Living with a legend

Jesse Owens’ youngest daughter Marlene Owens Rankin and her son Stuart recount the highs and occasional lows of life with the four-time Olympic champion. From nervous prom dates to chance meetings with former adversaries in far-off lands, it has been an amazing ride.

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Even at the age of five Stuart Owen Rankin knew there was something a little special about his grandfather.

“I challenged him to a footrace,” Stuart said. “At the time I was a pretty fast little kid and I thought this was an opportunity to beat the former fastest guy on the planet.

I took off and he took off a little bit after me. He caught up to me and passed me just before the end of the race. Stuart Owen Rankin - Stuart Owen Rankin

“I took off and he took off a little bit after me. He caught up to me and passed me just before the end of the race. I was heartbroken, I couldn’t believe that he beat me because, of course, he seemed so old to me.”

That seemingly-ancient figure was the four-time gold medal-winning hero of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games and the one-time multiple sprint and long jump world record holder, Jesse Owens. But to Rankin and his mother, Marlene Owens Rankin, he was a granddad and dad first and foremost.

“It (Jesse’s sporting past) was not dinner time conversation,” Marlene said. “He would answer questions if we asked about something like that. Otherwise there was not a lot of conversation about his Olympic career.”


Indeed, Marlene, the youngest of Owens’ three daughters, learned more about her father from outside the family home than within it. On occasions however, even Owens could not prevent his fame from rearing its insatiable head within his sacred four walls.

“When we were teenagers we were on Edward R Murrow’s Person to Person show (a well-known 1950s US TV programme),” Marlene said. “It was a very big deal. As they came to set up there were trucks and lights and all these things, because they did it in your home.

“Everyone in the community was abuzz with this production that focused on the Owens family. That was really the beginning of us being present with him and his celebrity.”

Often the guys we would date were very nervous. They knew who he was, his stature. Marlene Owens Rankin - Marlene Owens Rankin

This had some amusing side effects for the young Marlene and her sisters.

“Often the guys we would date were very nervous. They knew who he was, his stature,” she laughed. “The one who became my husband is a big sports fanatic. He wanted to know all he could. He would often talk with him (Jesse) and ask a lot of questions. And my father had no problem answering them.”

Not that it was always easy being the daughter of such a prominent figure in her country’s recent sporting and social history. In 1960 Marlene, an undergraduate, was named as the first black homecoming queen of The Ohio State University – the school Jesse also attended.

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“At that age it is hard to distinguish what is real, whether people are friendly to you or not friendly to you because of who you are,” she said. “I kind of struggled with the homecoming thing because I thought that it was because I was Jesse Owens’ daughter, but in reality I learned to accept that it was because I won.”

This issue with identity is something that Marlene’s son Stuart entirely understands. He tends to keep his famous family to himself, but every so often it sneaks out with wonderful consequences.

In 2012 while in Munich for work, Stuart and some colleagues went out on the town to celebrate Germany’s 4-2 quarter-final victory over Greece in football’s European Championships. Partying long into the night and with the German flag painted on his face, Stuart stopped to reflect.

“I thought, ‘this is really strange, kind of surreal’. I am in Germany and I am cheering for a German team and I am being embraced by my German colleagues – it was a weird, full-circle moment,” he said.

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In an uncharacteristic move, the now 50-year-old decided to share with his new friends who his grandfather was.

“They paused and looked at me in disbelief – I am kind of used to that reaction – but they said ‘do you know who Luz Long (Owens’ great German rival and friend from the Berlin 1936 Games) is? And I said ‘of course I know who Luz Long is’. And my colleague pulled out her cell phone, scrolled through her contacts and went to Julia Louise Long and she said ‘I am friends with Luz Long’s granddaughter’.”

As a result, the Owens family is back in close contact with the descendants of Luz Long – the man who gave Owens invaluable advice during long jump qualifying at the 1936 Olympic Games and subsequently came second to him in the final.

The Olympic star’s shadow has been wonderfully difficult for his offspring to escape. Indeed, Marlene has devoted a fair portion of her adult life to upholding her father’s name and spirit, primarily through the Jesse Owens Foundation. It was set up in sad but ultimately uplifting circumstances.

“We kept receiving in the mail letters of condolence (after Jesse’s death in 1980) and in the letter there would be two dollars. We couldn’t understand it. Then we learned that some radio show had said something about sending money,” Marlene said.

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The family ended up with $6000 and decided to use the money to support underprivileged kids to go to College. The scholarship fund was endowed to The Ohio State University in 2003 and continues to support those who need it.

While Marlene acknowledges that her modest father probably “never wanted a foundation in his name,” she does admit with a smile that “he would be happy it has existed and been of service to so many young people”.