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Jim O’Brien: From Hazelwood to London still long jump for Douglas

July 28, 2012
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Jim O’Brien: From Hazelwood to London still long jump for Douglas

Pittsburgh sports author and Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien

Herb Douglas Jr. is a boyhood hero who has stood the test of time.  As a 26-year-old graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, Douglas won a bronze medal in the long jump in the 1948 Summer Olympic Games in London, and parlayed his celebrity status in sports into a successful business career.

He lives in Philadelphia, but he has maintained his boyhood home in Hazelwood and stays there when he returns to coordinate special recognition programs for track & field and African-American athletes at his alma mater.  He has served on the board of trustees at the University of Pittsburgh and now enjoys emeritus status.  He is in the Taylor Allderdice High School Hall of Fame.

“He’s a good friend and counselor,” said Chancellor Mark Nordenberg.  “Herb has always been a point of pride for the University of Pittsburgh, and leads us in so many ways.”

Douglas is departing Philadelphia on Thursday, July 27 for a week-long stay in London during the Olympic Games with several of his teammates from the 1948 USA Olympic team.  At 90, he is the oldest surviving Olympic track & field medalist, and will serve as an ambassador for the University of Pittsburgh.

He returned to Pittsburgh last month to place his memorabilia in a time capsule on a wall where many prominent Pittsburghers are honored at the Heinz History Center. Douglas has been cited as a “History Maker” at the Senator John Heinz History Center, is hailed in the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum and he celebrated his 85th and 90th birthdays at gala events there that were attended by Olympians and sports celebrities, as well as family and close friends.

“Herb Douglas has a special place in so many respects here at the Heinz History Center,” said Andy Masisch, the president and CEO of the center in the city’s Strip District.  Douglas has become a good friend of Franco Harris.  “He’s taught me a lot about our history,” said Harris, who chairs the Champions Committee there.

Douglas spoke over the telephone from his apartment in Philadelphia earlier this month, and a sense of excitement and anticipation resonated in his usually steady voice.

“There was a photographer here yesterday from The New York Daily News who took a picture of me and my Olympic medal,” declared Douglas.  “That’s the first time, strangely enough, that has happened.  I needed that, too, to pass along.

“I feel good about all of this, everything.  It was 64 years ago that I won that medal, but it stays with me. I was a person who used the Olympics to open up business opportunities.”

He says he was inspired by the gold medal efforts of Jesse Owens and John Woodruff and what African-American athletes achieved in the 1936 Olympic Games.  “We didn’t have role models before that,” said Douglas.

In 1950, Douglas became a sales representative and district manager in Milwaukee for Pabst Blue Ribbon.  In 1963, he left Pabst to join Schieffelin & Company, importers of such premium brands as Hennessy Cognac, Moet and Chandon Champagnes.

Douglas was credited for boosting sales in urban communities, and for promoting minority hiring in his company.  He was named a vice-president of special markets in Milwaukee in 1968, and a vice-president of urban market development in 1984.  He worked for the company, now known as Moet & Hennessy for 30 years, 24 years as an employee and six more years as a consultant.  He formally retired in 1987.

He is reputed to be among the first African-American athletes, along with Jackie Robinson and Joe Black of the Brooklyn Dodgers, to use sports as a springboard for success as vice-presidents for national concerns.

Douglas met President Barack Obama in Denver this year.  “He put his arm around me and said, ‘I stand on your shoulders.’  He said he hopes he looks as good as me when he is 90.  I told him he’d look better because he’s better-looking.”

Douglas believes four basics serve anyone well.  His motto has been “analyze, organize, initiate and follow through.”

To which he adds, “Get yourself someone you can trust like a brother, a good finance person, a good business lawyer, and work hard and you have a chance to be a winner.”

Jim O’Brien is the author of “Hometown Heroes” and 20 books in his “Pittsburgh Proud” series.  His website is www.jimobriensportsauthor.com

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