Back when Harrison Dillard and Herb Douglas were competing in the London 1948 Olympic Games, they never dreamed they would one day be shaking hands with a black president of the United States.
Those Olympic Games, of course, preceded the landmark Supreme Court case of Brown vs. Board of Education and the ensuing Civil Rights Movement. Jackie Robinson had broken the color line in Major League Baseball only a year before those Olympic Games, in 1947. So the concept of a black U.S. president was not really at the forefront of these men’s minds back in 1948.
Yet last week in Denver, Dillard and Douglas — both Olympic track and field medalists — had the chance to meet with President Barack Obama at a private meeting while the president was attending a fundraiser. Dillard and Douglas, both black men themselves, were thrilled to have the opportunity to meet with President Obama, but the president seemed equally honored as he recognized both Olympians and had them stand up during his fundraiser speech. The two received an overwhelming ovation.
“It was a wish of mine,” Dillard said of meeting President Obama. “People of my generation never thought we’d see the day.”
The meeting was arranged through years of work with the Wish of a Lifetime Foundation, which was founded by Jeremy Bloom, a two-time Olympian and three-time world champion in freestyle moguls skiing, as well as the U.S. Olympians Association. Wish of a Lifetime grants wishes to seniors who have overcome challenges in their lives. Dillard, now 88, had wanted to meet President Obama since the 2008 election.
In March, Dillard had a chance to visit the White House as guests of the British Embassy when Prime Minister David Cameron came to Washington. Dillard had a chance to say hello to President Obama and shake his hand but only brief pleasantries were exchanged.
Then two weeks ago, Wish of a Lifetime received a phone call about the Denver fundraiser and permission was granted for Dillard to meet with President Obama. Originally the plan was to have Dillard and another 1948 Olympic track and field champion, Mal Whitfield, meet with President Obama, but Whitfield was unable to travel to Denver. Instead, Douglas, who turned 90 in March and is the oldest living African-American medalist in track and field, joined Dillard for the meeting.
“Harrison’s wish was resolved, and I was lucky enough to get to piggyback,” said Douglas with a laugh a few days after the trip to Denver.
Both Olympians had opportunities to meet presidents and influential world leaders before. Dillard had met President George H.W. Bush and his son, President George Bush, as well as President Bill Clinton. Douglas had met past U.S. presidents as well as South African president Nelson Mandela. Douglas said he was invited by President Harry Truman to visit the White House following the 1948 Games, but said, “I was married and was trying to get a job back at the time so I couldn’t go to the White House.”
But meeting President Obama had a special meaning to these men from a historical perspective. Dillard was born and raised in Cleveland, where he followed in the track shoes of four-time Olympic champion Jesse Owens. Douglas, a long jump bronze medalist in 1948, became one of Owens’ closest confidants.
What will remain close to these men’s memory is the fact that President Obama asked them about Owens, and that he told them: “You know I’m standing on your guys’ shoulders.”
Douglas said he had been hopeful that a black person could become president but never really believed it was possible until President Obama was elected. Douglas, who had seen blacks rise in the corporate world, including himself — he became a vice president with Schieffelin and Co., an importer of premium wine and spirits — was more optimistic.
When reality hit, and not only did a black man become president but also Dillard and Douglas got a chance to meet him, the experience proved all the more significant.
Nick Eaton, who works with Bloom’s organization as a wish fulfillment supervisor, helped coordinate the wish experience for Dillard and Douglas.
“It was more than a wish of a lifetime,” Eaton said. “It was more like a dream of a lifetime.”
“When I picked them up at the hotel, I talked to both Herb and Harrison and they just had smiles from ear to ear,” Eaton added. “You could just tell from the elation from both men that they were both extremely thrilled. And I can tell you it was all anyone in our office has been talking about for the past few days, too.”
Dillard and Douglas had the chance to have a private photo shoot with the president and they were special guests at a dinner, which attracted about 550 people. Tickets for the event ranged from $250 to about $40,000.
Afterward Dillard and Douglas were asked how they would rate the experience based on a scale of 1 to 10. Douglas gave a score of 10.5; Dillard gave it 11.5.
“They were like kids in a candy store,” said Michael McIntosh, Dillard’s senior adviser.
Meeting the president also made Dillard extra excited since he and McIntosh are writing a book about Dillard’s colorful life, which includes accounts from the Olympic Games, his relationship with Jesse Owens, Dillard’s military service and his career working with the Cleveland Indians in public relations. Now the book, which will be titled, “Bones: The Life and Times of Harrison Dillard,” can include his thoughts on meeting President Obama. Dillard, whose childhood nickname was “Bones,” hopes the book will be available by this summer.
Both Dillard and Douglas plan to travel to London this summer for the upcoming Olympic Games. Of course, both plan to catch some of the track and field competition. Dillard, who is traveling as a guest of Omega, is bringing his daughter and three grandchildren. Douglas, meanwhile, is counting London as his 11th Olympic Games.
Unlike back in 1948, when the U.S. Olympic Team traveled via boat (the S.S. America) to London for the Games, both Dillard and Douglas plan to fly this time around.
And that part should be pretty easy, because they have been flying pretty high ever since last week when they met the leader of the free world.
Amy Rosewater is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.