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Jesse Owens spoke in a deep, impressive voice, his words wonderfully well enunciated. He was at work, of course, and he said, "On behalf of the Ford Motor Company and the Lincoln-Mercury Division of Ford, we're glad to be a part of this fine Sport Spectacular here with the Junior Chamber of Commerce of Binghamton...a lot of good luck to all of you and God bless."
He left the infield then, grinning, waving, signing every autograph requested, and climbed into the back seat of a Lincoln furnished by the local dealer. The president of the Binghamton Jaycees was at the wheel and he drove Jesse Owens to Schrafft's Motor Inn where he was staying. The red plastic letters on the marquee were arranged on one side to Spell DINNER SPECIAL SEAFOOD PLATTER. On the other side they said WELCOME JESSE OWENS. It was time, said Jesse, to eat lunch—a ham and egg sandwich and a bottle of beer.
When Jesse Owens speaks, even with a bite of ham and egg in his mouth, grand oratorical echoes roll out. If you ask him, for example, how he liked the Games in Mexico City, he will reply, "I saw 10,000 people competing there, and it was the aim of every girl and every boy to be victorious. Yet, there they were—eating together, singing together, dancing together, rapping together and I thought, 'If this does not bring the nations of the world together, what ever will?' "Or if you ask what material advantage a gold medal may bring to a man, he will say, "Material reward is not all there is, sir. No. How many meals can a man eat? How many cars can he drive? In how many beds can he sleep? All of life's wonders are not reflected in material wealth...."
This is a natural way of talking for Jesse Owens, unless he is very relaxed. He is a kind of all-round super combination of 19th-century spellbinder and 20th-century plastic P.R. man, fulltime banquet guest, eternal glad-hander, evangelistic small-talker. Muted bombast is his stock-in-trade. Jesse Owens is what you might call a professional good example.
For this he is paid upwards of $75,000 per annum. Some of the income derives from the 80 or 90 speeches he gives each year. Some is from the corporate clients he "represents"—meaning, in essence, that he sells them his celebrity and his reputation for use at public events where the client wishes to display its " Jesse Owens image," as one ad man calls it. Among his clients are the Atlantic Richfield Company, Sears, Roebuck and Company, the American League and the Ford Motor Company. In pursuit of his career, he travels 200,000 miles a year. On the average he spends four days of every week sleeping in a hotel bed and taking his meals with Jaycees, salesmen and other strangers.
Jesse Owens spoke of his growth as a public orator: "I was once a stutterer and when I was at Ohio State I took a course in phonetics from a master teacher. I've always admired the great orators of my day even more than the great athletes. Roscoe Conklin Simmons and Perry W. Howard and, of course, Martin Luther King and Adam Clayton Powell." His own style of oratory is grandiose and soaring, perhaps more notable for its delivery than its context. "Mostly, I'd say the substance is sheerly inspirational," he said. "I work for my payday like anyone else and things fall into a routine. I have a speech on motivation and values, one on religion, one on patriotism. I have one on marketing and statistics for sales conventions, pointing out that training for athletics is like training to sell. Parts of the speeches are interchangeable, but I'm talking to kids most of the time and I tell them things like this...."
His voice made a slight adjustment, became deeper, a dignified holler that bounded around the restaurant. "Awards become tarnished and diplomas fade," he said. "Gold turns green and the ink turns gray and you cannot read what is upon that diploma or upon that badge. Championships are mythical things. They have no permanence. What is a gold medal? It is but a trinket, a bauble. What counts, my friends, are the realities of life: the fact of competition and, yes, the great and good friends you make...."
He readjusted his voice to show that he was no longer orating but the timbre remained. "Grown men," he said softly, "stop me on the street now and say, ' Mr. Owens, I heard you talk 15 years ago in Minneapolis. I'll never forget that speech.' And I think to myself, that man probably has children of his own now. And, maybe, maybe he remembers a specific point I made, or perhaps two points I made. And maybe he is passing those points on to his own son, just as I said them. And then I think"—Owens' voice dropped near a whisper now—"then I think, that's immortality. You are immortal if your ideas are being passed on from a father to a son and to his son and to his son and on and on."
The banquet following the Jaycees' Sports Spectacular in Binghamton was held at the Harpur College Union. Jesse Owens was dressed in a beige suit of modified Edwardian cut, a muted-green shirt and a loud, wide tie. He entered the banquet room by himself while several hundred guests waited in the lobby. He stood at the head table and gazed at the sea of empty tables for a moment and said, "God, I always have these damn butterflies before I talk. Wouldn't you think I'd get over it?" Soon the crowd came in and everyone ate. Then the Jaycee who was master of ceremonies said, "I give you the greatest Olympian of them all— Jesse Owens!"
The crowd rose as one man to give an ovation that lasted two full minutes. Jesse Owens stood easily at the rostrum and when everyone sat down, he made his speech on motivation and values.