Jesse Owens: Close encounters of the first kind

A personal interview with the great Jesse Owens.

Jesse Owens in Berlin / Photo: Bundesarchiv Bild via Wikimedia
Jesse Owens in Berlin / Photo: Bundesarchiv Bild via Wikimedia

CHARLOTTE, N.C., Feb. 14, 2016 — Jesse Owens was to the Olympic Games what Jackie Robinson was to major league baseball. Where Robinson opened the door for black athletes in all professional sports, Owens made a statement on an international scale nearly a decade earlier that rocked the world.

At the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Owens embarrassed Adolf Hitler and his myth of “Aryan superiority” when the captured gold medals in the 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump and 4 x 100 meter relay.

It was Hitler’s goal to dominate the games and to demonstrate that German athletes were superior in every way. As the eyes of the world focused upon Berlin, the Nazi propaganda machine actively promoted Hitler’s belief in “Aryan racial supremacy” while claiming that Africans were inferior.

Jesse Owens changed all that in four events that echoed around the globe.

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But Jesse Owens did not travel to Berlin without notoriety. The year before, in 1935, he set three world records and tied another in less than an hour while competing for Ohio State in the Big Ten track meet in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Owens’ achievement has been called “the greatest 45 minutes ever in sport.” It is an accomplishment that has never been equaled.

On Friday of this week, the first feature film biography of Jesse Owens will open around the country. The double-meaning title, “Race,” will highlight the story behind Owens’ triumph in Berlin and the drama surrounding it.

It is a story that should create awareness for generations of Americans who know the story only from history books. If well done, the film could be a groundbreaking and important piece of cinema on multiple levels, much the same as Owens’ athletic prowess.

I met Jesse Owens in 1977, three years before he died. And, as for Hitler, it was an embarrassing moment for me. Embarrassing, that is, until, Owens himself put me at ease.

While working as a sportscaster for the CBS television affiliate in Charlotte, I was scheduled to be at work at 2:30 in the afternoon. Without my knowledge, someone in the newsroom had booked an interview with none other than Jesse Owens for 1:30.

Though I was already in the process of preparing for work, I was not in any particular rush since I still had 45 minutes to get ready.

Suddenly my home telephone rang and the receptionist said, “There’s a gentleman here by the name of Owens who says he is here to be interviewed.”

Clearly I had no idea that Mr. Owens was “the” Mr. Owens, but I rushed through my preparations anyway and raced to the station.

Charlotte in the ’70s was hardly a large metropolis. By today’s standards, it is still a middle-sized city, but in those days it was easy to cross town in about 15 minutes.

I arrived at the station shortly before two and ran to the lobby to greet “Mr. Owens.” He was sitting on the lobby sofa watching television when I walked up to him. Even then I had no idea who I was meeting.

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“Mr. Owens,” I said apologetically, “I am so sorry to keep you waiting. I didn’t get the message that you were here until just a little while ago.”

“Just call me Jesse,” he replied, and with that my knees buckled and my jaw dropped to the floor.

My face reddened and my embarrassment multiplied tenfold as I realized that I had just kept one of the greatest Olympic athletes in history cooling his heels waiting for me to arrive.

After second and third apologies, I asked him if he would wait just a couple more minutes while I rounded up a photographer to do the interview.

So much in awe was I at the time, and so flustered as well, to this day, I cannot remember what I asked Owens or what the interview was about. I do recall that he seemed satisfied that we had covered the information he wanted to express in the interview, but, other than that, my mind is a blank.

At the end, I thanked him again and apologized profusely for my mistake. It was then that I realized that some famous people reach certain levels because they possess humility and class that reaches far beyond their notoriety.

“Don’t worry about it, young man,” said Owens. “After what I experienced, a few minutes’ wait is nothing.”

Three years later Jesse Owens died. He was a pack-a-day smoker for 35 years, and the habit eventually caught up with him at the age of 66.

And to this day, when I think of Jesse Owens, I can only recall that I left the man who cut Adolf Hitler down to size, sitting in a TV station lobby waiting for me.

Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award-winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe. Taylor is founder of the Magellan Travel Club (

Read more of What in the World and Bob Taylor at Communities Digital News. Follow Bob on Twitter @MrPeabod

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