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A 300-meter indoor track planned for Pitt’s future Victory Heights facility will be named for Herb P. Douglas Jr. — Olympic track star, Black trailblazer and one of the Panthers’ greatest athletes of all time.
Chancellor Patrick Gallagher announced the honor during a 100th birthday celebration for Douglas at the Senator John Heinz History Center on March 12.
“There’s no better way for us to express our admiration than to emulate what you have always done, which is to hand the baton to those who follow in your footsteps, dream big and achieve great things,” Gallagher said.
“You better pass it down and they will come to your aid and support later in life,” said Douglas (EDUC ’48, ’50G). “Every one of these people here, I don’t know them personally, but they’re here because I’m 100 years old. That’s the main thing. It’s not that I won an Olympic medal or anything like that. They’re here from the heart.”
Born and raised in Hazelwood, a neighborhood south of the University’s Pittsburgh campus, Douglas has long said that a meeting with Jesse Owens set him on his path of athletic and professional achievement.
“It still amazes me that Herb had that singular experience at age 14 of meeting Jesse Owens in Pittsburgh — not only his personal hero but one of the greatest figures of the 20th century,” said Gallagher. “It sounds like a scene scripted in Hollywood more than Hazelwood. But in Pittsburgh, we prefer the stories that come out of Hazelwood, and Herb’s is one of the best.”
As a youth, Douglas won Pittsburgh city-wide and Pennsylvania state championships while juggling his education and supporting his family’s auto business.
Douglas enrolled at Pitt in 1945 and marked milestones as both a track and field athlete and football player. He won four intercollegiate championships in the long jump and one in the 100-yard dash. He additionally captured three national Amateur Athletic Union championships in the long jump.
The year he graduated, Douglas won a bronze medal in the 1948 Summer Olympics for his 24-foot, 8.75-inch long jump, but his athletic achievements did not open doors to a coveted coaching job.
“More than anything, I wanted to be a coach,” Douglas said in a 2017 interview with Ebony Magazine. “But Pittsburgh was not employing in the public school system African Americans to be coaches. As a result, I went into corporate. The corporate community was a blessing in disguise.”
After graduating from Pitt, Douglas worked as a night manager for his father’s auto business until the Pabst Brewing Company hired him in 1950. He rose through the ranks and later joined the sales team of Moët Hennessy. In 1968 he was promoted to vice president, making him one of the first African American vice presidents in corporate America.
Douglas leveraged his athletic and corporate status to honor the man that was his childhood hero and later his friend. In 1980, Douglas co-founded the International Amateur Athletic Association, a nonprofit organization that promotes and encourages fairness, integrity, uncompromising sportsmanship and excellence in athletic competition. The association hosts the Jesse Owens International Athlete Trophy Gala to support youth and aspiring Olympic athletes.
In addition to the new track, Douglas’ name adorns several notable Halls of Fame including the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame, the New York Athletic Club Hall of Fame and the Pitt Athletics Hall of Fame.
— Nichole Faina