The amazing thing about the life of famed Olympian Jesse Owens is that it was all amazing. Against all odds, he accomplished outstanding track-and-field feats and led a life of challenges that required much resilience and flexibility.
Owens is the subject of this month’s Uniquely Cleveland — his family moved to Cleveland when he was 9 and he spent his formative years here. He died in Tucson, Arizona, in 1980.
Besides the culture shock from relocating from the segregated Deep South where he had seen few, if any, white people, young Owens had to deal with a new name. When Owens, whose given name was James Cleveland Owens, enrolled in school, a teacher misunderstood his Southern drawl “J.C.” as Jesse. The name stuck.
Perhaps the new name gave Owens an unconscious boost to transform into a world-class athlete. But chances are it is only part of the fabric that includes resiliency and flexibility. Owens was involved in a number of business ventures and had various occupations after his Olympic career. He even had to take part in “athletic showcases” such as racing against horses or racing against local runners with a 10-yard head start. While he did not graduate from The Ohio State University and racism limited his opportunities, Owens made a decent living through his entertainment pursuits and positions with companies ranging from Ford Motor Co. to Mutual of Omaha to Sears Roebuck.
Over the years, he became a symbol of American freedom and social mobility. He was a living example that a black American could find success in the land of opportunity.
His entire life could be seen as a calm center in a world of chaos. It is said great leaders exhibit great calm. Owens went to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin expecting to find a hostile atmosphere toward him. But it was the opposite. Germany cheered for him and honored him.
Ironically, Owens didn’t qualify for the 1932 Olympics because a case of nerves prevented him from doing his best. By 1936, he had found a calm center, went into competition without fear and triumphed.
Pretty amazing, isn’t it?