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Herb Douglas — March, 2019
Herb Douglas won the Bronze Medal in the 1948 Olympics in the long jump. He finished second in the 1948 Olympic Trials with his personal best jump of 25 feet, three inches. Herb won three AAU long jump titles, outdoors in 1945 and indoors in 1947 and 1949. He finished second in the 1946 NCAA long jump by one-half inch. Douglas won four IC4A titles for Pittsburgh in the 100-yard dash and one in the long jump. As a football letterman in 1945, he was the second African-American to score a touchdown against Notre Dame. His first two collegiate campaigns were at Xavier College where he set a SIAC meet record of 23-11 inches in the long jump and was on the 440-yard relay team in 1942 that made Xavier this country's first historically black college to win a relay race at the Penn Relays. The 1940 Taylor Allderdice (Pittsburgh, PA) High School graduate was PIAA Class A State Champion in the 1939 long jump in 21-7 ¾, and the 1940 100 yards in 10.1, 220 yards in 22.4 and long jump in 22-3 ¼. Herb was inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame in 1992, the New York Athletic Club HOF in 2005, Taylor Allderdice HOF in 2009, University of Pittsburgh HOF in 2018 and was selected by Ebony magazine as one of the 100 Most Successful Black Men. He spent most of his professional career with Pabst Blue Ribbon and Schiefflin and Company. Herb was the third African-American vice-president of a major North American company and is known as ‘The Godfather of Hennesey cognac.’ In 1980, Douglas founded the International Amateur Athletic Association, Inc. He has served on the board of directors of the Jesse Owens Foundation and the University of Pittsburgh and has been a member of the NAACP and Urban League. He resides in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and was kind enough to spend one and a half hours on the telephone in March, 2019.
GCR: You represented the United States at the 1948 Olympics in London in the long jump. As it was the first Olympics in 12 years due to World War II, what was the feeling for you to compete as an Olympian and as an African-American when society was much different than today?
HD As you said, in the 1940s there wasn’t an Olympics until 1948 and we had one of the best models to go after, and that was Jesse Owens. He was the icon of the 1936 Olympics, but more than that, the 1936 Olympics was the renaissance for African-Americans in sports. Why? Four other black athletes won Gold Medals. There was Cornelius Johnson in the high jump, Archie Williams in the 400 meters, Johnny Woodruff from the University of Pittsburgh and Ralph Metcalfe on the four by one hundred relay team. African-Americans won eight Gold Medals which was about sixty-five per cent of the U.S. team’s total Gold Medals. That influenced Harrison Dillard and me and others to hold on for 1948. I think I could have made the team in 1944, but because of World War II we couldn’t compete. Very few people know the other four Olympians of color who won Gold Medals in 1936. Up until that time, African Americans had only won a total of eight Gold Medals. In 1924, we had DeHart Hubbard, who was the first African-American to win a Gold Medal. Baxter Taylor, from the University of Pennsylvania won one on a relay team. Then we went to 1932 and Eddie Tolan won two Gold Medals plus Ed Gordon won the long jump. They didn’t let Eddie Tolan or Ralph Metcalfe run on the relay team in 1932 or there would have been more Gold Medals for African-Americans. But that is the history and look how we have advanced.
GCR: Today everyone flies to the Olympics and other track meets, but in 1948 the U.S. team went to England by boat. How was the trip by boat to Europe, were you able to train on board and was seasickness a challenge?
HD I didn’t get sea sick, but one of my competitors in the long jump did. But he survived and he got over. That was Lorenzo Wright who placed fourth in the long jump. That was my first trip on a boat, and I remember distinctly passing by Ireland and how green the land was. The vegetation was real green and I remember that to this day. We disembarked in Southampton and the country was in ruins. It was right after World War II and it wasn’t a pleasant place or a welcoming place. They had to send our food over from the United States because there wasn’t food of our standard. As a result, that helped us a lot.
GCR: Let’s talk about the Olympic long jump competition. After the first jump, Willie Steele was out front with Lorenzo Wright in second and you third just ahead of Australia’s Theo Bruce. How spirited was the competition just to make the medal stand with four athletes so close and only three medals?
HD Rumors went around that the U.S. athletes in the long jump would be one, two and three. But the athlete from Australia beat me by a quarter of an inch so I was third and Lorenzo was fourth. That would have been a record to have three African-Americans to place one, two and three.
GCR: Even though you didn’t win the Gold Medal, since your teammate, Willie Steele did, how special of a moment was it to stand on the podium and to have an Olympic Medal placed around your neck while the United States National Anthem was played?
HD Oh yes, that is the epitome, when you hear that National Anthem, that is what you’re there for – your country. Every time you hear the National Anthem, it’s a plus for your country. And you become very country oriented because that’s the world. In competing with competition from throughout the world, if you make the Olympic team and place fourth, fifth or sixth, you know you are one of the best in the world and that is always very comforting. You can’t live with it being disappointing during your life. You’ve got to change.
GCR: You mentioned how close it was with you being only a quarter inch out of the Silver Medal and maybe four inches ahead of Lorenzo Wright for the Bronze – just how close were you to stretching out and getting the Silver Medal?
HD It was a quarter inch, but I will always believe that the British judges may have fudged it a little to help Australia. Then they raked the mark right up. Because the next week I beat Theo Bruce by a foot.
GCR: After the Olympics, did you compete in quite a few other competitions in Europe and get to do much sightseeing?
HD I went primarily to France and won the 100 meters in a few places. That was the country where I toured. Others had the opportunity to tour the Scandinavian countries. In 1947 I did tour the Scandinavian countries with a tour of athletes who won their AAU event indoors. I had never been in a sauna and got in though I didn’t know what it was all about. Then I dove in the cold water because my body was very hot, and that water was chilly. I saw women up on the porch which was about fifty yards from the sauna and I kind of felt embarrassed because I wasn’t accustomed to females seeing anyone of the opposite gender undressed. The other guys were from Finland and they were used to it.
GCR: It’s interesting that you went to Scandinavia, because when I interviewed Harrison Dillard several years ago, he mentioned that the people in Scandinavia were very welcoming toward African-Americans at that time and didn’t focus on skin color. Did you have a similar experience?
HD Oh sure. That helped me later in corporate America. In World War II the African-American soldiers who went to France were treated so well. Anytime we would go abroad we were always treated better there than we were here in our country.
GCR: Let’s go back to a bit more of your big year in 1948. How focused were you on making the Olympic team?
HD After waiting twelve years for an Olympics, I was twenty-six years old and, number one, I had to make the team. I prayed every day that I would make the Olympic team. It was incorporated in my prayers at night and I said, ‘Dear Lord, please give me the strength and the knowledge in my long jumping to make the Olympic team.’ We used to say, ‘Make the boat.’ All of us of color said, ‘Let’s make the boat.’ I jumped farther than I ever had in my life, twenty-five feet and three inches, and Willie Steele still beat me, but I made the team. Ed Conwell and I slept near each other and so did Harrison Dillard. That upset the world at the Olympics when Dillard won the 100 meters. In practice I could beat him all the time, but I couldn’t beat him at the Olympic Trials.
GCR: How exciting was it when you finished in second place at the Olympic Trials and knew you were on your way to London?
HD I can tell you a story about that. My coach said he made me mad and that’s why I made the team. It was Ralph Metcalfe who was sitting across the track from the long jump and I always regarded him as an older person that I wanted to emulate. He was articulate and, both on the field and off the field, was a person to try to emulate. As you know, later he became a Congressman. During the Olympic Trials he was sitting on the track on the opposite side of the long jump. He would look at me and put his hand out for me to get a little higher. He had coached me right out of high school after I won three state championships.
GCR: Since you mentioned a bit about Jesse Owens, how cool was it that Jesse Owens was one of the judges at the Olympic Trials?
HD He helped me because he and Metcalfe were good friends. He was pulling for me. I always remember Metcalfe on the other side of the track watching and Jesses Owens measuring my jumps and putting the tape down where I landed. I always think I got a little bit there.
GCR: From what I read, after three jumps you were in fourth place before you leapt past James Holland and Lorenzo Wright. When you hit that jump to move into second place, did you know you hit your best jump ever?
HD No, I didn’t know it. I knew I was out there, but I didn’t think I was at twenty-five feet and three inches. And those two guys were good. Lorenzo could beat me. My ambition was to get Willie Steele, but I married and didn’t train as much as I should have.
GCR: Three times you won the AAU national championship in the long jump, outdoors in 1945 and indoors in 1947 and 1949. Track and Field News began publication in 1947 and in its first three years you were ranked number seven, number five and number four in the world. How did you feel about your standing in the country and in the world?
HD That helped me a lot to build my confidence. Where they got the rankings from mainly was the AAUs. There weren’t many guys who could jump much over twenty-four feet. I could always hit twenty-four feet. If someone was at twenty-four feet, I could beat them. At twenty-five feet, they could beat me. I often wonder what I was ranked. I remember that fourth was the best.
GCR: Did you have any thought of attempting to return to the Helsinki Olympics in 1952, or did college graduation and work take priority?
HD I tried, but I couldn’t. I was working for Pabst Brewing Company. I only had three jobs in my life. I worked for my dad which taught me the basics of how to get along with people and give them service. Then there were twelve years with Pabst and the rest of my life I was with Schieffelin and Somerset. They started in 1794 as a pharmaceutical company. Wines and spirits like Hennessey were considered medicinal, so they were able to sell to the general market. After prohibition they could sell over the counter. I started with them in 1963 and worked with them until 1993.
GCR: Were you introduced to Hennessey at any time before you started working with Schieffelin?
HD I definitely recall when I was competing in France, as an African-American male, drinking cognac, which was Hennessey. Thirteen or fourteen years later I worked for Schieffelin to lay the foundation and Hennessey is the number one seller in the African-American community. They call me ‘The Godfather of Hennessey cognac.’
GCR: When you worked with Pabst and then with Schieffelin you were a trail blazer amongst African-Americans. What were some of the keys to your success?
HD Here’s an example. I went to West Palm Beach with four other sales people and I was the only black. Mr. Bill Hitt was the former mayor of West Palm Beach and all five of us went in to meet him in the morning and to get assigned to a truck driver. They were known as driver salesmen. He shook hands with the other four people from Pabst and wouldn’t shake mine. Now I was cocky enough to say that it didn’t bother me and was his problem. But it ended up that I was the only one who he wanted to come back and work his marketplace. Why? Because the places that didn’t have Pabst beer, I put it in all those places. What he did after that was really starting the break down of African-Americans becoming driver salesmen in the southeast. He did it in Miami and all through the southeast. I got along well with all the distributors. They were rich people and had a lot of influence in their city.
GCR: Was that when you started learning that somebody’s skin may be white, or somebody’s skin may be brown or black, but money is green?
HD That’s right. And that was it. They decided they needed to hire some African-Americans. They called us negroes at the time. I put on African-Americans as salesmen. I have to say that now because, if I say the negro marketplace, young people say, ‘what do you mean?’ If I say African-American marketplace, then they know. They offered me a distributorship in Miami because the black community was making all the sales. They hired a lot of blacks there. They did in all the major cities in the southeast. I can say that I was part of that movement.
GCR: Let’s go back and look at when you were a youth and how you got involved in track and field. Were you an active child who participated in many sports?
HD I was a gymnast. If you’ll check, you’ll see that they during a recent Olympics thought Gabby Douglas and I were relatives. I was a better gymnast in junior high and high school. I won what they called tumbling, that is floor exercise today. I went to Allderdice High School and played basketball just one year. It was predominantly Jewish, and the guys wouldn’t throw the ball to me and I quit in tenth grade. In eleventh grade, the coach came to me and said, ‘Herb, you’re not going to quit this time, are you?’ I said, ‘No, I’m going to stick it out.’ We won the city championship. In one game the manager came over and told me I scored twenty-one points. We won that game forty-two to twenty-one. I scored half the points. But when it came out in the newspaper, they took points away from me and gave it to the guy who scored the next most points. They had me scoring nineteen points and him scoring 17 points. Things happen like that. I was the first person of color to play basketball at Allderdice. Morton Reece, who has passed away, was one of the Jewish guys who dominated at Alldedice at the time. He wouldn’t pass me the ball. He was two years ahead of me. But he was the one that hired me for Schieffelin. He worked with the Jewish market because they owned the distributorships and I had the African-American consumers who were drinking it. For thirty years we made a good team. When he died two years ago, in his obituary, they named the family and his best friend, Herb Douglas. That tells you how somethings can really change. We became close because we beat up on the distributors who wouldn’t go into my marketplace and he would support me. Now there’s a big difference because people just want to get a job any place.
GCR: At Taylor Allderdice High School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania you won your first PIAA Class A State Championship your junior year in 1939 with a long jump of 21 feet 7-3/4 inches. Do you remember much of that competition and the feeling to be State Champion?
HD Yes, though girls are jumping farther than me now. Believe it or not, the track supervisor, a man named Wells, came over and told me, ‘Herb, you’ve got to get out there to twenty-two feet.’ I said, ‘I ran those hundreds and 220s. They took too much out of me and I wasn’t worried about the long jump.’ But the next year I won all three.
GCR: How big was that your senior year in 1940 to be a triple State Champion, winning the 100 yards in 10.1 seconds, 220 yards in 22.4 seconds and repeating in the long jump at 22 feet 3-1/4 inches?
HD The first one to do that in Pennsylvania was Barney Ewell. Then another guy from Chester did it and I was the third. I was the first from western Pennsylvania to win three State championships.
GCR: How challenging was it as an African-American to get a scholarship to many universities?
HD They wouldn’t give scholarships to the general schools if they found out you were African-American. You had to go to a liberal school. Penn State wanted me, but I guess I was frustrated because I really wanted to go to Pitt. And they wouldn’t give me a scholarship. I was also disappointed that I couldn’t go to West Virginia because I was African-American. They didn’t know that I was African-American until I went down to the University of West Virginia and then they told me all the scholarships were gone. But two or three years later Pitt gave me a scholarship with the same grades and that’s because I went out for football. I came back to Pitt and got a football scholarship because Clark Shaughnessy knew I was one of the fastest runners in the country and he wanted me. I didn’t know a basketball from a football, but he gave me a scholarship. Then I crossed the train on the track and made the Olympic team.
GCR: Did you have a strong drive instilled in you to get a college education?
HD Where does education begin? In the home. When I was five years old my dad had a massive stroke and became permanently blind. But he taught me how to be positive. In 1930 he was one of four people to get a seeing eye guide dog. Before he passed in 1976, he got his sixth seeing eye dog at ninety years old. They don’t usually give them out at that age because it’s dangerous. He walked with his dog for two more years and then he passed. He was the oldest man on this planet walking with a guide dog. He was a real champ. When he went blind at age 41 it was two years later that he got the seeing eye dog and walked with one until he was twenty days less than being ninety-two.
GCR: World War II was in full force and your father had health issues that caused you to return home from Xavier College to Pittsburgh to assist your father, who as you noted was blind, in the operation of a 24-hour parking garage. What was that time like as you helped your family and worked to determine the next stage of your life?
HD You do what you have to do. Many years later Nelson Mandela told me that. I had asked him, ‘how could you come out and adjust to society?’ He told me, ‘you do what you have to do.’ And that’s what I did those years earlier. I stayed in shape. I never left the track. I worked the night shift at my dad’s garage from 8:00 at night until 8:00 in the morning and I’d go by an armory in Pittsburgh to work out in the morning.
GCR: What were the main factors you learned from your dad with his overcoming blindness and working hard that helped you to be your best at work, in school and for athletic competitions? How much did he influence you?
HD Tremendously. And I didn’t know it. I didn’t know that my dad had that influence on me. But I observed him when he went blind and ran his business. My dad started that with him being blind and not asking anyone for money and working for his money. I learned how to be positive. Three years after my dad became blind, he wanted to be independent and what did he do? He got a guide dog and walked with a guide dog for 46 years. My mom had to arrange the furniture in the house so he wouldn’t stumble. She had it so he could walk in the house just as well as anyone. And I never saw my dad leave the house without wearing a tie. I wear a tie now. His was a storage garage business – three stories up on Ellsworth Avenue in Pittsburgh. He knew who was running a car. It was amazing how he developed another sense. He could tell which of his employees was running a car. In his teaching of me, he never thought I should use my horn unless there was an emergency. He never wanted me to put on the brakes so I could keep the car under control. He told me to not put the brakes on suddenly. He would sit all the time in the left rear seat and when I turned a bend, if I swayed him, he would say to turn corners more cautiously. Where did he learn that? He was a chauffeur. So, he had to learn the basics of driving rich people according to the rules. And he passed it down to me at fifteen years old. I should have had a license, but he raised my age so I could work in his garage. The work ethic of working from 8:00 at night to the morning was another factor in my development. I’d go to the armory and train in the morning and then I would go home and go to bed. That wasn’t conducive to a young married couple and my wife got a divorce after six years.
GCR: Before you went to work with your dad, how did you decide to go to Xavier, and how cool was it to have as your track coach, Ralph Metcalfe, a silver medalist in the 100 meters and part of the U.S. gold-medal 400-meter relay team at the 1936 Olympic Games in your development as an athlete and person?
HD That’s why I went there. Ralph Metcalfe was like a big brother to me. He got me straight because I wasn’t studying and doing a lot of things I should do. Then I got married down there and had to come back and help my blind father because he couldn’t get reliable help at night. The young people would take defense jobs or, if they worked for my dad, they would joyride the automobiles at night and I had to watch for that.
GCR: Let’s talk about a couple of important facts from your time at Xavier. First, you tremendously improved your long jump and you set a Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship-meet record of 23 feet 11 inches in the outdoor long-jump. How thrilling was it to set this mark and to have improved nearly two feet on your high school jumps?
HD I didn’t think I did that well in the long jump, but I could win it without hardly training. My goal was to win the one hundred yards and I placed second there to Leroy Tare who won the AAU Junior Championship that year for 100 meters. But I finally beat him the next year.
GCR: In 1942, you were part of a 440-yard relay team that made Xavier this country's first historically black college or university to win a relay race at the Penn Relays. Was that something that was recognized in a big way at the time or has the historic significance grown with time?
HD Two of us were from Pittsburgh, one was from Coatesville and one from Charleston, West Virginia. And who did we beat? We beat Pitt? I was training for the summer AAU Championships at Pitt and the coach came out there and said, ‘Herb, you should have gone to Pitt.’ I said, ‘Yes, but they turned me down.’ He knew what he was doing. I believed he didn’t want another African-American going to the Olympics and winning a medal like John Woodruff. He said, ‘Do you know what you are down there?’ Then he used the N-word. He said, ‘You’re an N-word.’ He shouldn’t have said that to me. And in 1940 I didn’t feel bad about going to Xavier because they had a good curriculum. They produced more pre-med students than any university in the United States for many years. They had good teachers. I started studying because Metcalfe made me. Then when I got to Pitt, you know what they did? Every ‘D’ I had they wiped off. I had to have a 2.5 GPA to go to graduate school and I saw how the revenue sports like football were treated. The revenue sports’ athletes had more opportunities. I’ll put it like that.
GCR: As a football letterman in 1945, you the second African-American to score a touchdown against Notre Dame. Even though you lost 39 to 9, how cool was it to catch that 50-yard touchdown pass from Jack Smodic?
HD That was something and, believe it or not, they give me more credit for that than being third best in the world. Pittsburgh football is a team sport.
GCR: Your football team only won three games that year, but they were all shutout wins over West Virginia 20-0, Bucknell 38-0 and Penn State 7-0. How much did football compliment track and field?
HD Coach Shaughnessy followed a guy who was more or less a bigot, Jock Sutherland. He was never going to have any African-Americans on the team. Clark Shaughnessy and the other assistant coaches were all Jock Sutherland’s men, and he didn’t treat them right. His son told me when I was at an NCAA championship in Minneapolis that they didn’t treat him right. If they hadn’t pushed him out, I would more than likely have beefed myself up to about 170 pounds like Tony Dorsett. When I was on the football field, I can’t recall ever being covered. I would do stop and goes, up and ins, flares and other routes. When I scored that touchdown Notre Dame was walloping us. But they never put Jimmy Joe and me in the backfield at the same time. So, the manager came over to me and I thought the coach had sent him over to me. The manager said, ‘Herb, go on in there.’ Well, I went in and I scored a touchdown. I could have scored more if they used me. But it was for the best because I could have gotten hurt and never made the Olympic team.
GCR: At the 1946 NCAA Championships it was very close as John Robertson of Texas won the long jump with a leap of 24 feet, 10-1/2 inches with you a half inch behind at 24 feet, ten inches and Al Lawrence of USC a close third at 24 feet, 7-1/4 inches. What do you recall from that tight competition?
HD Now that’s one I thought I won. I really did. I jumped 24-10 two or three times. He got lucky and got one out there and it was 24-10, but a half inch more than me. That goes with the turf. It didn’t bother me. I had wasted my eligibility at Xavier, or I would have been back the next year.’
GCR: Who was your track coach at Pitt, and did he do much to add to Coach Metcalfe’s long jump and sprint training you had done at Xavier?
HD The coach was Carl Ellisson and he was regarded as a great coach. But he didn’t know that much about the long jump. John Woodruff had told me, that Coach Ellison had told him about the Millrose Games, ‘don’t go there.’ So, my respect for him wasn’t the respect for him of a real coach because I knew he treated John Woodruff bad. Then he had asked me not to go to Pitt which was another reason I went to Xavier.
GCR: You won four IC4A championships in the long jump and one in the 100-yard dash. What did it mean to win those championships?
HD Winning those championships helped me become one of the inaugural members of Pitt’s Hall of Fame in September. I regret to this day that I could have also won the 220. But the coach wasn’t the type of coach to encourage us.
GCR: Among your many honors, you were inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame in 1992, the University of Pittsburgh HOF in 2018 and were selected by Ebony magazine as one of the 100 Most Successful Black Men. Is it both humbling and rewarding to receive these accolades?
HD You know, I know what I did. Did I do all my goals? No. But when I was with Harrison Dillard last week, we kind of talked. He said, ‘Herb, you made a product number one in the United States and you made another product number one with fifty percent of the consumers.’ I said, ‘yeah, but I wanted to win that dad gone Gold Medal!’ (hearty laughter)
GCR: You are the oldest living African-American Olympic medalist and your good friend you just spoke of, Harrison Dillard, is the oldest living Gold Medalist. How cool is your friendship of 71 years with Harrison that goes back to the1940s and to what do attribute your long life?
HD Education begins in the home. I never saw my mom and dad argue and Harrison says he never saw his mom and dad argue. When you come from a home that is pleasant and they think about progressing you just blend in. I benefited more from other people. Harrison Dillard is not only one of the most honorable men I have ever met – he’s one of the most congenial. Let me give you an example. When I was waiting for the long jump at the Olympics, Harrison was waiting to go out there for the hundred. He had made the final. Incidentally, they put all us African-Americans in one building and it was like Mandela. We bounced off one another. I was laying on a training table and kind of jittery. Barney Ewell was fidgety and throwing his hands around and walking fast two or three steps and stopping. Who was laying over there worrying about no one like he does all the time? Harrison Dillard. Mel Patton - he was regurgitating. I didn’t go out to the track for the hundred because my event was coming up afterward. Someone came back and said, ‘Harrison upset them! He won!’ Barney Ewell thought he won. He was in the middle of the track and he beat Mel Patton and Panama’s Lloyd La Beach. Ewell jumped in the air and Harrison was thinking Barney won and went over to congratulate him. But they said, ‘No. Harrison won.’ La Beach said, ‘No, Bones wins.’ That was something. To this day, Harrison and I talk, and he now has a bad back. Five years ago, he was taller than me and now he’s shorter than me.
GCR: Could you talk a bit about how in 1980, you founded the International Amateur Athletic Association in honor of your mentor Jesse Owens, establishing the Jesse Owens Global Peace award and its significance?
HD Here’s why I did it. We were in Indianapolis at the headquarters of the AAU and the founder was John Sullivan. Jesse and I were touring down the corridor with Mr. Henson, the President of the AAU at that time. All of a sudden Jesse stopped and turned back, but Henson and I kept going. I got back and I said, ‘Jesse, why did you stop?’ he said, ‘Herb, the biggest disappointment I had in track and field is not winning the Sullivan Award.’ He electrified the world at the 1935 Championships at Ann Arbor for the Big Ten, establishing three World Records and tying one more. Then the next year he comes back and electrifies the world and wins four Gold Medals at the 1936 Olympics and didn’t win the Sullivan Award. Now, he’s sitting there, and I was in a quandary. I told him that he should have stayed up with us, but he said, ‘it really got to me when I saw the awards for the first winner and the second winner during my time.’ It really hurt him, so that’s why I started the Jesse Owens award. I started it and made it international. I did that on the side and was going to turn it over to the Owens family when I was 81 years old. But there were some disagreements between a board member and the family, and they didn’t keep it going. Now they are trying to start it back up. They gave the award posthumously to Muhammad Ali and this past year they awarded it to Bob Beamon. They have to be realistic. They think they can give the award to someone like Michael Jordan, but they can’t do that. He won’t because of many things. I kept it in the Olympic movement category, and it was for the best Olympian every year. That’s the way it should have stayed. But I’m not there, though I did get Ali and Beamon for them.
GCR: With the wisdom you gained over many years, what is your extra-long view perspective on the place of sport in our culture, how it has brought people together, how much progress has been made during your lifetime and how much remains to be done?
HD Let’s think about soccer. A team will have someone from a foreign country owning it. They’ll have a coach from another country. And they will have a mixture of athletes from different countries. That’s a colossal example of to where it’s going. I think sports will bring everyone together. Jesse Owens couldn’t go any place in Europe where people didn’t identify him. I think the Olympic movement has lost some of its prestige, but it’s going to come back.
GCR: Herb, you’re ninety-seven years old. How is your current health and fitness and what do you do to keep active?
HD We always ate meals at certain times. My grandmother worked for people that had good habits and she brought them to our house. We ate the right foods. Today the young kids have taken me over. I like McDonalds hash browns. Athletes call me to get advice on how I’ve done it. Edwin Moses and Roger Kingdom and other guys will call me up to get tips. Once the question was about a sore right arm and I said that it might be related to the heart. ‘Why, did you have that?’ I said, ‘No, but I have a valve problem.’ But the key is that I never stopped working out. It helps your immune system. When Jack Kelly fell on the street after working out and died, I started walking not jogging. When I lived in my house, I walked two miles most days. I moved here and for the last sixteen years I’ve been swimming twenty laps, which is about a quarter of a mile, every other day. I haven’t swum for the first time in over a month because I’ve had a bad cold. And they told me to have someone there with me all the time when I’m swimming.
GCR: When you look back at your life and all you’ve been through from growing up during the Depression and World War II, living in a segregated society that has become integrated but still has a ways to go, the discipline of athletics, working for your dad and integrating those spirits companies, what would you say forms the ‘Herb Douglas Philosophy of Life’ that helps you to be your best and you can tell other people to help them be their best?
HD The new Chancellor at Pitt said, ‘Herb, I review you and you are always helping someone. I notice you are on the Board of Trustees and you try to make progress.’ I said to him, ‘Isn’t that what we’re all here for.’ He said, ‘I like philosophy and it is the science where we study all things and natural reasoning.’ I take to that. If I can help someone, then I’ll do it. What taught me how to do that was when people would help my dad. He would show his independence because he had a seeing eye dog. What did he teach me? He taught me how to be independent. By being blind and overcoming that, he taught me how to be stable and look to the future. He had to think what he was going to do next to employ his ability to help his family. My mom and him never had harsh words and that is why, if I can help someone, I will help them.
  Inside Stuff
Hobbies/Interests Athletics. Track and Field. I had a spirit that concentrated on athletics. I did gymnastics. In basketball they wouldn’t allow us to dunk balls, but I would jump up there and lay it behind on the bank board. I didn’t know that those of us of color had that extra ability
Nicknames Herbie
Favorite movies When I was growing up, we used to have to go to the top of the balcony. They wouldn’t let us sit downstairs. I remember Tom Mix was a real cowboy during the 1920s and 1930s. We would go to see him. I remember Superior had a theater in the part of Pittsburgh where I lived
Favorite music I can’t get into this rap crap. I like Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. The best song I like is ‘The Girl from Ipanema.’ I love that song. I grew up liking Sarah Vaughn
Nat King Cole story As times moved on Nat King Cole was a friend of mine and he told me about problems they had to overcome. Sometimes they would bill someone else over him, but that’s what we had to overcome. He did it by just outperforming everyone. That’s what we did. And like Mandela, when I asked him, ‘How do you do justice to society when you have been incarcerated twenty-seven years?’ Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenburg was right beside me and Mandela said, ‘You do what you have to do’
Sammy Davis, Jr. story Sammy Davis and I were close friends. I taught him how to swim down in Miami. It was after he lost his eye. We all couldn’t stay on Miami Beach. We had to stay in Miami. Those guys who were performing on the beach went over and performed and then came back to Miami. That’s how it started out on Collins Avenue. Then it opened up and Nat could stay over on the beach and then we could stay over there. I went through all that
Favorite books I’m writing a book now. A book is just a bevy of stories. On the 30th of May they are going to present it at the Senator John Heinz History center
First car A Ford. My dad went down to the bank and cashed in some insurance and he bought me a Ford for seven or eight hundred dollars. It was brown. From then on, I never asked my dad or mom for anything and looked after my dad when he became blind
Family home The funniest thing is that our house, where my mother grew up and then where I grew, is something I want to preserve because it’s like another family member. As long as I’m here I’m going to do what I can to take care of it. The house has been in our family as of last November for one hundred years
Job thoughts I went to work for my dad at the parking garage. But when I had the opportunity to move into corporate America, I thought that was more prestige than working for my dad. I was competitive in selling. I had the physical ability to call on accounts and to work with people across the country. That’s why my products rose to be number one in the African-American community because that’s the only place where we could work when I started. Now I think I should have stayed with my dad because I would have bought that building, I would have had real estate and I would have been richer. But I don’t know if I would have been happier
Family I have a sister and she passed away at age forty-nine. She smoked, but my dad also smoked until the day he died, and Jesse Owens smoked too. I never smoked. I never drank disproportionately. I was very moderate, just one or two sips. I think my daughter is in the CIA, but she can’t tell me. My son said, ‘No, she talks too much. She would tell the FBI.’ But she worked for UNIDO (note - United Nations Industrial Development Organization) in Vienna, Austria which is nothing but a place for spies and KGB and people like that. Her real mission in life is being an entrepreneur and she and her son bought an olive farm in Spain. She is seventy-six. She’s old. I told her she is in my age group now. She told me, ‘I’m a baby boomer.’ I said, ‘No, you’re not. You’re old.’ I have one great-grandchild that I’m in contact with more than the others. He just finished his first year at Duke University Medical School. I could have got him into Pitt, but I didn’t want to overdo it. I could have also encouraged him to get a law degree and an MBA at the same time, but I backed away. The reason I backed away is that this kid is a giver and so is his dad who is a Father in the Episcopal Church. He has those jeans. That priest is married to my granddaughter. She is an entrepreneur who is over about six of those emergency medical centers. My great-grandson quit playing basketball so he could go to Med School. He wants to go into oncology. But he wants to also raise a family. I’m encouraging him to be an eye doctor and there is good news that at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center they are building a hospital concentrating on eye care. I told him that his great-great grandfather became sightless at age forty-one, but it didn’t stop him from living almost to age ninety-two. So, he said he would consider eye care. I told him that I think if he gets into that field, he will get energy because of his great-great grandfather going blind
Pets My dad had the seeing eye dogs. Before that we had a dog named ‘Duke.’ He was the family dog. But I never paid that much attention. But, when dad started getting these seeing eye dogs, their life expectancy was eight or nine years. One lived to eleven. They would pay no attention to anyone but my dad. He would get up at seven o’clock to feed them. The dogs got the routine of going to the office and staying in the garage with dad all day. My mom said that for the first six months after he became blind, he really wanted to destroy himself. He just was ready to give up at forty-one years old. He started going to his old business at the time and then he never missed going to his business. That shows perseverance and overcoming his sightlessness. It’s a story – sometimes people interview me, and they are more interested in my dad and how many dogs he had. I’d look at the dogs and say, ‘come here,’ and they would just put their ears up. They’re one-man dogs
Favorite food Ham. I could eat ham at every meal. I love ham. I’ll go out and buy a ham and I’ll have bread and make sandwiches all day
Favorite beverages I’m very partial there because, every year when I ran the Jesse Owens awards, Coca-Cola always would buy several tables or do whatever was needed to help me. That’s why I was successful. I like Coca-Cola. Naturally, I drink Hennessey and Coke. I know that Hennessey is medicinal, and it opens your arteries and keeps them going
First running memory I was in elementary school. I remember my mother sitting up in the bleachers with Miss Miller who had a son. We were in the fourth grade. It was at Colfax Elementary School. It was hot and my mother had an umbrella over her head. I ran and they judged us by age and weight. My weight was 65 or 70 pounds and I just ran away from everyone. Now, how did that happen? Down the street, and we lived on Hazelwood Avenue, was a hill. To go down to the first block there was a Butler Store. Before supermarkets, there were corner stores, and this was the Butler Corner Store. My mother would only buy food inventory of so much and would send me down to that store sometimes maybe four or five times a week. I’d go down and maybe sometimes she needed pepper or salt. She would have me go down to buy what she needed. Dad always was in a position where he had a cash flow from running a garage and she had money. I’d walk down to the store and then I’d run back up the hill. I believe that was my training period where I could go to the City Championships in elementary school and win. Going to the store for mom – that’s what did it
Running heroes Jesse Owens, of course. John Woodruff was a hero because he was from Pittsburgh. I watched him run and he would talk to me. But Jesse and I became friends and in the last fifteen years of his life we were on the phone I guess four or five times a month. We never talked about track. It was always business. I didn’t think I was going to stay with Schieffelin all my life, but they treated me like I was a family member. That’s what encouraged me
Greatest athletic moments Making the Olympic team and getting an Olympic medal were the top two. But, in Pittsburgh, no one talked about the Olympics hardly because they didn’t think they could make the team. Even my close friends. I can’t articulate that fully. I remember when Wayne State came to Pitt and I lost for the first time ever at Pitt to this guy who could never beat me. One of my close friends asked me, ‘Do you think he can make the Olympic team?’ The guy didn’t have a chance. My close friends didn’t know that much about the sport. They knew about the revenue sports. But not track and field
Worst running moment I can’t recall a day where I thought I was going to do well and had an off day. I did finish second in the Penn Relays year after year and the same at AAUs. I don’t think I ever placed fourth in my life in the AAUs. I was second place a lot of times, but I didn’t learn because I always thought that I could win
Childhood dreams When I was young, I had a goal to make the Olympic team. It was more impounded when I met Jesse Owens at age fourteen. Then I started incorporating it in my prayer at night. ‘May God direct me to make the Olympic team and win a medal.’ I believed with all that surrounded me that is why I was successful with Coach Metcalfe. I was my old skinny self, but I went out there and did it
Embarrassing moment A guy that has a seeing eye dog asked me a question a while ago which was, ‘were you ever embarrassed by your dad?’ I said, ‘you’re the first one to ever ask me that.’ And the answer is in the morning dad would leave and there would be a rush of school children going to school because the school was one block up and one block over. There was a path. If dad would go down there to the car, I would look out the window until the chauffeur took him or a guy who worked at the garage would pick him up and leave. I did this because I would see these kids pass by and they would keep looking at my dad until he got in the car. I never wanted to go down there in that mix. That must have been a form of embarrassment to me because my dad was sightless. That was real penetrating
Favorite places to travel Scandinavian countries because we were treated so well. It was like no one saw us being colored. My daughter lived there for several years while she was working