Jesse Owens Olympic Oak Tree wins big


Wednesday, October 12, 2022; Ceremony to plant a Jesse Owens Oak tree sapling to replace the original tree; James Ford Rhodes High School, 5100 Biddulph Road: Holden Forest and Gardens Tree Corps members planted a sapling propagated from one of four English oak trees given to Clevelander Jesse Owens upon winning his gold medals at the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin, Germany. Owens planted one of the oaks at Rhodes High School where he practiced for his track meets. Tree Corps members involved in planting the sapling: (L-R) Margaret Thresher, Jill Koski, Matt St. John, Amanda Wood, Dennis Curtindale, Melissa Dougherty and Jessica Miller (in the back on the right).

by Erik Ault

            (Plain Press, November 2022) Behind the racetrack at Rhodes High School stood one of Cleveland’s most iconic emblems of personal achievement and social justice– a silent witness, weathering many seasons but its time was running out.

   Jesse Owens was a Cleveland transplant from Alabama. The nine-year-old arrived with his family in the twenties in search of better economic opportunities not afforded to them in the South. Jesse went to Fairmount Junior High School, where he was coached by Charles Riley in track. The east sider continued to excel in track at East Tech High, even though he would train at the James Ford Rhodes High School on the west side.

   Jesse would go on to set world records while attending Ohio State University. The next year, he represented the United States in the 1936 Olympics. Despite the racial discrimination he faced as a Black man at home and under the scrutinizing eyes of the Nazi regime, Jesse won four gold medals, thus proving to the world that success is not determined by skin color.

   The German government gifted the gold medalists with oak saplings. Jesse came home with one for each of his Olympic triumphs. He planted them at various spots of personal significance to him. Three of these trees are now lost to time, and the last verifiable tree, the one at Rhodes High where he trained, was nearing its end. But its condition was not going unnoticed.

   In February of 2017, someone from the Holden Arboretum contacted Jeff Verespej, who was then the executive director of the Old Brooklyn Community Development Corporation, asking him about taking tree samples. According to Jeff, the arborists came and climbed the tree, taking samples called scions as tiny as his pinky. They were able to graft these onto related stock trees, thus growing exact genetic specimens. In other words, they successfully cloned Jesse Owens’ original tree.

   In May of 2021, the Tree Corps of Holden Arboretum planted one of these specimens in Rockefeller Park. That would also be the last year the tree at Rhodes High produced foliage. It died completely that winter, but the folks at Holden Arboretum were prepared for the inevitable.

   The original tree, now completely lifeless, was trimmed back and in its shadow, one of the clones was planted. A dedication ceremony was held at the school on October 12. In attendance was Jeff Verespej; Tyrone Owens, a cousin of Jesse and former football coach at Rhodes High; and a team from Holden Arboretum; as well as students and school faculty. The replica was planted by some of Holden Arboretum’s Tree Corps: Dennis Curtindale, Matt St. John, Melissa Dougherty, and Amanda Wood (facilitator).

   There are more saplings yet to be planted. It is hoped that these may be planted around our community to live as a reminder of what Jesse Owens accomplished and inspire others to aim higher in spite of insurmountable odds.

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