I three times tried to cut the interview short. But Mr. Owens wanted to talk. So we talked.
He spoke of his undying love for his country. But he was candid about the disappointment and even humiliation he had faced. Bitter? No. But honest. I kept watching his body language. At 67, nearing death, his every movement still screamed “athlete.” He seemed genuinely disappointed when we wrapped up the interview. He and Mrs. Owens repeatedly told us how much they enjoyed meeting us.
Yeah. Let that sink in.
It was the last media interview of Mr. Owens’ life.
Two weeks later, on March 31, 1980, he was gone. “Elegant” is not a word I often use. But along with Apollo astronaut Jim Lovell, Mr. Owens remains the most elegant man I ever met.
It was my privilege.