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Herbert Douglas      "It's a storybook ending. Can you believe it? Xavier really started my path in life. I learned academics there. I learned how to run. And I learned religion." — Herbert Douglas

XU degree for Olympic medalist — 71 years after enrolling

May 4, 2011

     NEW ORLEANS — Closure is coming this weekend for Herbert Douglas.
     Douglas, 89 years old and Xavier University of Louisiana's only Olympic medalist, will receive an honorary degree during XU's 84th commencement at 10 a.m. Saturday at Lakefront Arena.
     "It's a storybook ending," Douglas said. "Can you believe it? Xavier really started my path in life. I learned academics there. I learned how to run. And I learned religion."
     Douglas arrived at Xavier in the fall of 1940 after being recruited to compete for future hall-of-famer Ralph Metcalfe's men's track and field program. Douglas excelled — in 1941 he set a Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship-meet record of 23 feet, 11 inches in the outdoor long jump, and in 1942 he teamed with William Morton, Clarence Doak and Howard Mitchell to make Xavier the first HBCU (historically black college or university) to win a relay at the Penn Relays. The quartet won the 440-yard relay in 41.7 seconds.
     But the demands of World War II forced Douglas to leave XU in 1942 after two years. His coach, Metcalfe, left Xavier after the fall 1941 semester to join the U.S. Army. Douglas returned home one semester later — not to enlist, but to help at his father's Pittsburgh parking garage.
     "My father had been blind for several years and needed help," Douglas said. "He was losing employees to the military
    
Xavier University of Louisiana men's track and field members, including Herbert Douglas, in 1942
Front row, left: Xavier University of Louisiana men's track and field standout Herbert Douglas in 1942. Also in the front row is Edward Culp. In the back row, from left: Howard Mitchell, Clarence Doak, Coach Giles Wright and William Morton. Wright replaced Ralph Metcalfe after the fall 1941 semester.
and to war-related industries. He had a 24-hour garage, and he could not find enough reliable workers. I wanted so much to stay at Xavier, but the circumstances just wouldn't allow me."
     After the war Douglas returned to college — but at his hometown University of Pittsburgh, where he competed in football ("I scored a touchdown against Notre Dame," he said pridefully) and in track, where he set a school record in the long jump (24-4.88) which lasted 23 years. He received a bachelor's degree from Pitt in 1948 and a master's in 1950.
     He long-jumped 24-9 to win bronze at the 1948 Olympics in London and plans to return to London for the Olympics next year.
     Douglas joined Schieffelin & Company (now Schieffelin & Somerset) in 1963 where he became the third African-American to reach the level of vice-president of a major North American corporation.
     "I have been blessed in so many ways," Douglas said.
     According to the U.S. Olympic Committee, Douglas is the fourth-oldest living U.S. track and field Olympic medalist. Three other medalists from the 1948 U.S. team — sprinter Cliff Bourland and shot-putters Jim Delaney and Wilbur Thompson — are older.
     Also receiving honorary XU degrees Saturday will be businesswoman and philanthropist Camille Hanks Cosby, BET Holdings CEO and chair Debra Lee. Urban League CEO and former New Orleans mayor Marc H. Morial will be the keynote speaker.
     The honorary degree is far from a take-him-off-the-shelf-and-dust-him-off moment for Douglas. Next Tuesday he'll be back at his alma mater for a dinner he helped plan as a centennial salute to African-American athletes at Pitt. "All the heavy hitters will be there," Douglas said. "Hugh Green, Tony Dorsett, Roger Kingdom, Larry Fitzgerald, Charles Smith . . . and Bob Costas will be the emcee."
     Officials at the Penn Relays, Douglas said, want him to help plan a fundraising dinner within the next year. And there will be more projects.
     "When will he really retire? That's a good question," said Douglas' wife, Minerva. "I would say never. He's like that (Energizer) bunny. He just keeps going. He finishes one thing, and then he moves on to another. He gets involved in a lot of things."
     Douglas swims every other day in an indoor pool at his Philadelphia condominium. "I can't walk or jog for exercise any more because of my knees," he said. "But I'm doing fine for a guy my age."
     The trip to New Orleans and Xavier will be the first for Douglas since 1992, when he attended the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials. He and the other honorary recipients will attend a baccalaureate Mass and honors convocation Friday evening at The Barn, then convene to Dooky Chase restaurant for a much-anticipated meal with Xavier officials.
     "That's some good Creole food," Douglas said. "You know, Dooky Chase opened the year I got to Xavier, 71 years ago. I couldn't afford it then."

 

 
Gulf Coast Athletic Conference

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The Xavier Gold Rush and Gold Nuggets compete in Division I of the NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) as a member of the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference (GCAC). Xavier fields men's teams in basketball, cross country and tennis and women's teams in basketball, cross country, tennis and volleyball.

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