Herb Douglas, who turned a chance encounter with Jesse Owens as a teenager into fuel to win a bronze medal in the long jump at the 1948 Olympics, has died. He was 101.
The University of Pittsburgh, where Douglas starred on both the football and track teams before later serving in various roles for his alma mater, said Douglas died Saturday.
“In every role that he filled, as an aspiring athlete from Hazelwood, as a student-athlete and University trustee and as an esteemed businessman, Olympian and community leader, Herb Douglas excelled,” Pittsburgh Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said. “He was both a champion himself and a champion of others, never hesitating to open doors of opportunity and help people pursue their own success.”
Douglas, a Pittsburgh native, was 14 when he met Owens, the American track and field star who won four gold medals in sprints and the long jump at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Owens spoke at an elementary school near the Hazelwood neighbourhood where Douglas grew up.
“I prayed every day to stand on the podium and make the Olympic team,” Douglas said. “When he left, Jesse put his arms around me and told me to get an education.”
He told Douglas: “That’s more than what I did at your age” and encouraged Douglas to go to college. Douglas eventually checked both items — the Olympics and college education.
Douglas hoped to compete at the 1944 Olympics, which were cancelled due to World War II. After starting his college career at Xavier University in New Orleans, a Historically Black College and University, he returned home to Pittsburgh to work at his father’s parking garage.
Douglas eventually enrolled at Pitt in 1945, becoming one of the first African-Americans to play football for the Panthers while also starring on the track team. He won four intercollegiate championships in the long jump and another in the 100-yard dash at Pitt and three AAU titles in the long jump. He earned a spot on the 1948 U.S. Olympic team after finishing runner-up to Willie Steele at the Olympic trials.
Douglas’ leap of 24-feet-9 inches (7.545 meters) at the 1948 Olympics in London carried him to bronze behind gold-medalist Steele and silver-medalist Thomas Bruce of Australia.
“As the years went on, I accepted that third place like it was first place,” Douglas told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2021.
Douglas hoped to go into coaching after earning his master’s degree in education from Pitt in 1950 but found few coaching opportunities in his hometown before going into the corporate world. Douglas maintained close ties with his alma mater throughout his life, establishing the Herb P. Douglas scholarship and serving as a mentor to track star Roger Kingdom, who went on to win gold in the 110-meter hurdles at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics.
“We developed such a bond that I started to call him ‘Daddy Herb,’ ” Kingdom said. “He inspired me in so many ways but gave me two very important directives. First, finish my degree as I promised my mother. Second, he shared his secret for success: ‘Always analyze, organize, initiate and follow through.’”
Douglas was inducted into the inaugural Pitt Athletics Hall of Fame class in 2018. The university also is naming the 300-meter indoor track at its planned Victory Heights facility after Douglas.
“His incredible intellect and determination were only surpassed by his personal kindness,” Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke said. “Pitt Athletics is forever indebted to his passion and support.”
Born March 9, 1922, Douglas’ survivors include his wife Minerva Douglas, daughter Barbara Joy Ralston, daughter-in-law Susan Douglas and four grandchildren.
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