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The Champion

One month, Bob Mathias was a high school track star. The next, he was the world’s greatest athlete.

Courtesy Stanford University Archives

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By Brian Eule

When Bob Mathias represented part of California’s Central Valley in Congress, a woman from the southern part of his district called his office one day to complain that she hadn’t received her Social Security check. Mathias’s friend and aide Bob Jennings suggested they mail the check to the woman, but the congressman decided to guarantee its delivery instead. When he walked up to Hattie Crawford’s small wood-frame house with check in hand, she was delighted. “Lord, have mercy,” she cried out. “You’re Bob Mathias.”

Crawford’s reaction was not uncommon. Her congressman’s face had once graced the covers of both Time and Life magazines after he became a national hero at 17, winning the decathlon at the 1948 London Games. Throughout Mathias’s life, people were thrilled to meet the modest, smiling All-American boy who garnered Olympic gold—and 200 offers of marriage—just three months after competing in his first decathlon. A two-time Olympic champion and four-term congressman, Mathias, ’53, died of cancer on September 2 at his home in Fresno, Calif. He was 75 years old.

Mathias was Tulare High School’s football and track star in 1948 when his coach first suggested he try the decathlon. Mathias had never thrown a javelin before, but two competitions later, the prep standout qualified for that summer’s Olympics. When he left for London, Mathias thought of it as “a nice trip,” says his older brother, Eugene, who accompanied him to the Games. “When he won the trials, he thought that was a freak thing.” But “everything he did, he just did better every time.”

Tulare, Calif., is a small Central Valley farm town, north of Bakersfield and south of Fresno along State Route 99. While Mathias competed for 12 hours in a rainy London, on a soggy track and a dark field that had officials struggling to make out the distance of javelin throws, the people of Tulare waited for the radio reports. After news reached town that Mathias had pulled off the victory, becoming the youngest man ever to win an Olympic track and field event, Tulare’s then-12,000 residents celebrated, sounding car horns, screaming in the streets, and pulling the town’s fire whistle. In London, reporters asked Mathias what he would do to celebrate. The teenager replied, much to their delight, that he’d start shaving, he guessed.

Mathias returned to the United States a celebrity. After first arriving by ship in New York, then flying to California, Mathias was greeted at the Visalia Airport by a brass band and more than 2,000 fans. His picture was plastered on store windows; flags and pennants covered the streets; and a parade took him through Tulare. A month later, he posed for pictures with President Truman.

Mathias’s father, a doctor and former college football player at the University of Oklahoma, frequently had driven his sons to Palo Alto to watch Stanford football games. By the time of Mathias’s Olympic feat, his brother Eugene played football for Stanford. In 1949, Mathias followed his brother to the Farm. “They didn’t have to do much recruiting,” says Eugene, ’49, MA ’51, MD ’57.

On campus, Mathias was a celebrity, not only for winning Olympic gold, but also for leading Stanford over USC as a running back, scoring two fourth-quarter touchdowns to take the school to the 1952 Rose Bowl. Despite Mathias’s national fame, his Phi Gamma Delta fraternity brothers don’t recall him acting any way but gracious and humble. Even when the house received unexpected visitors.

“One day, I heard the doorbell ring,” classmate Kirk Evans recalls. “I answered the door and a few little young boys asked if Bob Mathias lived there. I took them upstairs and Bob sat and talked with them for half an hour.”

Mathias continued with his athletic achievements—competing on Stanford’s track team alongside future Los Angeles Times publisher Otis Chandler, ’50; winning the 1952 Olympic decathlon to become the first repeat champion in the event—but at 21 years old, he still had several different careers left in him.

“John Wayne talked him into trying to make a movie,” Eugene says. “I think he enjoyed that [but] I don’t think he ever thought he was much of an actor.” Mathias played himself in The Bob Mathias Story (1954) and had parts in a handful of other movies and in the television series Troubleshooters (1959). But acting wasn’t his calling. “He was always genuine. He couldn’t be anybody else,” his former Tulare High and Stanford classmate Bob Hoegh says.

After profiting from The Bob Mathias Story, Mathias was deemed a professional and declared ineligible to participate in future Olympic Games. Thus he went undefeated in the grueling decathlon. In the early 1960s, he served as the director of the Bob Mathias Sierra Boys and Girls Camp, a summer camp in Kings Canyon National Park.

In 1966, Tulare’s favorite son was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, having become interested in politics while answering questions about the United States during goodwill tours to other countries. A Republican, he represented part of the San Joaquin Valley for four terms, serving on the House agriculture committee in his first year. He lost his bid for election to a fifth term in 1974, during the fallout of Watergate and after his once-conservative rural district was redrawn to include more urban Democrats.

Three years later, Mathias became the director of the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. He eventually would move back to the Central Valley, where it was well known that his number was listed in the phone book. For decades he got together with his Stanford fraternity brothers, meeting many of them periodically in Tucson to take in Stanford-Arizona football games. When Mathias visited his friends, he usually carried something he had made in his home shop for them—a doorstop made out of a pinecone, a footstool shaped from driftwood. “He never came to your house without trinkets. He always had time for people,” Hoegh says. “He was never impressed with himself.” It was everybody else who was.

Mathias is survived by his wife, Gwen; five children, Romel, Megan, Marissa, Alyse and Reiner; 10 grandchildren; two brothers, Eugene and Jim; and a sister, Patricia Guerrero. As his funeral procession passed through the streets of Tulare this summer, the Tulare Union High School marching band played by the side of the road—one last salute to its national hero.

BRIAN EULE, ’01, is a Bay Area writer.

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