Another Olympics has sped by, stirring warm memories of a golden 10.3 seconds I shared with a man called “Bones” six decades ago. He did the running, I did the rooting from the cheap seats among a throng of 83,000 in London’s Wembley Stadium.
The world had waited 12 years for restoration of the Games in 1948, and no one dreamed of this day more than the skinny “Bones,” a guy built like a coat rack whose straight name was William Harrison Dillard.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t supposed to be his day. Standing atop the victory podium, a gold medal dangling from his neck – immediate successor to Jesse Owens as the world’s fastest human – Dillard couldn’t help but think he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Yes, he was an Olympic champion, inspired
by the illustrious Owens who came from the same east Cleveland neighborhood. But he hadn’t set out that season to capture the 100 meter prize. And “Bones” couldn’t have imagined being in Beijing to celebrate the 60th anniversary of his startling triumph. But he was: a spry 86-year-old, courtesy of Baldwin-Wallace College President Dick Durst and alma mater as he should have been, a predecessor of Usain Bolt.
Hurdling was his shtick, and he stood out as the best ever to come along, holding all the world records. He was practically conceded Olympic gold in the 110 meter hurdles.
It didn’t happen that way though. In one of the strangest, most improbable twists in Olympic annals, Dillard was blanked in the hurdles, yet barely got on the boat to London as a sprinting spare tabbed for a spot in the 400 meter relay.
Growing up on the campus of Baldwin-Wallace in Berea, Ohio, a small town outside of Cleveland, I started in journalism as a paper boy with a Cleveland Plain Dealer route. One of my customers was the college track coach, effusive, bow-tie flaunting Eddie Finnigan, who didn’t mind talking sports to a little kid. Me.
Eddie was particularly jubilant in telling me in 1941 he’d landed Harrison Dillard to be the centerpiece of his team. Really? It seemed a bit much for tiny B-W. After all Dillard was the state schoolboy champ in high and low hurdles, and Ohio State wanted him.
“I wanted Ohio State, too,” Dillard says, “because Jesse Owens had gone there. But I got cold feet. It was so big and 140 miles away from home. B-W was only an hour away…small…friendly, and Eddie was very persuasive.”
Those sophomore feet turned hot for B-W in 1943 (freshmen weren’t eligible in that day), as he won everything in sight, indoors and outdoors. His tour de force was powering B-W to the Ohio Conference crown by taking the 100 and 220 yard dashes, the high and low hurdles and anchoring the triumphant 880 yard relay team. And then – poof! – he was gone, already drafted into the U.S. Army, but on a weekend pass.
Just another GI vanished into the war, Dillard was soon shipped to Europe as an infantryman.
Would we see him again? Coach Finnigan and I worried about him, an extraordinarily bright, poised young man of quality as well as a potential world-beater. The expression wasn’t around then, but “Bones” was cool.
For almost two years nothing was heard of him. “He’ll come back,” the coach would tell me, “and he’ll take us to the Olympics.” Finnigan knew I wanted to be a sports writer, but talk of an Olympics while World War II raged was heady stuff, difficult for a 14-year-old to grasp.
As the war was wearing down, we learned that Pfc Dillard had survived heavy combat on the Italian front, chasing the Germans northward on the peninsula. He would be returning to Berea and college, and I would be chronicling his feats for the weekly Berea Enterprise – 5 bucks a week for writing and laying out the sports page.
Dillard, unbeaten indoors in 1946-47-48, had a strange winter training ground: Beech Street in Berea. Coach Finningan would place two hurdles on the pavement and send the balletic “Bones” through his fluid paces – also playing traffic cop to make sure his star wasn’t fallen.
Snowfall made it more difficult, a retreat to the college’s aged gym with room for only one hurdle. There Dillard departed from one end of the basketball court, glided over the barrier and crashed into mats at the far end. Again and again as the coach prayed with every crash. No worries. His man, slight but so loose and limber, was up to whatever primitive practice conditions were available. How he could fly over those obstacles.
But, for whatever reason that he still can’t fathom, he wasn’t up to the Olympic trials. Despite his world record-holding status as a shoo-in, he flunked the final, knocking over the first three hurdles, left staring sadly at the backs of his rivals.
Two weeks before the trials, my pal Bob Beach, editor of the college newspaper, decided, “We’ve got to be there…London…covering ‘Bones’ winning the gold.” To me. a B-W freshman, it seemed impossible. But Bob convinced me that we could use our meager savings, beg and borrow from parents and relatives, and somehow pool enough funds to make it. We bought tickets on an ex-troop ship that lazily crossed the Atlantic in nine days from New York to Southampton. Also splurged on the most expensive seats on the finish line for the day of the hurdles. Otherwise all we could afford was huge Wembley Stadium’s distant daily general admission section.
Jolted by Dillard’s flop in the trials that ended his 82 race winning streak, Beach and I reconsidered our debts. Should we go anyway? No gold, but, still, “Bones” would be in London, on the team. He and Coach Finnigan had decided to also enter him in the 100 meter eliminations as well. If he finished as high as fourth, there would be a place for him on the 400 meter relay team, and a probable gold.
A day before his hurdles collapse, he came in third in the 100. That meant he would represent the U.S. in that event, too. A very long shot, especially considering that Mel Patton of Southern California, possessing the world record, headed the American sprinters.
But it was a shot. So we kept our boat tickets, and hoped Dillard might get a bronze.
Finnigan’s prophecy of five years before, that we would ride “Bones” to the Olympics, was coming true.
London, still recovering from the war, suffering bomb damage and continuing rationing of food, gasoline, clothing and just about everything else, was existing, nevertheless, in a period called “austerity.” The famous lights of Piccadilly Circus were turned off to save electricity, and black marketeers and hookers were hustling for dollars, appropriately, in the darkness. Restaurant food was pretty awful and limited (greatly improved over the last 30 years), and Beach and I learned to drink tea which could quench hunger.
But the people were welcoming, thrilled that the world was coming together with the Olympics in their backyard. Nothing fancy like today, however. For openers, Lord Burghley, a British athlete at Berlin in 1936, read the Olympic oath, declared, “Let the Games begin!” – and the Olympic era was re-connected.
Dillard zipped through the heats commandingly into the final along with the other two Yanks, Barney Ewell and the favorite , Mel Patton.
A lovely July day greeted the six finalists as they took their lanes on the cinder track. We were so far away, straining to see as the gun went off. I’m sure Bob and and I held our breath for the 10.3 seconds the winner took. But who was he? They were a blur at the finish, “Bones” right up there, we thought. Ewell was bounding about in what seemed an ominous victory dance, thinking he’d won or trying to influence the judges?
“I felt the tape on my chest,” Dillard remembers. “I thought I won. Lloyd LaBeach of Jamaica, who finished third, told Ewell, ‘Bones’ won it, Barney. But there was a long wait for the decision. It was the first Olympics to use a photo finish. I made it by 20 inches over Barney,”
The wait seemed interminable. Maybe a half hour. Then the public address announcer: “Result of the 100 meter dash…first, H. Dillard, United States of America…”
We didn’t care about the rest. Not in Ewell’s league as dancers, we tried anyway. This was sweet redemption for Dillard. Prior to the trials, during a crowded civic dinner in his honor at a Cleveland hotel, he got carried away. Called to the microphone, self-effacing “Bones” uncharacteristically promised to win the hurdles and bring gold back to Cleveland as Jesse Owens had done in 1936.
But he made Olympic history anyway as a champion shut out in his specialty, then shifting gears to dig unexpected gold. Four years later he reasserted his greatness as a hurdler, taking the gold in Helsinki.
After seeing him from afar on the podium, we – Bob and I and B-W teammate Dale Lucal — were determined to shake his hand. We asked for the dressing room, and were politely given directions. At the door stood a large bobby.
“We’re friends of Mr. Dillard,” said I hopefully.
“Go right in, gentlemen,” said he with a smile. Imagine that today.
Calm as ever “Bones” handed over the medal for inspection. It was like holding the Hope Diamond, and Finnigan glowed like a gem. Nervously Beach dropped it and it rolled across the concrete floor with five of us in pursuit. Its owner was the first to scoop it. Harrison Dillard, after all, was the world’s fastest human.