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Loran Smith: Spec Towns’ Olympic legend stands tall in history

BERLIN, Germany —

The Olympic Stadium here was built in 1934-36. The German chancellor, Adolph Hitler, wanted a showcase facility for hosting the 1936 Olympics, which are remembered by most historians for the performance of Jesse Owens, the black sprinter who won four gold medals — an in-your-face performance to the racist Fuehrer whose armies would soon be running roughshod over Europe.

Engraved in a stone wall of the original stadium are the names of the gold medalists. You scan the wall and your eyes focus on the name by the winner of the 110-meter hurdles: Forrest Towns. It is a time for pause and reflection. You bow in memory of your friend and former coach and recall his influence on your life.

Spec Towns, a native of Fitzgerald, grew up in Augusta and enrolled at Georgia, owing to the unlikeliest of circumstances. An Augusta sportswriter, Tom Wall, saw his neighbor’s son leaping over a pole that rested on top of the heads of Towns’ father and his uncles. The meant that the teenage Towns was clearing a height of at least 6 feet. Wall wrote a story for The Augusta Chronicle, which found its way to track coach Weems Baskin, who recruited Towns to Athens and made a high hurdler out of him. The freckled Towns became the best in the world. After setting the world’s record of 14.1 seconds in a qualifying heat, Towns won the Olympic gold with a performance of 14.2 in the 110-meter high hurdles. A few days later in Oslo, Norway, he ran the 120-yard high hurdles in the sensational time of :13:7, a record that stood for 14 years.

In Towns’ time, there were not any scholarships for track. He was required to play football. He lettered two years, 1936-37, playing for the colorful Harry Mehre, who sent a funny telegram to his lanky end in Norway after his record-setting performance.

“Minor sports are over, football practice has begun. Time to come home,” it read.

A rugged end, Towns was particularly expert at covering kicks with his speed and agility. He became an accomplished football player.

After returning to campus, Towns, an advocate of the ROTC program, would earn a degree in education and settle in as a football assistant and head track coach. It wouldn’t be long before he would return to Europe as an officer in the U.S. Army, which was trying to win a war against the dictator who used the Olympic Games for propaganda purposes while organizing pogroms elsewhere.

Herman Stegeman, then the athletic director, and Towns’ wife, Dorthea, accompanyed him to the Olympics. They brought home a gift from Hitler, who gave each gold medal winner an oak seedling from Germany’s Black Forest. For years, a bench commemorating Towns’ Olympic victory and the oak that grew from the seed stood behind the north stands of Sanford Stadium. When the stadium was expanded in 1967 the bench and the tree were moved to Stegeman Coliseum. The tree died and I have a small slab of the original oak, which I treasure. Former Dean of Men, William Tate, got a replacement tree later, but it died, too. We must get another one.

I grew up with Towns’ legend and tried out for the track team when I enrolled at Georgia, which left me with warm and treasured memories. His was a crusty, bombastic personality, but underneath there was humor, generosity and loyalty — especially if you could earn points for him in a dual meet. The days he ran me till my innards were desperate for relief were justified for the scholarship aid he gave me. My education was unalterably linked to compatibility with Towns’ practice routine. His boys gather for a reunion every spring. They remember him with deep affection, which cannot always be said of old coaches.

Standing here in the warm sunshine of an afternoon which was similar to what Towns knew on Aug. 6, 1936, I am struck with the notion of the beauty of amateur sport, a fleeting enterprise. A Georgia boy who happened to have been modest born of tall, angular parents who influenced his hurdler’s build is the beneficiary of the greatest tradeoff in history of this country — a free education to participate in sport — and becomes world famous for extraordinary performance. A world’s champion.

An humbling rush washed over me as I looked across the stadium. There was a lump in my throat, followed by moist eyes and a finish-line heartbeat as I savored the memories.

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