Spring in Columbus has meant wind, clouds and rain for much of 2011, but it was impossible to find a cloud in the sky Thursday afternoon at Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium on the Ohio State campus.
If it seemed as though the weather was ordered up from above, that may very well have been the case.
Beautiful sunshine splashed the hundreds of people who gathered at the venue to see the unveiling of a new statue of the stadium’s namesake, the Ohio State legend known for the world over for his Olympic exploits.
Seventy-five years after winning four gold medals in Berlin, Germany, Owens is being honored by the university this weekend for his accomplishments. A diversity lecture, a gala dinner and the annual track meet in his name are all part of it, but the most tangible remembrance was unveiled to applause Thursday afternoon outside the entrance of the 10,000-seat stadium used by OSU’s track, soccer and lacrosse teams.
“It’s a beautiful statue,” said Owens’ oldest daughter, Gloria Owens Hemphill. “There are two statues that I would say are very good. One is at the Jesse Owens Park in Alabama and this one. There are others but I like them. They seem to have the warmth to them.”
Ohio State director of athletics Gene Smith moderated the event, at which he was joined by president Dr. E. Gordon Gee. Numerous high-ranking officials from Ohio State – which commissioned the celebration for $250,000, all of which was donated – and the department of athletics were present as well as Buckeye legend Archie Griffin, current student-athletes, track letter winners, community leaders and representatives of Owens’ fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha.
But there’s little doubting the stars of the show were Owens’ three daughters – Hemphill,
Marlene Owens Rankin and Beverly Owens Prather, all of whom flew in from Chicago for the occasion.
“It was such a good feeling to think that after all this time that Daddy is so well thought of and appreciated,” Prather said. “Ohio State was a home to him. I think once you come to Ohio State and become an Ohio State person, it becomes part of you. It’s just really such a great day. It’s kind of hard to talk about. The words are hard to find, but it’s wonderful.”
The statue joins the stadium and a monument outside of Ohio Stadium as pieces of the OSU campus that honor Owens. The idea for the new statue came from the OSU administration, and a committee headed by senior vice president for business and finance and CFO Geoffrey Chatas went to work.
The major donation for the project came from the David E. Reese Family Foundation.
“He’s probably the greatest alumnus that has ever graduated from this school,” Reese said while addressing the crowd, which was bursting at the seams at the southwest plaza outside the stadium. “It really brings me to tears to tell you how thrilled we are to be here to watch the uncovering of this magnificent man’s statue.”
Owens’ likeness is holding his four gold medals from his Olympic performance, earned in the 100-meter sprint, the long jump, the 200 meters and on the 4x100 relay squad. The performance has been deemed historic by many for the fact that it came in Adolf Hitler’s Germany just as the Nazi dictator was spreading a message of hate and fear throughout Europe.
“It was not easy for my dad to meet adversity with courage in 1936 at the Olympics in Berlin, but he did and was successful in bringing honor to his country which he loved so much,” Hemphill told the crowd. “It was not easy to achieve fame with humility, but again, he did it. He showed extraordinary love for his family and friends. He has inspired countless others all over the world to do the best in spite of obstacles.”
Known as “The Buckeye Bullet,” Owens also helped put Ohio State on the map. Most famously, he set world records in long jump, 220-yard sprint and the 220-yard low hurdles and tied the world mark in the 100-yard sprint in less than an hour at the 1935 Big Ten championships at Ferry Field in Ann Arbor.
Owens went on to win the seven collegiate national titles in outdoor track, winning the 100- and 220-yard dashes and the 220-yard low hurdles in 1935 and ‘36 and capturing the long jump in 1935.
“Jesse Owens by any stretch was an uncommon man who represented Ohio State with grace,” Gee told the crowd. “You need only look at what he did, the dignity with which he did it and the presence that in so many ways transcended sports. The world, of course, knew him as an Olympian and he was that in so many ways, but we knew him as ‘The Buckeye Bullet.’
“There has been no student-athlete before or since who has had such an indelible impact. This university is better because of his presence, this university is better because of the presence of his family and this university is much better because of the fact that he was ours – that we can celebrate and support him.”
Rankin, his middle daughter, said the family was surprised by the overwhelming amount of support.
“(We couldn’t have seen it coming) and I don’t think he would have either,” she said. “I think he would just be so humbled by all that has been done for him or in his name. You don’t ever think that something like this would happen.”
For more on the celebration, visit http://www.osu.edu/jesseowens/
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