From its earliest days, Fremont Ross High School has had a proud history of exceptional athletes. One of those was Ross track star Leland “Pete” Erchenbrecher Throughout his high school years, he nearly had done it all – the broad jump, high jump, hurdles, the 100-yard dash, and the 220. No doubt, it was a thrilling moment for the young athlete when he was named the 1938 Buckeye League Champion.
But perhaps the highlight of the celebrated track star’s career came on a warm Friday evening in July 1938. It was the night Jesse Owens, one of the greatest Olympians of all time, came to town. His stunning achievement of four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin’s Nazi Germany had brought him international fame. But like other Olympians of his day, Owens never benefited from product endorsements and advertising contracts enjoyed by today’s medal winners. To support his family, Owens accepted speaking engagements worked with Cleveland’s underprivileged youth, and on occasion took part in exhibitions.
Jesse Owens 1936 Olympics
That night more than 1500 excited spectators jammed Anderson Field to watch their star athletes compete against the best in the world. Sponsored by Tony Syzmanowski, owner of Tony’s Bakery, the event was organized by Fremont Ross’ track coach Whitey Althoff. Two other track standouts took part – Jim Spangler and Cy Reardon of Findlay College.
Although out of training for more than two years, Owens gave Erchenbrecher and Reardon a 5-yard handicap in the 100-yard dash. Owens flashed home two yards ahead of Erchenbrecher and four yards ahead of Reardon. Spangler then bested the Olympian by a yard over the same distance, but Owens ran over four hurdles while Spangler pounded down the straightaway. Next came the broad jump. Using a crude pit, Owens’ jump measured 24 feet 9 inches. Erchenbrecher turned in a stellar performance with a leap of 20 feet 7 inches.
Jesse Owens later moved to Chicago, where he continued his work with youth, established the Jesse Owens Foundation, and traveled throughout the world. In 1976, President Gerald Ford presented Owens with the Medal of Freedom, the highest honor awarded an American civilian.
With war clouds looming, Pete Erchenbrecher soon joined his brothers, serving in the U. S. Army during World War II. He eventually settled in Shelby, Ohio where he married, raised three sons, worked as a purchasing agent, and established the Erchenbrecher Shoe Store. While Pete Erchenbrecher led a full life, that moment on a hot July night at Anderson Field, competing with the best of the best most certainly lived long in his memory!
A version of this post appeared in Lifestyles2000.