Herb Douglas, Olympic Medalist Inspired by Jesse Owens, Dies at 101
Herb Douglas, an Olympic medalist who was inspired as a youth by Jesse Owens, emulated him as a track and field star and then honored his memory by creating an international sports award in Owens’s name, died on Saturday in Pittsburgh. He was 101 and the oldest living U.S. Olympic medalist.
The University of Pittsburgh announced his death, at an extended care facility. Douglas was a graduate of the university and had served on its board of trustees.
Douglas was 14 when he met Owens in September 1936, soon after Owens won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics, shattering, as a Black man, Hitler’s hopes of using the Games as a showcase for Aryan supremacy. Owens was speaking at a school in Pittsburgh, where Douglas lived. Douglas’s mother, Ilessa May France Douglas, had taken him to the event.
“When Jesse was leaving the auditorium,” Douglas recalled, “I was standing near the door. I told him that I ran track in junior high school, did 21 feet 8 inches in the long jump, ran 100 yards in 10.4 and high-jumped 6 feet. He told me that was better than he did at my age, and ‘keep up the good work.’”
Douglas did. At the next Summer Games, in London in 1948 — the 1940 and 1944 Olympics were canceled because of World War II — he won the bronze medal in the broad jump, now known as the long jump, clearing 24 feet 9 inches. (Willie Steele, another American, won with 25 feet 8 inches.)
When Douglas’s career as a sales manager and executive in the beer and liquor industries began, he often traveled through Chicago, where Owens lived, and would telephone Owens.
“We talked every week for 20 years until he died in 1980,” Douglas said. “I felt I should do something to memorialize his career. I always tried to imitate him. He was a giving man.”
In 1980, Douglas founded the International Amateur Athletic Association, which until 2001 staged an annual black-tie dinner to benefit the Jesse Owens Foundation and the United States Olympic Committee. Douglas was the association’s first president and later president emeritus.
Each year, the association presented its showpiece, the Jesse Owens International Trophy Award, for athletic excellence and humanitarianism. The winners have included the long jumper Carl Lewis, the hurdler Edwin Moses, the sprinters Michael Johnson and Florence Griffith Joyner, the middle-distance runner Mary Decker Slaney, the diver Greg Louganis and the speedskater Eric Heiden — all gold medal-winning Olympians except for Decker Slaney.
In 1993, Douglas added a Jesse Owens Global Award for Peace, presented every two years to a world leader with a sports background. Among the winners were Nelson Mandela; Kofi Annan, the former secretary general of the United Nations; Juan Antonio Samaranch, the former head of the International Olympic Committee; and the cable television pioneer Ted Turner.
The awards and dinners continued into the early 2000s, and Douglas was proud of their contribution to racial understanding. At the ceremony in 1995, Douglas recalled, “Jesse used to say, ‘We all came here on different boats, but if we all don’t row together, America will sink.’ I’m going to do all I can to keep it afloat.”
Herbert Paul Douglas Jr. was born on March 9, 1922, in Pittsburgh and was raised there. His father ran an automobile repair business. Herb Jr. graduated from Taylor Allderdice High School in Pittsburgh and attended Xavier University of Louisiana before transferring to the University of Pittsburgh on a scholarship as a football halfback. He and Jimmy Joe Robinson were the team’s first African American players.
“I don’t mean to be immodest,” Douglas once said, “but no one could cover me when I went out for a pass. The only problem was we didn’t have a quarterback to get me the ball.”
Douglas, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physical education in 1948, described college as an onerous place for Black athletes at the time.
“We were harassed on campus,” he said. “We were definitely called derogatory names by players on opposing teams. I played one year for Clark Shaughnessy. The next year, Wes Fesler was the coach. He told me to forget football. He said I had a future in track, so I stuck with track.”
He earned a master’s degree in education from the university in 1950.
He is survived by his wife, Minerva (Brice) Douglas; his daughter, Barbara Ralston; four grandchildren; and several great-grandchildren. His son, Herbert P. Douglas III, died last year.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Douglas worked in marketing as a salesman and executive for the Pabst Brewing Company. He then joined Schieffelin & Company, later Schieffelin & Somerset Company, which imported wine, Champagne and brandy. When he retired in 1987, he was vice president for urban market development. He remained as a consultant until 1993.
In his later years, he also served as executive producer of “The Renaissance Period of the African American in Sports,” a 2014 documentary film about the Black athletes at the 1936 Olympics.
When Douglas won his Olympic medal, the first by a Pittsburgh native, he gave it to his mother. Almost daily, she took it from its place on her living-room wall and wore it, hoping people would ask about it. They did.
When she died in 1996, he placed the medal in her coffin.
Frank Litsky, a longtime sportswriter for The Times, died in 2018. Alex Traub contributed reporting.