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A mystery of Olympic proportions
By TONY PHIFER
Courtesy of city of Fort Collins
Bill Wagner, from left, then University President Charles A. Lory and Glenn Morris take part in the Presentation of the Oak ceremony Sept. 10, 1936. Morris was given the sapling by Adolf Hitler after winning the decathlon gold medal in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany.
Notable Olympic oaks
Jack Lovelock, New Zealand - Lovelock, who won gold in the men's 1,500, planted his oak at Timaru Boys High School, where he attended school. The tree was sickly at first but still thrives today. For decades, students have gathered acorns and planted second-generation trees throughout the island nation.
Willi Kaiser, Germany - Kaiser, who won the gold in boxing in the flyweight division, planted his tree near Gladbeck Stadium in his hometown. The tree was celebrated during the 1972 Munich Olympics but then was all but forgotten by the town. Kaiser personally cared for the tree and a commemorative plaque for the final 15 years of his life.
Roberto Cavanagh, Argentina - As captain of the gold-medal polo team, Cavanagh chose to plant the seedling on the grounds of the Polo Association at Palermo. Nearly 50 years ago, the tree was uprooted during some construction when a loaded cement truck backed into it, but it survived and thrived.
John Woodruff, U.S. - Woodruff, who won the 800 meters, planted his tree near the stadium in his hometown of Connellsville, Pa. The tree not only is thriving, it is the only one in the U.S. that produces fertile acorns, and numerous second-generation trees have been grown from them.
Jesse Owens, U.S. - Owens brought home four of the trees as the most-decorated athlete at the 1936 Games. All four trees may survive, but the only one known to be alive is at James Ford Rose High School in Cleveland, where he ran on the track to prepare for the Olympics.
Kenneth Carpenter and Foy Draper, U.S. - Draper, who joined Owens on the 400-meter relay team, and Carpenter, who won the discus, planted their trees on the campus of the University of Southern California. Both included commemorative plaques. One of the trees died last spring but since has been replaced by a seedling from the Woodruff tree in Associated Park at USC.
Jack Beresford, Great Britain - Beresford, who won gold in double sculls (rowing), planted his tree at the Bedford School, where it lived near the gymnasium. It was cut down in 1978, but the planks were saved and have since been used to make plaques for all outstanding junior oarsmen.
Naoto Tajima, Japan - Tajima, who set a world record in the triple jump, planted his oak at Kyoto University. It survives, along with a plaque honoring Tajima and Maseo Harada, who won the silver medal.
Kenneth R, brooks/The (Connellsville, Pa.) Tribun
The oak tree given to Connellsville, Pa., native John Y. Woodruff still grows at Falcon stadium in Connellsville and produces fertile acorns that have grown into second-generation Olympic oaks. Woodruff won the Olympic gold in the 800 meters in Berlin in 1936.
Courtesy University of Southern California
Jerry Papazian, a representative of the University of Southern California's Skull and Dagger Society, speaks during a dedication ceremony for a new oak tree planted to replace an Olympic oak. The original tree was given to American athlete Foy Draper by Adolf Hitler after winning a gold medal at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.
Courtesy City of Fort Collins
Glenn Morris addresses the crowd Sept. 10, 1936, during the Presentation of the Oak tree ceremony at Colorado State College of Agricultural and Mechanical arts, now Colorado State University.
It should be 40 feet tall - perhaps taller - its sturdy limbs reaching high into the Colorado sky. Its familiar leaves should be providing shade on hot summer days, and acorns should cover the ground beneath its expanse every autumn.
But it's not there - not where it should be, at least. It should be near Johnson Hall on Colorado State University's famed Oval, standing guard over the most-historic part of the campus.
CSU's famed elms, which line the Oval and give the landmark its beauty and character, and a few other scattered varieties of trees are in the vicinity, but the oak - the Glenn Morris oak - is nowhere to be found.
"Quite frankly, I don't know what happened to it," said retired CSU professor and historian Jim Hansen.
No one seems to know. The oak, one of 130 given to gold medalists at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, was to be planted some time after Morris presented the seedling to his alma mater after winning the decathlon.
Morris' hometown of Simla wanted the tree, as did Denver, which threw Morris a ticker-tape parade. And why not? Morris was the state's first Olympic gold medalist, and he was considered a national hero.
Morris, though, wanted to plant the tree at CSU. He had grown there from an unknown farm kid to national hero, and it seemed fitting that his oak should grow there, too.
The seedling, a gift of the German people, was one of 24 presented to American champions. The trees were to be planted in the winner's native land, and on each pot was inscribed, "Grow to the honour of victory! Summon to further achievement!"
That charge has been carried out in numerous countries. Many of the surviving trees are national treasures in their home countries, and the men and women who won them still are honored as heroes.
The majority of the trees, however, no longer exist, and most of the athletes who won them - including Morris - are long gone. The trees were meant to keep alive the memory of the athletic heroes who achieved glory in Berlin at a volatile time when the world stood on the brink of war.
Time, though, has clouded memories, leaving the fate of many of the 1936 Olympic oaks a mystery.
"We'll probably never know what happened to many of them," said James Constandt, author of "The 1936 Olympic Oaks: Where Are They Now?" "It really is unfortunate that these national treasures are not documented."
Morris and his U.S. Olympic teammates almost didn't get to go to Berlin. Adolf Hitler's iron fist was tightening on the German people, and anti-Semitism was rampant in that country. Alarmed Jewish groups, the NAACP and numerous politicians called for a U.S. boycott of the Games, and the movement was gaining momentum as summer approached.
American Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage, who later served more than 20 years as president of the International Olympic Committee, was determined to send the U.S. team.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt declined to address the issue, and the U.S. team departed by ship.
When the Americans arrived, they found that Hitler and the Nazis had taken over both the Games and the German team.
Hitler and his propaganda machine were determined to use the great athletic spectacle to showcase the new order.
Many German and Austrian Jews were not allowed to compete as Hitler sought to show the world the supposed superiority of the Aryan race.
The unquestioned star of the Games, however, was black American sprinter Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals - a great irritant to Hitler.
Morris, too, was a star, winning the grueling, 10-event decathlon, and, apparently, Hitler's favor.
The fuehrer watched intently during the decathlon's final event, the 1,500 meters, pounding his fist into his hand as Morris struggled to the finish.
Eva Braun, Hitler's mistress, insisted on placing the victor's olive wreath around Morris' head.
Despite the efforts of Owens, Morris and the other Americans, Germany ended up dominating the medal count with 33 golds.
The U.S. was second with 24, followed by Hungary with 10. The Soviet Union, which would emerge as a dominant force in future Games, did not participate in 1936 or any other Olympiad until 1952.
It's difficult to imagine a more unlikely gold medalist than Morris. Born in St. Louis in 1912 - he would have turned 93 last week - his family moved to the sand hills of Eastern Colorado when he was 3, settling on a farm three miles north of tiny Simla.
Morris was a great athlete in high school and was determined to use his ability to escape his poor background.
While he was successful - he won six events at the conference track meet his senior year - there was little indication of impending greatness.
He finished third in the low hurdles at the 1930 state meet, then decided to enroll at CSU - then called Colorado State College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts.
Morris blossomed at CSU, becoming a star in both track and football. There were no athletic scholarships, so he had to work his way through school. His striking good looks and athletic success made him popular among his peers, who voted him president of Associated Students his senior year in 1935. He graduated with a degree in economics.
Morris competed in as many as five events at track meets for CSU and quickly distinguished himself as one of the area's best athletes.
"I still think he was the best CSU has had," said John Toliver, a Fort Collins High School graduate who competed with Morris on CSU's track team. "He was one tremendous athlete."
Morris became intrigued with the decathlon during the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. He witnessed his first 10-event competition at the Kansas Relays in 1935. Harry Hughes, the CSU coaching legend for whom Hughes Stadium is named, agreed to work with Morris, who had never attempted the pole vault or 1,500 meters.
When he wasn't working to support himself, Morris could be found practicing at CSU's South College Fieldhouse.
The 6-foot, 180-pound Morris returned to the Kansas Relays the following spring and, in his first decathlon, broke the existing American record. He next set his sights on the U.S. Olympic Trials that June, which he won with a world-record total of 7,880 points.
When he arrived in Berlin, Morris was determined to win the gold medal and break his world record. He did both, closing with a stirring personal-best time in the 1,500, to score 7,900 points and beat out Bob Clark (7,601) and Jack Parker (7,257), leading an Americans sweep of the medals.
As is customary for the Olympic decathlon champion, Morris was dubbed "the world's greatest athlete" for his all-around prowess. When the team returned from the Games, Morris was honored at a ticker-tape parade in New York City, followed by a similar parade in downtown Denver.
At year's end, Morris - not Owens, who now is hailed as the hero of the Games - received the prestigious Sullivan Award, which is given annually to the nation's top amateur athlete.
Unlike current athletic stars, Olympic champions were not compensated for their efforts. There were opportunities, however, for Morris to cash in on his fame, and the Colorado farm kid did so in a most unfamiliar way - starring in a Tarzan movie.
Morris, who appeared in two movies during a brief Hollywood career, starred in "Tarzan's Revenge" with Olympic swimmer Eleanor Holm. There was little on-screen chemistry, the plot was bad and the movie was a disappointment at the box office.
Even hard-core Tarzan fans find it difficult to watch - especially with the title character uttering just four words during the film.
"It was a bad movie," said former Coloradoan sports editor Mike Chapman, who wrote the definitive Morris biography, "The Gold and the Glory."
Morris tried to play pro football in 1940 but was injured during his first game with the Detroit Lions. One of his teammates was Wellington native Byron "Whizzer" White, who would go on to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Divorced and needing money, Morris started selling insurance in Denver before enlisting in the Navy in 1942 at age 29. He went on to serve heroically, winning numerous medals and rising to the rank of lieutenant.
Morris moved to California after World War II, drifting from job to job. Ravaged by poor health, including emphysema and high blood pressure, he died in 1974. He was 61.
A photo in the Sept. 16, 1936, issue of the Rocky Mountain Collegian features Morris and CSU President Charles Lory as Morris presented his oak - the seedling appears to be some 18 inches tall - to the school.
The accompanying story said the tree would be allowed to grow in CSU's nursery before being planted at Johnson Hall, which was the student union at the time.
But that's where the trail grows cold. Neither the Collegian nor Coloradoan mentions the tree in subsequent years.
Hansen, whose "Democracy's College in the Centennial State" is a meticulous history of CSU from its inception, said he never has seen a reference to the tree nor heard of its existence, save for a brief mention in his book describing the ceremony at which Morris gave the seedling to Lory.
Gil Fechner, a CSU graduate and longtime professor of forestry at the school, is not aware of the existence of the Morris oak.
There are a few oaks near Johnson Hall, including three in "Sherwood Forest" between the forestry and natural resources buildings, but Fechner said they are either native American species or not old enough to be Morris' tree.
Toliver and Andy Mair, who graduated from Wellington High School and grew up with White, the great University of Colorado All-American, both knew Morris and remember him and his exploits. Neither, however, recalls anything about the tree.
Morris Ververs, a 1967 CSU graduate who grew up in Simla, has been intrigued by Morris' legacy for a number of years. His father-in-law was Morris' first cousin, and Ververs managed to acquire many of Morris' trophies and other awards - including the gold medal - from Morris' brother several years ago.
Ververs, the former principal at Simla High School and superintendent of schools, keeps the gold medal locked in a safe.
He, too, wonders about the fate of the oak. Was it destroyed in one of three major floods that have ravaged the CSU campus? Did insects, disease or a harsh winter claim the tree?
Was it ever planted? There is no known marker on campus.
"I've been up to campus a couple of times wondering which tree it could be," he said. "It just makes me sad because so much about Glenn has been forgotten. His memory seems to have faded into the sunset."
That's not uncommon for the 1936 champions or their trees. Constandt's book, published in 1994, managed to trace just 16 living oaks worldwide, although a handful of others have since been found. Disease or insects claimed some, lightning others. Many, particularly those planted in Germany, were destroyed during World War II. Some never were planted.
"Some of the winners were 18 or 19 years old, and they traveled around Europe after the Games," Constandt said. "Those kids didn't want to carry a tree around with them. I'm sure some of them ended up in the English Channel.
"The problem now is that the athletes, if they are still alive, are at least 80 years old and probably in their 90s. A lot of them have no idea what happened to their trees."
The good news is that some of the surviving oaks, including John Woodruff's tree in Connellsville, Pa., have produced fertile acorns. As a result, several second-generation trees have been planted at or near the site of their original planting.
"That would be wonderful if we could do that," said CSU coach Del Hessel, who along with Ververs is involved in a campaign to get the fieldhouse where Morris trained named in his honor. "Morris is probably the greatest athlete CSU has ever seen. We need to keep this man's memory alive."
Originally published June 26, 2005
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