“Our only hope is that those who frequent Jesse Owens Park will look beyond the cleats and see the man who, in spite of untold humiliating experiences, dedicated his life to the furtherance of the well-being of all mankind.” - Tucson resident H. A. Ryan, a letter to the Arizona Daily Star, April 6, 1980
We will be having a ribbon cutting for the improvements at Jesse Owens Park on August 25 at 10 am. The improvements include $2 million in work on the irrigation system, the parking lot, covered playgrounds, better bleachers and ball fields and resurfaced basketball courts. The project was funded by a collaborative effort of Tucson Water, Tohono O’Odham Nation, Cox Cable as well as private donors.
The park was renamed after Jesse Owens shortly after his death here in Tucson in 1980. Many of us know the story of his life, but it is always worth a retelling.
James Cleveland Owens was born in Alabama in 1913. After his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, a teacher misunderstood when he gave his initials “JC,” and called him Jesse. The name stuck.
He made his first impact in athletics as a junior high student, establishing national records in both the high and broad jump. He continued to set records in high school. It got him the attention of many college athletic programs. He chose Ohio State, even though they could not offer him a scholarship. He made money for his young family by pumping gas, waiting tables, operating an elevator and working as a page in the Ohio state house.
He set collegiate records at Ohio State, but it wasn’t there where we remember his athletic prowess. He was chosen for the 1936 Olympic team, but there was a great deal of controversy that year. Those were Hitler’s Olympics after all. A movement grew among athletes to boycott the games so as not to promote the Nazi regime. In the end, Owens and the Americans went.
Hitler wanted the games to showcase the superiority of the Aryan people. Owens put an end to that by first winning the 100-yard dash. He went on to win four gold medals, a feat that took a half century to repeat. The fact that not only an American, but an African American born into poverty, could best Germany’s best, according to Albert Speer, “highly annoyed” Hitler.
He got a ticker-tape parade when he returned to the United States, but not all doors were open to him. He did not get an invitation to the White House or even a congratulatory telegram, a fact he brought up on the campaign trail in 1936 when he was campaigning for FDR’s opponent, Alf Landon.
After the accolades faded, things were difficult for Owens. He could prove Hitler wrong, but he came back to his own country where Jim Crow ruled. Even though he got the first shoe endorsement for an African American athlete, other opportunities were scarce. He got involved with minor league baseball and gimmicky races to make extra cash. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that he found steady work as a US goodwill ambassador and spokesman for Ford Motor Company.
He was still one of the most famous African American athletes in the country, so he was sought out for opinions for decades. In 1968, when Tommy Smith and John Carlos protested with the Black Power salute, Owens, still a conservative, was critical. However, only four years later, he wrote a book called I Have Changed where he said:
“I realized now that militancy in the best sense of the word was the only answer where the black man was concerned, that any black man who wasn't a militant in 1970 was either blind or a coward.”
He was nearly sixty by that point, and still fighting.
He passed away only eight years later after a short battle with an aggressive form of lung cancer. He passed away here in Tucson. When the council met only a week later, Councilmember Chuck Ford introduced an ordinance renaming Pantano Park in honor of Owens and paying for some improvements. The resolution said that Owen’s “athletic accomplishment distinguished him in the eyes of the world...his dedication and tireless commitment to individual freedom and the equality of all men stand as equal testament to his character.” Ruth, Jesse’s widow, was at the council meeting where the renaming was voted on.
Ruth was also on hand that November when the park was rededicated in Owens’ honor. The ceremony included a choir of 250 students from nearby Steele Elementary.
Once again, this year's ceremony will be on August 25 at 10 am. We'll be having it at the playground on the western edge of the park. There will be refreshments and possibly some other special guests. I want all of you to be there.
I’m proud to be part of a new start for this park and I hope it can be a worthy tribute to the life of one of the greatest people of the last century.
I got news late this week that John Prunty passed away. Prunty wasn't just active on the board of his Desert Palms neighborhood, but he personally worked on maintaining the entrance. He was a friend to my office as well as his neighbors. Our sincere condolences to Nancy.