Oldest living U.S. Olympic medalist, Herb Douglas, has died at 101

The track and field legend was a storied businessman and philanthropist

 

by Erv Dyer

Senior Editor, Pitt Magazine

Herbert P. Douglas Jr., the oldest living U.S. Olympic medalist—and a University of Pittsburgh alumnus who served on its Board of Trustees and was later named an emeritus trustee—died Saturday, April 22, 2023. He was 101.

“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,” 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. Unsurprisingly, Herb left an indelible mark on this world, while leaving an incomprehensible hole in the hearts of so many. I am proud to have called him my friend, and Karen and I will be keeping his family and circle of loved ones close in thought as we begin to honor his remarkable life and legacy.”

In 1948, Douglas graduated from the University with a bachelor’s degree in physical education and placed second in the Olympic trials in the long jump.

A few months later, he won a bronze medal in London’s 1948 Summer Olympics.

“Herb Douglas led a remarkable life that inspired people the world over. Whether it was as an Olympic medalist, accomplished business executive or personal mentor, Herb impacted and was loved by so many. That is certainly the case at the University of Pittsburgh, where his life and legacy are truly enduring,” said Heather Lyke, director of athletics at Pitt. “On a personal note, one of the greatest blessings for me here has been getting to know Herb and listening to the stories he shared and lessons he taught me. His incredible intellect and determination were only surpassed by his personal kindness. Pitt Athletics is forever indebted to his passion and support. It is so fitting that our future indoor track will be named in Herb’s honor, ensuring his name and legacy live on to inspire future Pitt student-athletes.”

Douglas received a standing ovation when he was inducted into the inaugural Pitt Athletics Hall of Fame class in 2018. Four years later, at a celebration for Douglas’ 100th birthday, Gallagher announced an even greater recognition: the 300-meter indoor track planned for Pitt’s future Victory Heights facility would be named for one of the Panthers’ all-time greatest athletes: Herbert P. Douglas Jr.

“Herb Douglas meant so much to so many. He was a friend and mentor to me for more than two decades,” said Alonzo Webb, head coach of Pitt’s men’s and women’s track and field and cross-country teams. “Herb had an unwavering commitment to our University and athletics department. Through the Herbert P. Douglas Scholarship, he helped many track and field student-athletes attain a Pitt degree, and he always encouraged them to pursue graduate studies. Herb was a true Pitt ambassador who kept company with Presidents and world leaders. I’ll always treasure our conversations and his wisdom.”

Formative years

Born March 9, 1922, Douglas grew up in Pittsburgh’s Hazelwood neighborhood, where he showed off his remarkable athletic ability, running and playing basketball and competing in other sports at Taylor Allderdice High School.

At just 14, Douglas met Jesse Owens, the legendary Black Olympian who won four gold medals at the 1936 Games in Berlin. Owens placed his arms around the young man and asked Douglas about himself.

“I run the 100-meter dash and do the long jump,” Douglas said.

“That’s more than what I did at your age,” Owens responded, encouraging the teenage Douglas to go to college.

If not for the early discovery of his athleticism, Douglas likely would have followed his father into entrepreneurship rather than going to college. Herbert Paul Douglas Sr. ran a Shadyside parking garage and presided over a close-knit family. As the younger Douglas told Pitt Magazine in summer 2008, his father taught him service, integrity and commitment.

Those values aided a young Douglas as he won city championships in tumbling, sprinting and basketball and state titles in track and field. In 1940, he set a broad jump record at Allderdice that stood for decades.

But breaking sports records and racial barriers wasn’t always easy. Douglas, the first Black basketball player at his high school, quit the squad in 1940 after teammates refused to pass him the ball. Segregation and Jim Crow were the order of the day, yet he continued to excel, winning an athletic scholarship to Xavier University of Louisiana, the country’s only Catholic historically Black college or university.

Ralph Metcalfe, the Xavier coach who recruited Douglas, won four track medals in the 1932 and 1936 Olympics. Under his tutelage in 1942, Douglas’ 440-relay team made Xavier the first Black college to win a national title.

During Douglas’ sophomore year, he returned to Pittsburgh to help manage the family business started by his father, who had lost his sight to a stroke when Douglas was in the first grade. Working with and observing his disciplined father helped Douglas learn to “analyze, organize, initiate and follow through,” he told Pitt Magazine in 2008. “Anyone who follows those four steps can succeed.”

‘The ultimate trailblazer’

Douglas transferred to Pitt in 1945 and starred on the University’s football and track teams from 1945 to 1948. He won four intercollegiate championships in the long jump and one in the 100-yard dash. He additionally captured three national Amateur Athletic Union championships in the long jump.

During his time at Pitt, he became close friends with Jimmy Joe Robinson, another pioneering Black student-athlete. Along with Allen Carter, they became the first Black football players at Pitt.

Then in 1948, he won a bronze medal in London’s Summer Olympics, with a 24-foot, 8.75-inch long jump.

In 1950, Douglas earned a master’s degree in education from Pitt. “More than anything, I wanted to be a coach,” he told Ebony Magazine in 2017. “But Pittsburgh was not employing in the public school system African Americans to be coaches.”

Instead, he turned to sales and marketing, starting at Pabst Brewing Co. By 1963 he moved to Philadelphia when he joined Schieffelin and Co., a premium wine and spirits firm that is now Moët Hennessy US. At Schieffelin and Co., Douglas worked his way to a vice presidency, becoming one of the first Black corporate executives in America to attain such a high position. He spent 30 years there, the last six as a consultant, and retired more than 25 years ago.

As he climbed the corporate ladder, Douglas used his influence to get African Americans hired and then mentored them through promotions. In the course of his work, he befriended civil rights stalwarts such as Medgar Evers, Andrew Young and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He would later go on to meet presidents, including Barack Obama, and other world leaders.

“Trailblazers are those who have the courage and commitment to open doors for others and provide the shoulders that many of us have stood on to achieve success in our lives,” Pitt Board of Trustees Chair Doug Browning said.

“From my first day as a member of the University of Pittsburgh’s Board of Trustees, Herb—the ultimate trailblazer—was there to welcome and guide me,” Browning added. “A proud African American alumnus who understood the transformative power of a Pitt education, Herb was a true champion of and for Pitt. On behalf of the board, his colleagues and friends, my wife, Sheila, and I extend our deepest condolences to Herb’s family members and loved ones during this difficult time.”

HERB DOUGLAS, RIGHT,  with then-Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg and South African President Nelson Mandela.

Lasting legacy

After retiring, Douglas’ focused on a philanthropy that raised support for student athletes and showcased important aspects of the history of African Americans in sport.

Douglas remained friends with fellow Olympian Owens for decades, and founded the International Amateur Athletic Association in 1980 to honor Owens’ achievements. The association recognizes the finest amateur athletes in the world, and recipients have included diver Greg Louganis, runner Mary Decker and track and field athletes Edwin Moses and Roger Kingdom, who Douglas considered to be “surrogate sons.”

Douglas also created the Jesse Owens Global Award for Peace, using the appeal of sports to address social problems. It has honored the likes of United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, President George H.W. Bush and South African President Nelson Mandela.

Pitt Chancellor Emeritus Mark Nordenberg, a close friend to Douglas for many years, said Douglas was especially proud of two documentaries he co-produced with his friend Bob Lott.

The first was produced in connection with a University celebration of the first 100 years of African American athletes competing at Pitt. It was shown at the Petersen Events Center in a program that included sports journalist Bob Costas as emcee and featured CNN’s Fredricka Whitfield.

The second documentary was “The Renaissance of the African American Athlete in Sport.” Though it debuted at Lincoln Center in New York City, Douglas soon showed it at Pitt, where Olympians came to support it. The film focused on the African American track athletes who medaled at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. These were the games that Hitler hoped would establish the supremacy of the Aryan race. Of course, these athletes shattered that myth. The most famous was Jesse Owens, but a Pitt freshman named John Woodruff won the gold medal in the 800 meters. Jackie Robinson’s older brother was also one of the medalists.

In the fall of 2013, Nordenberg presented Douglas with the Chancellor’s Medal at the Varsity Letterwinners Dinner. The Chancellor’s Medal is one of the most prestigious honors awarded by the University and recipients are persons who have left a mark on the proud traditions, values and character inherent in the University of Pittsburgh.

Nordenberg presented medals to both Douglas and businessman and philanthropist John M. Petersen that night and said: “I have been in this office for more than 18 years but never have awarded a Chancellor’s Medal. In fact, only eight such medals have been awarded since Chancellor Litchfield presented the first nearly 50 years ago in 1964, and none has been presented since Chancellor Posvar awarded his last in 1982, more than 30 years ago.”

Even with all the international outreach and networks he built, Douglas remained a champion for his hometown neighborhood of Hazelwood, where a colorful mural still heralds his 1948 Olympic win. When Pitt launched Community Engagement Centers in Pittsburgh’s Homewood and Hill District neighborhoods, he encouraged the University to continue its longstanding work in Hazelwood, a close-knit steel town neighborhood along the banks of the Monongahela River.

Lina Dostilio, vice chancellor of engagement and community affairs, remembers a conversation in 2017 when Douglas was excited about how Pitt was already engaging in terms of work development, child development and other health and education outreach to his home community as it recovered from the decline of the steel industry and “wanted to see Pitt’s support and investment in the people of Hazelwood go on.”

The Rev. Tim Smith moved to Hazelwood as a teenager in 1979, and he became deeply involved in the community. He eventually founded and leads the nonprofit community organization Center of Life and befriended Douglas a few decades ago. Douglas, Smith said, “has always been a big supporter of Hazelwood.” He recalled Douglas’ efforts to pull together scholarships for kids to participate in a Jesse Owens track competition, the time he took to connect the Center of Life and the whole community with Pitt to bring education and other resources to Hazelwood.

“He brought attention to bear to Hazelwood. He has a lot of history with Hazelwood, and we’re trying to build on that,” said Smith.

Roger Kingdom (CGS ’02), who won Olympic gold in the 110-meter high hurdles in 1984 and 1988, was a Pitt sophomore when he met Douglas more than three decades ago.

Kingdom described Douglas as a father-like mentor who gave him advice for the Olympics and continually pushed him to earn his bachelor’s degree—which took Kingdom more than 20 years to complete.

“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.’ That wisdom made a major difference for me and so many others. I hope I can touch even a fraction of the lives he did. Daddy Herb, we love you and thank you for giving so much to make this world a better place.”

Douglas was predeceased by his parents, Herbert P. Douglas Sr. and Ilessa Douglas; his sister, Barbara Joy Stevens; and his son, Herbert P. Douglas III.

He is survived by daughter Barbara Joy Ralston of Copenhagen, Denmark; daughter-in-law Susan Douglas of Richmond, VA; four grandchildren, Tracy Douglas of Richmond, VA, Christopher Douglas of Aldie, VA, Mikel Christianson of Copenhagen, Denmark, and Anja Besnik of Vienna, Austria; as well as by great-grandchildren, grandnieces and grandnephews.

Memorial contributions can be made to the Herbert P. Douglas Jr. Scholarship at the University of Pittsburgh. Service details are

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