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Life’s Hurdles Tragic for Olympic Medalist

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Whatever the source of the exquisite timing that allowed Rodney Milburn Jr. to skim over a row of hurdles at dazzling speed without pause or error remained untapped by the man in the rest of his life.

The uncanny precision of Milburn’s celebrated track and field career--a 27-race win streak, two losses in six years, a gold medal in the 110-meter hurdles at the 1972 Munich Olympics and a world record that stood for five years--was never matched in his personal life.

The 47-year-old’s life ended tragically Tuesday night after he fell into a hot chemical solution at the paper mill where he worked and burned to death. On the morning of the last day of his life, the former Olympian left the Baton Rouge homeless shelter where he had recently moved and sold plasma at a downtown blood center to raise money to take a taxi to work.

Milburn’s death revealed the imperfect timing that attended his life: Going to schools in the segregated South, he made do with inferior facilities--the school’s shop teacher fashioned makeshift hurdles out of scrap wood. When he did make the Olympics, Milburn succeeded in Games remembered more for the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes than for any one athletic accomplishment. Milburn’s decision to turn pro was ill-timed: The professional track circuit folded after two years, and Milburn failed to profit.

Because of that detour, Milburn lost his amateur status and missed the 1976 Montreal Olympics. After being reinstated in late 1979, Milburn came back only to miss the 1980 Moscow Olympics because of the U.S.-led boycott.

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Milburn’s athletic life can be clearly traced through record books, Hall of Fame inductions and the sport’s meticulous record-keeping. His life beyond track has none of that clarity. The assurance and purpose that ushered him safely through sport’s most difficult challenges ultimately failed to guide Milburn through life’s obstacles.

In Milburn’s youth, Opelousas, about 30 miles west of Baton Rouge, was racially divided--the south part of town for whites, the north for blacks. He thrived on Clark High’s atrocious grass-and-dirt track. Milburn competed in the all-black Louisiana Interscholastic Athletic and Literary Organization and sneaked onto all-white Opelousas High’s well-maintained track at night to practice over regulation hurdles.

It was northern Opelousas that named a street after Milburn to commemorate his Olympic triumph.

It was Southern University that accepted Milburn, not Louisiana State, whose athletics were still segregated. Milburn returned to Southern as its track coach from 1984 to ’87. He was fired in an athletic department purge and took a healthy pay raise to work at Georgia-Pacific.

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North of Baton Rouge, off U.S. 61, down a two-lane road through a forest of spindly pines, is Georgia-Pacific’s Port Hudson pulp and paper mill, one of the largest paper production facilities in the world. Milburn was working a 6 p.m.-to-6 a.m. shift in a four-days-on, four-days-off rotation. The job was a good one, paying $37,000 annually with full benefits.

Milburn worked at the bleach plant, where the brown wood fiber is converted to white pulp. Most of the time he checked gauges and inspected pipes. At the time of his death, Milburn was unloading a hopper car filled with crystallized sodium chlorate, an oxidizing agent used in the bleaching process.

The stainless steel car would come in via the plant’s system of railroad tracks and stop at a platform. Milburn was to connect a pipe to pump hot water into each of the car’s two 1,500-cubic-foot chambers and then drain the sodium chlorate from the car through another set of pipes to a holding tank.

He had to visually check the filling of the tank by climbing on top of the car, negotiating a metal catwalk and opening each hatch. Milburn was working alone.

After searching that night for Milburn, his supervisor found the empty hopper car, climbed up to the catwalk and saw that the first tank had been drained. Looking farther along he saw that the hatch on the second tank had been opened. Carefully moving forward, the supervisor shined his flashlight into the second chamber and peered in. Milburn’s orange jacket was clearly visible. He was floating face-down in the partially drained tank.

The plant’s emergency-response team removed Milburn’s body from the hopper car.

Georgia-Pacific is conducting an investigation, and officials won’t speculate what happened. The sheriff has ruled the death an accident. East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner Hypolite Landry found that Milburn suffered third-degree burns over 100% of his body. Because Milburn’s trachea and the lining of his lungs were burned, Landry knew he had inhaled the sodium chlorate. He determined the cause of death to be burns from the scalding liquid.

Thirty-six hours after the accident, assistant parish coroner Chuck Smith inspected the hopper car.

“Even after all that time, you could feel the intense heat coming out of the hatch from six feet away,” Smith said. He said plant workers told him the liquid was nearly 200 degrees at the time it was injected into the tanks.

Smith speculated that Milburn had been kneeling to open the hatch, was hit in the face with a blast of steam from the tank, lost his balance and fell into the 9-foot-deep chamber.

“I’m convinced that it was nothing more than a tragic accident,” Smith said.

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On Saturday, a somber wave of mourners poured down row after row of pews, cascaded along side walls and spilled out the back doors of Little Zion Baptist Church. Most of Opelousas, it seemed, had dressed up and come to this brick church to pay respect to one of its most famous sons.

Milburn’s rose-draped wood coffin was brought down the church’s center aisle while the Rev. Charles Bryant chanted, “The Lord is my shepherd. . . .” Organ music surged and receded throughout the two-hour service. Spirituals blasted forth, bringing the congregation to its knees and sending outstretched hands waving into the air.

Even as the outside temperature plunged into the low 40s on a steely gray afternoon, the church’s windows and doors were flung open to bring relief from a cloying heat.

Speakers rose to praise Milburn, telling of his gentleness and kindness. They gathered from afar.

Five-time Olympian Willie Davenport, gold medalist in 1968 and Milburn’s teammate in 1972, flew in from Portland. He told of receiving phone calls from the close-knit network of Olympians commiserating about Milburn’s death. “I’ve gotten calls from literally around the world,” he said.

Thomas Hill, the 1972 bronze medalist, came from Iowa. “I had to be here,” he said, reaching to touch Milburn’s coffin.

James Thomas, former class president and Milburn’s classmate at J.S. Clark High, sat in his kitchen in the Bronx, read Milburn’s obituary in the New York Times on Thursday, picked up the telephone and made an airline reservation.

“I can’t tell you that I knew him well,” Thomas said, “But this man carried himself with such dignity, all the while growing up in this . . . place.”

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Milburn’s apparent recent poverty is puzzling. He had six children but only two minors that he supported. At the time of his death, he was in the process of divorce and had been living with cousins. Believing that he had become a burden to his extended family, Milburn moved into the Bishop Ott homeless shelter in Baton Rouge.

It was his estranged wife who, in a pique, placed Milburn’s lifetime of medals, trophies and mementos in a commercial storage facility. The rent lapsed and the contents of the storage space were auctioned off last summer.

Louis Esskew, who owned a thrift store in Woodville, Miss., paid $500 for the contents of two storage spaces. Back home, Esskew opened some boxes from the sale and discovered dozens of medals and trophies.

Included was Milburn’s Olympic gold medal.

Esskew has since sold his business but kept Milburn’s personal items, which included letters he received from his family while at the Olympics.

Two weeks ago, Milburn called Esskew to retrieve his belongings.

“He sounded like a real nice man,” Esskew said. “I wasn’t raised to take advantage of a man. I told him he could have all the things. They are so personal and all.”

Milburn arranged to drive to Esskew’s home in Mississippi last Thursday. Milburn never showed. Friday, Esskew heard about Milburn’s death.

The medals and trophies are back in Esskew’s storage shed.

“Sad, what happened to him,” he said.


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