Ruth Owens; Widow of Legendary Olympian

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Ruth S. Owens, the widow of Olympian Jesse Owens and longtime chairwoman of the foundation honoring his legacy, has died. She was 86.

Owens died Wednesday of heart failure in her home in the Hyde Park neighborhood.

Jesse Owens jumped and ran his way to four gold medals at the Olympics in 1936, defeating Adolf Hitler’s claims of Aryan racial superiority. Owens captured gold medals in the broad jump, 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash and the 400-meter relay.


A trip to the games in Berlin was too expensive for Ruth Owens, and she stayed at home with their first child.

She told a reporter some years ago that her husband wasn’t particularly concerned about the racially charged atmosphere in Germany.

“I don’t think he was aware of the conditions that existed over there,” Owens said.

“He was very young, and he had to work very hard to make the Olympic team. I don’t think Hitler or anything else could have kept him away. You know athletes: They don’t see color. And he had been an athlete all his life.”

Jesse Owens returned from the Olympics on the Queen Mary, a national hero. Ruth Owens and his parents took a tugboat 12 miles out to join him before he docked in New York City. He was greeted by the great boxer Jack Dempsey and Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, and there was a ticker-tape parade. During the parade, someone handed Owens a paper bag containing $10,000 in cash.

“That’s very true,” Ruth Owens said in an interview some years ago with National Public Radio. “And he didn’t know who was good enough to do a thing like that. And with all the excitement around, he didn’t pick it up right away. He didn’t pick it up until he got ready to get out of the car.”

Ruth Owens said she never feared for her husband’s safety while he was in Berlin, but that fall, as they campaigned in Mississippi for Republican presidential candidate Alf Landon, she grew uneasy and asked him not to speak.

The Southern trip was hard on the Owenses; they were forced to live and eat in railroad cars because there were no accommodations for blacks.

The couple met in junior high school and were married for 48 years until Owens’ death from lung cancer in 1980. He was 66.

Ruth Owens was board chairwoman and an active fund-raiser for the Jesse Owens Foundation, formed after her husband’s death to give scholarships to average students active in the community.

More than 270 children have since earned the four-year, $2,000 scholarships, and 97% of those receiving the help have graduated from college, Executive Director Marlene Owens Rankin, the Owenses’ daughter, told the Chicago Tribune.

Ruth Owens also was an ambassador of the Arco/Jesse Owens Games, a summer track and field competition that granted scholarships to children across the country.

“She protected his legacy and guarded it with all of her being,” Rankin said of her mother. “It was sort of the embodiment of him and how he spent his life. She was at the center of it.”

In 1984, the Owenses’ granddaughter Gina Hemphill carried the torch into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum at the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics. Ruth Owens was later given the torch by the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee.

In addition to Marlene, she is survived by daughters Gloria Hemphill and Beverly Prather; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Services are scheduled for Tuesday at First Unitarian Church of Hyde Park.