‘32 Gold Medalist Shea, 91, Is Killed
Jack Shea became the hometown hero of the first Winter Games on American soil when he won two speedskating gold medals at the 1932 Lake Placid Games and unwittingly started a family tradition: He watched his son compete in the 1964 Winter Games and was braced for a flood of emotions when his grandson carried that heritage to Salt Lake City next month.
“I’ll have a right to cry,” the patriarch of the first family with three generations of Olympians told one interviewer. “The pride that’s coming to me will be absolutely priceless,” Shea, 91, told another.
The oldest living U.S. winter Olympic gold medalist died early Tuesday after a van police said was driven by a drunk driver slid out of control on a Lake Placid, N.Y., road, striking Shea’s car. Herbert J. Reynolds, 36, of Saranac Lake, N.Y., is facing criminal charges.
The Shea family remained in seclusion Tuesday, but Jim Shea Jr. issued a statement recalling his grandfather’s pride and joy when he qualified for the U.S. skeleton team, making clear that he will set his grief aside next month and compete in his grandfather’s memory.
“He knew better than most the importance of the Games,” the statement said in part. “I will carry his card in my helmet during the competition. Regardless of the outcome, I know I will have succeeded simply by achieving my grandfather’s dream of competing in the Olympics.”
News of the death cast a pall Tuesday throughout the Olympic community and the Lake Placid village, where flags were lowered to half-staff. It was there that Shea’s grandfather settled in the 1880s, and where Shea remained a popular figure, taking his daily walks around the Lake Placid skating oval, the same one he had starred on 70 years ago.
Since Jim Jr. qualified for the Olympics last month on the U.S. skeleton team, the elder Shea was becoming an Olympic star all over again--and enjoying every minute of it. Plans were underway to honor Shea during the next month’s opening ceremony.
“I’m sitting here right now holding Jack’s Olympic tickets,” said Mike Cofrin, a director with U.S. Speedskating, his voice thickening with tears. “This was going to be the culmination of Jack’s life. It was going to be a special moment for all of us.”
In recent weeks, the national media courted Shea not only as the head of America’s Olympic First Family, but because he also embodied the Olympic ideal as he offered insight into a dark chapter in sports history.
After winning two gold medals in 1932, Shea was still the best in the world four years later when the 1936 Olympics were to be held in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. But Shea, whose father owned a Lake Placid grocery that served many Jewish customers, refused to go.
Last month, he carried the Olympic torch around the Lake Placid skating oval and then gave a speech that brought tears to the eyes of many in the crowd of 2,000, recalled Eric Flaim, a four-time Olympian.
“Jack spoke so eloquently about the Olympic ideal,” Flaim said Tuesday. “Jack believes strongly about how he believes in peace and how he feels the Olympics truly do bring humankind together. He had those 2,000 people listening to every word. It was very emotional.”
Two years ago, Cofrin and Flaim created the Jack Shea Award for a speedskater who demonstrated the ideals of good citizenship, good sportsmanship, honor and morality. Shea was given the first award. Eric Heiden received the second.
In December, the three generations of Shea Olympians filmed a series of television advertisements for a cellular telephone company. In it, Shea and Jim Sr., 63, a cross-country skier at the 1964 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, sing about Jim Jr. to the tune of War’s “Low Rider.”
Jim Jr., 33, is then seen humming the same tune while tapping in a phone number on his cell phone.
Brett Fuller, group manager of sponsorships for Sprint, said the commercial elicited unprecedented positive response. “We’d like to keep running it and make it a tribute to Jack,” Fuller said. “But that will be up to the family.”
Jack Shea’s first speedskating race, at age 7, certainly wasn’t a portent of the greatness that would follow. He fell only 15 feet from the starting line. In tears, he was picked up off the ice by local police chief Tom Black, who told him there would be other races.
When the Winter Games came to Lake Placid for the first time in 1932, the 22-year-old Shea skated past the Scandinavian stars to win gold in the 500-meter event in 43.4 seconds. That was six-tenths of a second faster than his idol, Charles Jewtraw, posted in winning gold in 1924 at Chamonix, France.
“When I stood on that dais to get the gold medal and I heard the national anthem of the United States, how proud I was to represent my country, my community, my father and mother, to follow in the footsteps of Charlie Jewtraw,” Shea said in an interview with the Associated Press in 1990. Shea also won the 1,500 meters.
Shea graduated from Dartmouth after winning his gold medals and had planned on becoming a lawyer. But with the Depression in full swing, he couldn’t complete law school. Instead, he went home to Lake Placid and worked at the post office and his father’s grocery store and eventually held several political positions in Lake Placid.
He was the spearhead for bringing the 1980 Olympics to Lake Placid--to him, it was like another gold medal. It was at those Games that Jim Jr., at 13, began to understand his grandfather’s love of the Olympics.
“My grandfather was on the Olympic committee, and I saw all the U.S. hockey games, the ‘Miracle on Ice,’” Jim Jr. said earlier this year at an Olympic media summit. “It was a tremendous inspiration for me to see all that, and I wanted to be a hockey player. I suddenly understood the Olympic ideal my grandfather always talked about.”
Growing up in the Shea family, conversations often veered toward sports and the Olympics. But there was one conversation in particular that grandfather and grandson recalled in a recent NBC television interview.
“I asked him, ‘Gramps, how come you didn’t go to the Olympics after ‘32?’ ... You weren’t fast anymore? And he sits up and he goes, ‘No. I was fast.’ And I said, ‘Well, what happened?’”
At this point in the interview, the elder Shea continued the story.
“I told Jim, ‘I did not think that Germany was a proper place to have the Olympics because what was going on there was a crime against humanity.’”
It took Jim Jr. awhile to settle upon his winter sporting event. Hockey didn’t work out, and he found bobsledding boring. But the skeleton, in which the athlete lies on his stomach on a piece of metal and slides up to 80 mph down an icy hill, caught Jim Jr. by the heart.
The Sheas celebrated when skeleton returned to the Olympic program for the first time in more than 50 years. And they celebrated even more in December when Jim Jr. qualified for the U.S. team--at Lake Placid.
Shea told the New York Daily News that if Jim Jr., who is a medal favorite, made it onto the podium in Salt Lake City, “I’m afraid tears of joy would come down my face,” he said. “I think it would be an emotion that would be above expression.”
Jim Sr. told the Associated Press on Tuesday, “Until yesterday, we were living our dream, and for Dad it didn’t happen. But his spirit will be carried forward by Jimmy.”
Shea is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, and three sons. A fourth son, Patrick, died in 1978. Shea’s funeral will be Friday at 10 a.m. at St. Agnes Catholic Church in Lake Placid.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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