The Olympic Stadium here was built during a three-year period from 1934 to 1936. Adolf Hitler wanted a showcase facility for hosting the 1936 Summer Games, which went on to be remembered by most historians for the performance of U.S. track and field performer Jesse Owens.
The black sprinter’s four gold medals were part of an in-your-face performance to the racist Führer, whose armies would soon be running roughshod over Europe.
Engraved in a stone wall at the stadium are the names of the gold medalists. You scan the wall and your eyes focus on the name of the men’s 110-meter hurdles champion: Forrest Towns. It is a time for pause and reflection. You bow in memory of your friend and former coach and recall his influence on your life.
Born in Fitzgerald, Ga., Forrest “Spec” Towns grew up in Augusta and enrolled at the University of Georgia under the unlikeliest of circumstances. An Augusta sports writer, Tom Wall, saw his neighbor’s son leaping over a pole that rested on top of the heads of Spec’s father and uncles — which meant that the teenaged Towns was clearing a height of at least 6 feet.
Wall wrote a story for the Augusta Chronicle that found its way to Georgia track and field coach Weems Baskin, who recruited Towns to Athens and made a high hurdler out of him.
The freckled Towns became the best in the world.
After setting a world record of 14.1 seconds in the 110 hurdles in a qualifying heat at the 1936 Olympics, Towns won gold with a time of 14.2. A few days later in Oslo, he ran the 120-yard high hurdles in the sensational time of 13.7, a record that stood for 14 years.
In Towns’ time, there were no scholarships for track, so he was required to play football and earned letters in that sport in both 1936 and 1937 while playing for the colorful Harry Mehre. The Bulldogs football coach sent a funny telegram to his lanky end in Norway after his record-setting performance: “Minor sports are over, football practice has begun. Time to come home.”
With his speed and agility, the rugged Towns was particularly expert at covering kicks and became an accomplished football player.
After returning to campus, Spec, an advocate of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program, went on to earn a degree in education and then settled in as a football assistant and head track and field coach at Georgia. But it wouldn’t be long before he returned to Europe as an officer in the U.S. Army, which was trying to win a war against the German dictator who used the Olympic Games for propaganda purposes while persecuting minorities and committing atrocities elsewhere.
Towns had been accompanied at the Olympics by Georgia athletic director Herman Stegeman and his wife, Dorothea. They brought home a gift from Hitler, who gave each gold medal winner an oak seedling from Germany’s Black Forest.
For years, the oak and a bench commemorating Towns’ Olympic victory stood behind the north stands of Sanford Stadium.
When the stadium was expanded in 1967, the bench and the tree were moved south on the Georgia campus to Stegeman Coliseum.
The tree died, but I have a small slab of the original oak, which I treasure. William Tate, formerly the school’s dean of men, got a replacement tree later, but it died, too. We must get another one.
I grew up with Towns’ legend and tried out for the track and field team when I enrolled at Georgia. My experience in the program left me with warm and treasured memories. Towns was a crusty, bombastic personality, but underneath there was humor, generosity and loyalty — especially if you could earn points for him in a meet.
The days he ran me until my innards were desperate for relief were justified by the scholarship he gave me. My education was unalterably linked to compatibility with Towns’ practice routine.
His boys gather for a reunion every spring. They remember him with deep affection, which cannot always be said of old coaches.
Standing here in the warm sunshine of an afternoon similar to what Towns knew on Aug. 6, 1936, I am struck with the notion of the beauty of amateur sport, a fleeting enterprise.
A Georgia boy who happened to have been modestly born of tall, angular parents who influenced his hurdler’s build was the beneficiary of the greatest tradeoff in the history of this country — a free education for participating in sports — and became world famous for his extraordinary performance.
He became a world champion. A humbling rush washed over me as I looked across the stadium.
There was a lump in my throat, followed by moist eyes and a finish-line heartbeat as I savored the memories.
Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.