The Greatest Athlete of Them All?

The Greatest Athlete of Them All?
By James Collver, President, The Celtic Club

Jesse Owens was the greatest athlete in Cleveland sports history. He won four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. His performance in the 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump and 4×100 relay ruined Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler’s planned demonstration of white supremacy. Overlooked by many today Owens endured the usual humiliations of American Apartheid as a Black American. He received an athletic scholarship to Ohio State- unheard of at that time- and in the 1935 Big Ten championship meet Owens broke or tied four world records in an hour. What Owens did on the Nazi’s Olympic stage with their racism and his repudiation of it was of more consequence than anything done by any American athlete in any other era.

To honor the memory of Jesse Owens the Celtic Club has planted four oak trees- one each at the MAC Center at Kent State University, Visitation of Mary Catholic Church in Akron, the Riverfront Family YMCA in Cuyahoga Falls and the University of Akron Lee Jackson Track and Field Complex.

With each gold medal Jesse Owens also received an oak sapling from the Black Forest in Germany. With the assistance of the Urban Forestry Department at Ohio State, where it was rumored, but never confirmed, that Owens planted one of the saplings, the Celtic Club learned the oaks Owens received were English oaks. The Club was advised by several garden centers that Pin Oaks would be a better fit for Summit/Portage counties. Part of the intent of the Green Man Project was to help improve the tree canopy of the community. In Celtic mythology the Green Man represented spring or rebirth.

On April 26th the Celtic Club held a planting /dedication in memory of Jesse Owens of a fifteen foot pin oak at the MAC Center on the campus of Kent State University. The oak was also planted in honor of two Kent State men’s basketball team mates, long time West Akron resident John Collver (95 years young) and Bill Cox. Mr. Cox was the third Black athlete at Kent State. He was also a conference high jump champion. Both men graduated in 1950. Mr. Cox died in 2019 at the age of 97.

On May 15th the Celtic Club held a second planting and blessing/dedication in memory of Jesse Owens at Visitation of Mary Catholic Church in Akron. The dedication was also in honor of John Collver, Bill Cox and Mary Rita (Murray) Klein. Mary Rita, a long time West Akron resident (her family ran the antiquarian bookstore The Bookseller in Wallhaven) was co-founder of the Celtic Club. She passed away in 2007 and Visitation of Mary (previously Annunciation) was her Parish.

A third oak tree planting/dedication took place at the Riverfront Family YMCA in Cuyahoga Falls on June 24th with the same honorees and a fourth oak tree planting/dedication took place at the University of Akron track on September 30th in memory of Jesse Owens and the first male (Emmer Lancaster 1919-1921) and female (Tracie Haynes 1982-1986) Black track student-athletes at the University of Akron.

City of Akron Ward One Councilwoman Nancy Holland and Summit County Ward Four Councilman Jeffrey Wilhite both attended the UA planting/dedication and provided the Celtic Club with proclamations. Also in attendance was the new UA track and field coach Kendra Reimer and members of the UA track team. Father Dismas Byaguraba, the Administrator of Visitation of Mary Catholic Church and St. John the Baptist Catholic Church performed the blessing and dedication for three of the four oak trees.

The Celtic Club Green Man Project has garnered widespread community praise. The Club has received proclamations/letters of recognition from Ohio State University, Kent State University, Summit County Executive Ilene Shapiro, Summit County Council, Portage County Commissioners, City of Kent- with more expected. Bill Bertka, long time NBA Los Angeles Lakers coach/scout and Kent State team mate of John Collver and Bill Cox and Akron Buchtel High School graduate, wrote, “Congratulationson the recognition you are receiving for your Oak Tree Project. Well deserved. A living monument for generations to see.”

Jesse Owens

Pictured (L-R)- Father Dismas Byarugaba, UA track members Avalonn Harper and Janay Bass, UA Track and Field Coach Kendra Reimer, UA track members Adaeze Nwokike and Fegor Clifford; standing (L-R)- Tim Yeager, Celtic Club Vice President John Collver, Celtic Club President James Collver, UA Grounds Department Superintendent Gregg Parks, Akron City Ward One Councilwoman Nancy Holland, Summit County Ward Four Councilman Jeffrey Wilhite, UA Grounds Crew Department members Tara Smiley-Pollitt, Jeff Pollitt, Tony Zita, Dan Wallis and Wes Dyer.

Celtic Club of Ohio: 330-867-0485. [email protected]

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