Angels in the Sky

May 4, 2020

The Trials and Tribulations…A Mother’s Day Tribute

 

In June of 1954, Al Oerter, age 17, was about to graduate from Sewanhaka HS and had recently set the national prep record in the discus with a throw of 184'-2 ¾". At home, he picked up the May 28th copy of Collier’s Magazine and saw a picture of discus world record holder, Fortune Gordien, leaning against a cage eating a pastry. The caption read, ”Training is no problem for discus throwers. Fortune gobbles a pastry before a meet.” It was from the article “Softest Touch in Sports,” by Melvin Durslag, in which Gordien professed that discus throwers did not have to work very hard to be successful. “We never have to kill ourselves with training, diet or sleep,” he said. When describing getting ready for a meet one day in Oslo, “I brought a bag of cream puffs (to eat).” And, “None of us breaks his back training.” Al thought, "Oh boy, why would you say those kinds of things?"

 

Fortune Gordien, the son of a professional magician, had learned that craft well, and even had a part in the motion picture, “Demetrius and the Gladiators,” among others. He had set four world records, with the last one achieved the previous August, at a distance of 194'-6”. He was a 3-time NCAA and 6-time AAU champion and had competed in the last two Olympics, winning a bronze medal in 1948 and placing 4th in 1952. Al felt that Gordien was saying that he did not have to work very hard because he was the best in the world and all set to go to the Olympic Games two years down the road. Al thought, “This guy is an Olympian. Why would he be playing these kind of dumb mind games? He should be working!” Still, despite his training regimen, or lack thereof, Gordien had established that he was the best in the world, and he knew it.

 

While looking at the photos and that article, Al never had a sense of going for the games that Gordien had already claimed as his own. He did not use throwing as a means to an end or for anything other than what it was. After his national record, Al began receiving letters from colleges, all funneled through his coach, Jim Fraley, who kept the inquiries a secret. Fraley guided him and he settled on the University of Kansas, Class of ’58, where he received an academic scholarship to pursue a degree in civil engineering.  Al wanted to design and build bridges.

 

Al’s first experience on an airplane was on his trip to start his college career at KU. He met Coach Easton for the first time and saw a lot of Fraley in him. Like Fraley, Easton knew little about discus throwing but a lot about building a national track and field program. The small town of Lawrence, however, was culture shock for this big-city-kid from the east. Regardless, Al was going to stick it out because he respected these folks and wanted to work as hard as he possibly could for them.

 

At that time, freshmen were not eligible to compete in varsity track and field events, which was true for all sports. At KU, all of the freshmen were relegated to cleaning the grounds after competitions and repainting the lane lines on the cinder track. Al had to get used to the larger and heavier 2kg/4.4lbs discus versus the 1.6kg/3.53 lbs ones he threw in high school.

 

Al finished his freshman year having enjoyed the athletics and had done fairly well academically. He showed steady progression with throwing, despite the spartan environment, and achieved a national collegiate record for freshman with a mark of 171’-6”. He headed back to New York for the summer to work as a tin knocker for a sheet metal company, a job arranged by his father. He would find himself in turmoil a few months later.

 

Beginning back in the fall of Al’s sophomore year in high school, his mother’s long terminal illness had a profound effect on him. For almost two years, he watched her degrade, and it left him angry and alone. He did not understand why she would let this happen, rejected that it was happening, turned inward, defensively, and divorced himself from team sports. In the spring, he switched to track and field and miraculously found the discus throw to be his safe haven. It was as if an angel in the sky willed the discus through the air to land at his feet while running on the high school track. Mary Oerter finally passed away in September,1953, at the beginning of Al’s senior year. The boy who was called, “his mother’s son,” because they were so much alike, kept it all inside, never showing any outward signs of bereavement.

 

Coming home to New York from Kansas was just that, “coming home.” Through that entire summer, Al started to have doubts about whether he would ever go back to KU. On the surface, he did not like the relatively small size and quiet of the community of Lawrence. When he returned that September, he was facing an internal crisis.

 

By the end of the fall semester his sophomore year, Al was ready to call it quits at Kansas. It seemed to him he had just reached a point that the New York City-born and Long Island-bred Oerter could not adapt to the culture clash with the university town. He went in to see head coach Bill Easton and told him he was leaving.  They argued for two hours, with Easton very upset that Al was not living up to his commitment and walking away just before the start of the indoor season.

 

Al went back home to New York for the holidays. He called up Chick Werner, the coach at Penn State, and told him of his situation. He drove to State College, PA to discuss transferring from KU. Al found out Werner had recruited him as well, but it was another example of Fraley keeping the letter from getting to Al. Werner offered a full ride to transfer immediately to Penn State, including the cost of tuition, books and everything else related. Then, Al was handed a commitment document to sign.  He hesitated while reading through the agreement and then asked for some time to think about it.

 

It was raining and snowing in State College, a miserable day, when Al Oerter went for a run to clear his head. In leather shoes and a pair of dress slacks, he headed towards town dazed and confused. The snow became heavier and when he crossed a railroad track he slipped and drove his hand into a rail tie, having to pull a splintered shard out of his palm. Bleeding, he saw a church up ahead and ran towards it. He pulled open the heavy door with his good hand and sat down in one of the pews. He needed to thaw out, and get to a quiet mental state of self-reflection.

 

Al would often run to clear his head, deal with his conscience or quiet his angst. Whether it was the three miles round trip between school and home, or through State College, PA, running was his outlet. He was running when that discus skipped across the track in front of him, under Fraley's watchful eye.

 

Towards the end of May,1952, at a family party, Mary Oerter, weakened by colon cancer and barely lucid from the pain medication, was laying outside on a chaise lounge at a family get-together arranged by her husband. It was a glorious, sunny, late afternoon when her only son, Al, came into the house, having run from the high school, greeted by congratulating uncles, aunts and cousins. He had just won the Nassau County discus championship as a junior and his father wanted to celebrate. Al’s dad approached him, smiling, and said, ”Let’s go tell your Mom.”

 

Al was reluctant to approach his mother. “Dad, she doesn’t even know me. She’s in so much pain and out of it with all the drugs,” he pleaded. Alfred urged, “Don’t worry about that. Go up there and sit down next to her and tell her about what you did.”

 

Al sat down next to his mother and began to talk haltingly. He told her about the county championship and setting a new record…about going to the states in a couple of weeks and trying to win that and set a state record…that the team was having a great season.

 

Al’s father was staring from across the room, observing this moment between mother and son. When he approached, Al said to him, “I don’t think she heard me. She didn’t react. I don’t think she understood.” Alfred responded, “She knew exactly what you were talking about. Way to go, son.”

 

Alfred then leaned in close to Mary and put his lips close to her ear and whispered something. There was a flicker in her eyes and an ever-so-slight tilt of her head towards Al, her son. And then, she smiled.

 

Many years later, Al would say that experience was the toughest thing he had ever gone through in his life. At the same time, it was an extremely moving, unifying moment for the Oerter family. Alfred, Mary, sister Marianne and Al were briefly healthy and whole for the first time in almost two years.

 

Two hours after leaving Coach Werner to sort things out, Al walked out of Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church, past the large statue of the Virgin Mary and returned to Werner’s office. In a gut-wrenching decision, he said he had made a mistake with the Nittany Lions and was going to return to Kansas. Werner understood. The coach had recognized a confused kid who had made a commitment and was going to honor it. Upon returning home, Al’s father was understanding and said,” If you think about things carefully enough, it’s easy to follow your conscience.” It’s something that he had always taught his son.

 

Al got back in touch with Coach Easton at Kansas and told him he had a change of heart, that he was taught to honor his obligations, and whatever had been bothering him had been purged. He wanted to go back to KU. A couple of days later, Easton said there was an airline ticket waiting for him at LaGuardia Airport. Al returned to Kansas and Easton never mentioned what had happened to anyone.

 

Going back to Lawrence was an awakening, and now that so many of his demons had been put to rest he could focus on school and throwing. The track and field season was a good one, as Kansas again won the Big 7 conference championship with Oerter capturing the discus title. Throughout the season, Al threw well, but didn’t win every meet. Each week, Easton would post on the walls of the locker room all of the best collegiate track and field results. Al was able to see the discus throwers' names and distances, and where he compared with them. The season was long and grueling, but the team did well and went out to California to the NCAA Championships at UC Berkeley.

 

It was June 15th at Edwards Stadium in Berkeley, when UCLA took the team Track & Field title, followed by Kansas and USC. In the Men’s Discus, UCLA’s Ron Drummond won the event, followed by Don Vick (UCLA), and Rink Babka (USC). Al, considered a “pre-meet favorite” by Sports Illustrated, threw poorly with a distance of 168’-9”, and placed fourth. This was about 10 feet shy of his best throw that spring.

 

Earlier in the year, Al believed he had a reasonable chance at the NCAA title. Now, reality had set in and it was time to pack up and go back home to New York for the summer. He acknowledged to himself that it had been a long, competitive season. There were twice-a-week dual meets plus various championships and invitationals. He had been throwing his ass off and now was physically wiped out and bone tired.

 

After the meet, Coach Easton pulled Al and several of his KU teammates together to tell them that they had qualified for the U.S. Olympic trials to be held in two weeks in Los Angeles. He asked Al if he had to get home for any reason and the answer was no. Since KU would pay expenses, Easton told him to hang around on the west coast and then get down to LA for the trials. Easton thought it would be good experience for the young thrower and would pay some dividends the following year. When the team had headed out to the NCAA’s, Al had no idea that there was going to be the Olympic Trials soon after. The thought of the Olympic Games and competing for a spot on the team had never crossed his mind.

 

For the next two weeks, Al refrained from a lot of physical activity. There was no place to train and really throw, so he got a lot of rest. With his KU teammates, he worked out once or twice, but mainly slept, went to the movies and recharged his tired body and mind.

 

A week after the NCAA’s, the AAU meet was held in Bakersfield. Ron Drummond took first again with an impressive throw of 180’3”, even outdistancing the great Fortune Gordien, who placed second. They were followed by Des Koch, Parry O’Brien and Rink Babka. Al was sixth, a good ten feet behind the frontrunners, but it had no bearing on his U.S. Trials qualification. Still, he wasn’t even within striking distance of the leaders.

 

At this time, the U.S. was leading the rest of the world in discus throwing, so the best throwers were at the U.S. trials. Perhaps, because there were such a strong cadre of throwers who worked very hard against each other and challenged one another for long periods of time, they all became very good.

 

The trials would be the largest competition Al had ever been part of. He would finally be able to meet the best throwers in the country; some he had only been able to read about up until now. Al had studied ahead of time that fifteen discus throwers qualified for the trials. Seven came from the collegiate ranks, five from throwing clubs, and three from the military. Al knew the collegiate qualifiers, the best being Ron Drummond, but did not have a bead on the military and more accomplished club entrants. The AAU meet gave him a look at Des Koch of the US Air Force, the 1955 NCAA discus champion from UCLA who led the nation in punting on the football team. Also, from the Air Force was Parry O’Brien, who was already a gold medal winning Olympian in the shot put from 1952. And then there was Fortune Gordien, the clear favorite and world record holder, in a class by himself. Al couldn’t help but think back to the magazine article from just two years before, when he was still in high school. Gordien looked unbeatable.

 

Al Oerter had spent two weeks in Los Angeles, a city whose literal translation is “The Angels,” and more commonly called the City of Angels. On Saturday, June 30th  Al entered the LA Memorial Coliseum, site of the 1932 Olympic Games. It was a clear, windless day with temperatures in the low 70’s. Flags and banners hung stoically straight down. The only breath of air came from the 71,000 that filled the Coliseum that day.

 

The rest and lack of activity since the NCAA’s seemed to have refreshed Al. His nervous energy was really flowing, but that was a good thing since he had always been able to control it, even in the most competitive environments. Plus, his mind was invigorated because he had no concept of what the Olympic trials would be like. The top competitors were a big unknown to him. He could not perceive that the trials would be more intense than the Olympic Games themselves, or that making this Olympic team would be more difficult than winning a gold medal.

 

Desmond Dalworth “Des” Koch was one of the few who came up to Al and introduced himself. Al thought he was genuine and really liked this blonde, crew cut, surfer-dude from USC.

 

Al put on his low-cut black Converse sneakers which he had worn since KU had put in a cement throwing circle to replace the dirt one that spring. He took a few warm up throws and started to feel better, even though he really hadn’t thrown much competitively recently. He almost had to re-learn the turn, and it felt strange at first. Plus, he felt a bit disoriented because he really had no experience in such a competitive throwing environment. Physically, he felt snappy again for the first time in a long time. Oerter’s practice tosses were about three quarters speed, but still they were fading to the right. In the background, he heard Gordien’s non-stop, unnecessary chatter, trying to hurry each thrower through their practice tosses, working to get an edge; an edge he didn’t need.

 

The competition was about to start. Each competitor in the field would get three throws in a qualifying round. The top eight entrants in the qualifier would then get three more throws in the final round. All six throws counted. The top three would be on the Olympic team.

 

The unusual windless conditions were noted by all of the competitors, and some of the throwers were agitated, pacing back and forth, trying to control their nervous energy. Al started off poorly with a very weak first throw. Perhaps it was due to the time off. On his next attempt, the discus sailed off to the right, like a slice in golf, landing far outside the legal throwing sector, for a foul. He went behind the cage to rehearse his throwing motion again and to get his timing right.

 

On one of his next attempts, Al entered the circle a bit amped up. The hot Los Angeles sun was cooking him now without the hint of even a slight breeze. He began his spin, but was too quick in the rotation. He was unable to bring his throwing arm through properly but used all of his remaining strength to really hammer the discus. He knew he had hit that throw with power, it was going far, but again, way off to the right and out of bounds. An extremely strong gust of wind seemed to erupt simultaneously, sweeping across the throwing sector, and moving with rapid force from right to left. As the discus hit its apex, it was met by the burst of air and started to ride the wind with a natural rotation. It appeared to stand on its end, almost dancing and sliding back to its left by several feet. It landed back in bounds about a foot from the sector foul line. It just got in on the good side of the line to be a fair throw.

 

“Al Oerter, from the University of Kansas, with a throw of 178 feet, 7 ½ inches,” blared the announcer.

 

After it was all over, only Fortune Gordien had a better throw.

 

From two weeks prior, when he wasn’t even aware there was going to be an Olympic Trials, to an errant throw, one lucky puff of wind, and now, Al Oerter was on the U.S. Olympic team. He didn’t know where that wind had come from, but he was sure that without it he wouldn’t be going to Melbourne. He couldn’t explain it, and he felt that without question it was divine intervention or some big help from on-high that allowed him to make that team. 

 

Gordien’s leading throw (187’-8½”) was the longest of the year and the best of his career in a major competition. Ron Drummond placed third, and there were some comments by other throwers that it was all luck that allowed Al to be on the team. Des Koch placed fourth, and would be the U.S. alternate. He was beaming when he congratulated Al and nodded towards Gordien and whispered, “I think you’re going to get this guy!”

 

Drummond, a future dentist, turned down his spot on the team because it would have cost him a pre-paid semester of dental studies. Des Koch was moved up in his place.

 

Al was overjoyed, saying to himself, “My God, how did I get here? This is wonderful. I’m part of the Olympic team. This is such a surprise. Here you are, part of an Olympic team. I have no sense of what in the hell lies ahead because I cannot comprehend competing in the games. This is a moment to be savored. I am really a part of the Olympic Games!” Many years later, whenever Al answered questions about this moment, his sheer joy and innocence was still there.

 

Al’s family found out the results of the trials in the Sunday New York papers the next day. Coach Fraley sent a congratulatory telegram.

 

Track & Field News summarized the 1956 Trials/Men's Discus:

“Fortune Gordien produced the longest throw of the year in almost still conditions, and the best cast of his career in major competition. Behind him Al Oerter, a 19-year-old 6’3½ “/228 soph from Kansas was a surprising second. He had finished 4th in the NCAA and 6th in the AAU.”

 

The “almost still conditions” are further verified by the actual wind speed and weather recorded for that day. So, what was this anomalous “gust” of wind, on a windless day, that was powerful enough to force a 4.4lb implement over twelve feet across the discus throwing sector? Did it have anything to do with the cover of that 1954 Collier's Magazine with the lead story entitled "Weather Made to Order?"

 

Playing on the radio airwaves that summer was a disk of another kind, the hit song, “Angels in the Sky,” written by Dick Glasser, and re-released by The Crew Cuts, a Canadian group. It made the 1956 Best Seller Chart with over one million copies sold.

Angels in the Sky”

(partial lyrics)

The Lord'll see you walkin'
And He will hear you talkin'
Talkin' to the angels in the sky
And when you know He's near you
The Lord will always hear you
Talkin' to the angels in the sky

The 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne were scheduled for November, late in the year to coincide with Australia’s spring. Al Oerter calculated that he had exactly 150 days until the Men’s Olympic Discus Throw event. 150 days to prepare for something where he had no experience, no plan, and very little chance to succeed. It was time to get to work! He would be on his own, and couldn’t leave it to the Angels in the Sky, again.

 

It would be 25 years before Al would finally come to terms with his mother’s death. He wrote of Mary Oerter: “She never saw me win an Olympic Championship, go through college, get married, have two children. She never saw anything of what my life was to be, but if it were not for her and her nurturing through all of those sixteen years while I was with her, I would not have accomplished anything.”

 

He was his mother’s son.


© 2020 Andrew R. Pettit All Rights Reserved

 

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