Herb Douglas: an ageless force

At 92, Olympian from Hazelwood still proselytizing for greatness

Nothing about Herb Douglas feels 92 as he walks the halls of the University of Pittsburgh on a recent May morning. He is on campus to meet with Steve Pederson, the school's athletic director, who welcomes him into his office like an old pal.

Mr. Douglas couldn't have met with a key decision-maker like Mr. Pederson when he was a star athlete at Pitt in the 1940s. He certainly wouldn't have owned this snazzy gray blazer and shiny watch back then. He gets a kick out of how far he has come -- how the son of a blind man in segregated Hazelwood came to be a trusted friend of so many influential people.

Mr. Douglas discusses his latest project as sunlight sprays the room. Ideas always seem to grow once they're in his hands, and this one hits particularly close to home. It started with his childhood idol, Jesse Owens, and the concern he and Mr. Pederson shared over the realization that many people knew little or nothing of Mr. Owens' legacy. "I said to Herb, 'We can't let that drift away,' " Mr. Pederson says.

Herb Douglas recalls being medalist at 1948 Olympics

Herb Douglas, 92, a Hazlewood native and former track star at the University of Pittsburgh, reflects on his career, which included a medal-winning performance at the 1948 Olympics. (Video by Nate Guidry; 7/13/2014)

Mr. Owens and the other heroes of the 1936 Berlin Olympics were the men who inspired a teenage Herb Douglas. He and Mr. Pederson talked about making a short film.

"Herb never does anything at 30 miles an hour," Mr. Pederson says. "We only go 150 miles an hour. Next thing I know ... ."

Mr. Douglas was assembling a team that could help them get the job done. "The Renaissance Period of the African American in Sports" is 22 minutes of history that Mr. Douglas hopes will engage viewers in colleges and universities across the country starting this fall. It premiered May 15 at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center in New York City. (Pitt and Moet Hennessy, where Mr. Douglas worked for many years, sponsored the film.)

Mr. Pederson says the legacy doesn't stop with the men in the film. He rattles off the facts about his friend: Herbert Douglas Jr., bronze medalist in the long jump in the 1948 London Olympics, the oldest living black Olympic medalist, the third African-American to rise to the level of vice president of a national company, a man whose influence has brought him into contact with everyone from heads of state like Nelson Mandela and George H.W. Bush to famous entertainers like Nat King Cole.

"Herb is always putting somebody else out front as the star, but he can't fight it anymore," he says. "Because everybody wants to say 'Thank you' to him."

"Do I have a good PR guy?" Mr. Douglas says with a laugh. "I've got the best, I'm telling you!"

"If you want to see something great," Mr. Pederson says, "go to YouTube and type in 'Herb Douglas dances on his 90th birthday.' "

It was a night to remember. Mr. Douglas had been collecting friends for decades, and he wouldn't invest in just anybody. They had to be driven like him, people who would not be content with mediocrity. And here they all were, about 200 strong, filling up a room in the Heinz History Center.

When Stevie Wonder's "Happy Birthday" began to play, he put on his glasses and walked to the stage. He swayed, up there all by himself in a black suit, gyrating his hips, taking in the clapping and the laughter, a human antidote to the fear of aging. After three minutes, he motioned for his friends to join him. So there were Pittsburgh football dignitaries Franco Harris and Tony Dorsett, Olympic gold medalists Edwin Moses and Roger Kingdom, and others, giving it a go, too. Mr. Moses even did the moonwalk. Of course, Mr. Douglas was the last man dancing.

Despite all the love, there was something missing. Only one member of his blood family attended. His daughter was in Europe, where she had lived for 50 years, and his son was in Florida. They don't talk very often. "My public life has been real good," he says, back in Mr. Pederson's office. "My private life ... ."

There is no easy way of explaining it, how he has influenced countless others but rarely his own children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

"I would say this," Mr. Pederson says. "He's got the biggest family in the world. Because everybody in this department considers him family. We've all learned so much from him. We've all been the beneficiaries."

A family splintered

On Aug. 4, 1927, the day Mr. Douglas' younger sister was born, his father got in the car in front of their Hazelwood Avenue home to drive to meet his baby girl, Barbara. Herb Sr. had a massive stroke that day, leading to the loss of his sight. He knew what 5-year-old Herb Jr. looked like, but he'd never glimpse his daughter.

Herb Sr. was not himself for about a year. He thought about ending it all. He had been a man with such a keen eye for opportunity, making connections as a chauffeur for one of Pittsburgh's political families, the Lawrences. They pointed him in the direction of owning his own parking garage in Shadyside. Herb Jr. watched all of it -- his father getting a guide dog that helped him back to an active life one step at a time; his mother, Ilessa, running a tight house and keeping even tighter books at the garage; the family living well during an era when African-Americans faced so many restrictions. And as the years went by, Herb Sr. developed a motto he'd pass along to his son: If he did these four things -- Analyze! Organize! Initiate a plan! Follow through! -- then nobody could stop him.

Herb Jr. had family role models, but not many in the world at large. At around 9 years old, he had started running track. He was awfully fast, but where was he going? He needed someone to show him.

In 1936, Jesse Owens stared down Adolph Hitler and the Nazis by winning four gold medals; he left the Berlin Olympics with German crowds chanting his name. After Mr. Owens returned, he came to Pittsburgh to campaign for a politician. Herb's mother took her 14-year-old son to see him. Herb's mind was really churning. The Olympics: a plan. But now he had to follow through.

After graduating from Allderdice High School, he got a scholarship to run at Xavier University of Louisiana, a historically black institution. After a year, though, the United States had joined in World War II, and that meant Herb Sr. didn't have enough young men around to help him at the garage. Herb Jr. came home, working dawn to dusk each day while continuing his training at an armory at night. After a few years, Pitt offered him a spot on the football and track and field teams. As one of the best young athletes in the world, he would eventually earn a scholarship.

Soon, he would board a ship headed for the 1948 London Olympics. It was happening just as he'd seen it. He took bronze in the long jump with a mark of 24 feet, 9 inches. But, once he was back home with that medal around his neck, it was odd: His parents did not celebrate him. A seed was planted, that greatness was expected from him, and he would pass that mentality along to his own children.

He now had a daughter, Joy, and a son, Herb III. Their mother and he didn't get along, and she had run away to Montgomery, Ala., to find another husband. In 1950, he got a sales job with the Pabst Brewing Co., marketing its products across the segregated South. While working and traveling the "Chitlin' Circuit" of black-only hotels, venues and clubs, he'd see his children when he could, and during the summers he'd take them on trips to Pittsburgh and Florida.

"I would expose them to everybody, Nat King Cole, Sugar Ray Robinson," Mr. Douglas says. "That would only make their mother jealous. They'd go back and tell her what a great time they had."

Joy would remember the fun times, sure. She would also remember how her father wouldn't just let them enjoy swimming. They had to swim with perfect form. He'd make them race against each other, too. "We were sort of like the Kennedy family," Joy says. "We had to win. But this is the American culture."

Mr. Douglas wouldn't tolerate his kids not achieving as he did. He felt they needed that Douglas vision, but as they grew older, he knew he was losing them.

"He's just not a very warm person," Joy says.

Mr. Douglas had moved up the corporate chain, being hired at Schieffelin & Co. (now Moet Hennessy USA), where he'd later rise to vice president, showing that a black man could make it in America if he just knew how to mine for the proper solutions to his problems. But the first chance his daughter got to live on her own, after graduating from college, she left for Europe and never came back.

"I was raised to believe I was worth something as a person," Joy says. "I didn't want my children growing up with this racial problem."

Says Mr. Douglas: "She's more accepted over there than she was here. I did the best I could. They weren't with me. They were in Alabama."

Picking his team

Mr. Douglas knew what he had to offer future generations, and he also had the ability to see where he was needed.

In 1976, before the Montreal Olympics, he met a talented young sprinter named Edwin Moses at a training camp. Mr. Moses, who attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, was becoming bitter because the city's newspaper would not write about his exploits. Mr. Douglas fixed that.

"He intervened on my behalf," Mr. Moses says. "He made it all happen."

Everybody would pay attention to him after he won the Olympic gold in the 400-meter hurdles in Montreal and eight years later in Los Angeles. Mr. Moses lost his father in '83, and by that point, Mr. Douglas was so close to Mr. Moses that he could step right in. He encouraged Mr. Moses to go to medical school, but when he didn't choose that path, Mr. Douglas brought him onto the staff that put on the annual Jesse Owens International Athlete Trophy award banquet that he had started in the early '80s to honor his friend.

It was about that time that Mr. Douglas was called back to Pitt to talk with football and track athlete Roger Kingdom, who was struggling with the transition to college life.

"He didn't even talk about athletics at all," Mr. Kingdom says. "His major focus was on me as a person, me getting my degree from the University of Pittsburgh, and what I planned on doing with that degree. He followed my career. He tracked me. If he hadn't heard from me, he would call me. He had that sixth sense just like a parent to know that something was going on."

Mr. Kingdom would win Olympic gold in the 110-meter hurdles in Los Angeles in 1984 and Seoul four years later. That was great, sure, but Mr. Douglas was always thinking a few moves ahead. "When he talks to you about being successful, he doesn't talk to you about just getting a regular job," Mr. Kingdom says. "He talks about you getting a job making six or seven figures and gives you a blueprint on how to do that."

The blueprint was simple, what it had always been: Analyze! Organize! Initiate a plan! Follow through!

So in the mid-1990s, Mr. Douglas tried to get a meeting with Mark Nordenberg, the new chancellor at Pitt. Mr. Nordenberg didn't know much about him, but he took the meeting.

They went to lunch, and Mr. Douglas, who now lived in Philadelphia, was offering him a chance to be a part of his newly formed Jesse Owens Global Award for Peace, which honored those who had a transcendent impact on the world beyond athletics. He got Mr. Nordenberg's support.

"He is a visionary," Mr. Nordenberg says. "What you learn when you become involved with people who have not only been highly successful in competitive athletics but who have broken barriers along the way is that they keep breaking barriers, and they find ways to make life even richer and more fulfilling."

Within a few years, Mr. Mandela would win the award. Because the South African president could not clear his schedule to travel to New York to accept the award, Mr. Douglas planned a trip to Johannesburg in 1999 and invited Mr. Nordenberg to go with him. They met Mr. Mandela at his house.

Mr. Douglas never stopped adding to his network. He met Mr. Harris about five years ago at an event at the Heinz History Center, and now they talk frequently. Mr. Harris has enjoyed learning about Mr. Douglas' journey out of Hazelwood to the international stage.

"That's a great Pittsburgh story," he says. "With Herb, you really don't think about age. It just doesn't really fit into the conversation. I'm in awe in so many ways with that. But once again, we still have to be realistic. We know that he is more the exception rather than the rule, but at least it gives you hope to say, 'Hey, maybe I can be the exception also.'"

Mr. Douglas swims at least a few times a week. He has been known to drive from Philadelphia to New York and Pittsburgh. He uses an iPad. He is easy to reach by cell phone or email. In all things, he still moves with grace and ease, and maybe it shouldn't come as a surprise. His mother lived to 96, his father to 91.

His friends always think back to that 90th birthday party, the way he danced and persuaded others to join him.

"He's a very quiet and powerful force," Mr. Moses says. "If he had to put an army together, he'd have a great army. People will follow him."

Still striving

On that May morning at Pitt, Mr. Douglas wants to show you something. He takes an escalator down at the Petersen Events Center, to Pitt's McCarl Hall of Champions. There used to be a large picture of him jumping at the Olympics. He looks through the glass, and he can't find it.

"They've taken it down, I think," he says.

He's visibly disappointed. At his age, every token of appreciation matters. He still has the large mural painted on the brick wall on Hazelwood Avenue by Second Avenue, and the Heinz History Center has created a place for him.

As for his legacy, he says it now lies in the hands of younger men like Messrs. Moses, Kingdom, Pederson, Nordenberg and Harris.

He is proud of Joy, too. She worked in the United Nations for decades in Denmark and Austria. From afar, she sees her father still striving in the corporate world, and, while conflicted, she believes it comes from a genuine spot in his heart. His strained relationship with her and her brother was a sacrifice he chose to make.

"That's what it is," he says. "If they would have been with me, I wouldn't have been energetic enough to really do these things that I've done, and this is the path that God has prescribed me."

J. Brady McCollough: bmccollough@post-gazette.com and Twitter @BradyMcCollough.

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