Up Next

Olympics

For Olympians Harrison Dillard and Herb Douglas, a friendship has endured since the 1940s

The oldest living gold-medal winner celebrates with oldest living African-American medalist

RICHMOND HEIGHTS, Ohio — The soulful tunes of a live band echoed throughout this suburban Cleveland neighborhood as former Olympic stars and guests gathered this past weekend to celebrate the incomparable lives of Harrison Dillard and Herb Douglas.

Edwin Moses, considered the greatest 400-meter hurdler of all time, arrived as giddy as if he had just finished another record-setting race.

“These are the role models that I’ve had throughout my life,” said Moses, who won gold medals at the 1976 and 1984 Olympics. “I’m really pleased to see them. They’ve kept me in tune to the heroes that were one or two generations before me.”

Moses attended the dual celebration: the 95th birthday of Dillard, the oldest living Olympic gold-medal winner, and the life of Douglas, 96, the oldest living African-American medal winner.

“The older we get, the more we become like brothers because there’s very few of us still around. We’re so close that it’s very seldom that either of us have missed a festivity for one of us.”

Douglas won a bronze medal for his 24-foot, 9-inch long jump at the 1948 London Olympics. Dillard won his first two gold medals at those same games in the 100-meter dash and 4×100 relay. Dillard also won gold in the 110 hurdles and the 4×100 relay at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. He’s the only man to win both sprints and high hurdles at the Olympics.

“In ’48, Harrison won in the 100 and he didn’t even compete in his best event, the hurdles,” Douglas said. “He didn’t qualify for the 110 hurdles that year, but he went on to set the world record in the 100. That’s the kind of guy Harrison was and still is today.”

Those memories included the first time Dillard and Douglas met during an indoor meet at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1942. That was the same year Douglas helped Xavier University become the first historically black college to win at the Penn Relays in Philadelphia. But the two college students (Dillard graduated from Baldwin Wallace) would not meet up again until after World War II because Dillard was drafted into the Army in 1943. Dillard was a member of the famed all-black 92nd Infantry Division, the “Buffalo Soldiers.”

“I didn’t see Herb again until 1946, and our friendship picked up again from there, and the rest is history,” Dillard said. “He’s like my brother from another mother. We’re that close.”

While Dillard was defending our country, Douglas withdrew from Xavier and moved home to Pittsburgh to help his father run his parking garage business. Douglas would later enroll at the University of Pittsburgh, where he won four NCAA titles in the long jump and one in the 100-yard dash. Douglas also became one of Pitt’s first African-American football players.

And through it all, the duo became closer.

“The older we get, the more we become like brothers because there’s very few of us still around,” Douglas said. “We’re so close that it’s very seldom that either of us have missed a festivity for one of us.”

Douglas created the Jesse Owens International Award, which honors the memory of one of America’s greatest athletes. USA Track and Field presents the award to the season’s top American male and female athletes. Owens achieved world fame and adoration by winning four gold medals (100 meters, 200 meters, long jump and 4×100) at the 1936 Berlin Games. Owens’ achievements defied Germany’s Adolf Hitler, who had hoped to use the games to promote the Nazi Party’s belief in Aryan supremacy. Hitler was humiliated.

“Harrison has never missed any of my Jesse Owens Awards,” Douglas said. “He was there every year [since the award began in 1981].”

Not even inclement weather could separate the good friends.

“One year there was a snowstorm, the fourth-worst snowstorm in the history of New York, and I look up and here comes Harrison Dillard,” Douglas said.

“Sure, there was a storm, but I figured once the plane made it I could walk in the snow, slush and water to the affair,” Dillard said. “I had to be there because Herb works like the dickens every year to put the affair on. Our friendship is priceless. We don’t see eye to eye on everything, but we have the type of relationship where we always try to be there for each other.”

Dillard returned to Baldwin Wallace after the war in 1946. He picked up where he left off when he tied world records in the 220- and 120-yard hurdles that year. He won 82 straight hurdles events in 1947 and 1948. He also won the AAU 60-yard indoor hurdles seven straight years from 1947 to 1953, and again in 1955.

Dillard failed in his attempt to qualify for the 1956 Olympics, so he moved into a career with the Cleveland Indians as a scout and in public relations. He hosted a local radio show and spent time as an executive with Cleveland Public Schools.

Douglas would become vice president at Schieffelin & Co. (now Moet Hennessy USA), becoming the third African-American to serve as a vice president of a major North American company.

And it was those Olympic and post-Olympic careers that brought the former Olympians together this past weekend. Those Olympians included Hayes Jones (bronze, 1960; gold, 1964, 110-meter hurdles), Ted Wheeler (1956, 1,500 meters), Cindy Stinger (handball; 1984, 1988, 1992), Herman Frazier (1976, gold, 4×400; bronze 400 meters) and Moses (gold, 1976; gold, 1984; 1988, bronze, 400-meter hurdles).

World Championships sprinter Jessica Beard paid her respects to Dillard and Douglas when she joined the group in a suite at Sunday’s Cleveland Indians game.

“I have an appreciation for all of the athletes that came before me and what they did to blaze the trail for guys like me to be successful,” said Frazier, former athletic director at the University of Hawaii and the University of Alabama, Birmingham. “So Herb Douglas and Harrison Dillard are two of the pre-emptive wonderful Olympians that people like myself always want to be around. For my weekend, where I can be anywhere in the country, I knew I needed to be here.”

Stinger, who competed in handball in three Olympics, also changed her schedule to celebrate with the legends.

“I flew in last night because I would not miss this birthday,” said Stinger, manager of alumni relations for the United States Olympic Committee. “Herb is the reason we’re all here, because he built this camaraderie among all of us with the Jesse Owens Award. Herb and Harrison knew him, and they exemplify what he stood for, so who doesn’t want to be around someone like that?”

Dillard’s daughter, Terri, shed tears knowing her father’s still around to celebrate achievements with family and his good friend Douglas. The momentum of the weekend continued when the Indians honored Dillard at Progressive Field by putting him on live on the huge scoreboard.

“I just wanted my dad to feel loved,” Terri Dillard said, “and I think we accomplished that.”

Branson Wright is a multimedia sports reporter for The Cleveland Plain Dealer. He is co-host of The Sports Brothers radio show and a documentary film director and producer.