Herbert P. Douglas Jr. doesn’t move as swiftly despite once being a world-class athlete. Mounting years and a heart valve replacement three years ago have all contributed to the change.
“I get up each morning, drink a Glucerna because it has all of the vitamins in it, and watch some TV,” Douglas said. “I might read the newspaper, but it has become so thin that you can see right through it.”
On Saturday, all eyes will be on Douglas as he celebrates his 100th birthday at an event hosted by the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh.
More than 100 local and national celebrities and athletes will honor Douglas, the oldest living U.S. Olympic medalist. He won a bronze medal in the long jump at the 1948 Games in London. He also became one of the first African American men to attain vice president of a national company and created a yearly award to honor fellow Olympic great Jesse Owens.
“I’ve been blessed with a wonderful family, and they’ve all catered to this young old man,” Douglas said of his wife Minerva, son Herbert III, daughter Barbara and grandchild Christopher. “God has seriously wanted me to have a comfortable life.”
Douglas has made such an indelible impact on so many Olympians that they consider him a second father, such as John Carlos ( 1968, 200 meters), Tommie Smith ( 1968, 200 meters), Cynthia Stinger ( 1984, 1988, 1992, handball) and Charles Jenkins Jr. ( 1992, 4×400 meters).
“We call him ‘Daddy Herb,’ ” said Roger Kingdom, a speed and conditioning coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers since 2019 who won gold in the 110-meter hurdles at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics. “My biological father wasn’t into athletics and he didn’t know much about business, but Mr. Douglas was right there for me while I was in school in Pittsburgh. He answered the tough questions and paved the way for me.”
Edwin Moses, who won Olympic gold medals in the 400-meter hurdles in 1976 and 1984 and bronze in 1988, said Douglas has been a great adviser.
“He advised me at the end of my career to get an MBA and to learn business,” said Moses, now a consultant and public speaker. “Because of Herb, I also learned about public relations and he introduced me to the world of philanthropy. His support helped me to do things I’m doing today.”
Growing up in the Hazelwood section of Pittsburgh, Douglas received support and developed his drive from his father, Douglas Sr., who owned an automobile repair shop. At 41, Douglas Sr. suffered a heart attack and went blind, but he went on to open and run three parking garages. According to an article in Ebony magazine, he also became the first African American to obtain a guide dog from Seeing Eye Inc.
“My dad was able to do a remarkable job despite being sightless,” Douglas said. “He taught me how to be positive in everything, and that’s how I was able to succeed in corporate America. He taught me the four principles of life: to analyze, organize, initiate and follow through.”
Douglas’ ascension in sports began when he enrolled at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans. In 1942, he helped Xavier become the first historically Black college and university to win at the Penn Relays in Philadelphia.
A homesick Douglas withdrew from Xavier and returned to Pittsburgh to help his father in the business. Douglas enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh in 1945 following World War II and won four intercollegiate championships in the long jump and one in the 100-yard dash. He also captured three national Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) championships in the long jump.
Douglas was also one of the first African Americans to play football for Pittsburgh and was inducted into the inaugural Pittsburgh Hall of Fame in 2018.
In 1948, Douglas made the Olympic team and competed in the London Olympic Games, where he won a bronze in the long jump at 24 feet, 9 inches.
But like many African American Olympians then, including the legendary Owens, Douglas couldn’t cash in on his Olympic success. He stopped competing and returned to school, earning a master’s degree in education in 1950. Douglas became a sales representative and eventually a special markets manager for the Pabst Brewing Co. shortly after graduation. There were few African American salespeople during the 1950s and 1960s, but Douglas managed to thrive.
Success at Pabst Brewing landed Douglas at premium wine and spirits importer Schieffelin & Somerset Co., which eventually became Moet Hennessy. From 1977 to 1980, he worked as vice president of urban market development, one of the first African Americans in that position in the country.
“He answered the tough questions and paved the way for me.”
Olympic gold medalist Roger Kingdom on Herbert Douglas’ impact on him while in college
Douglas became one of the first African American officers of a major U.S. company, following former major leaguer Jackie Robinson, named vice president of Chock Full o’Nuts coffee in 1957; Harvey C. Russell, named vice president of Pepsi-Cola in 1962; and former MLB pitcher Joe Black, named vice president of special markets for Greyhound Lines Inc. in 1967.
In his role with the importing company, Douglas helped popularize Hennessy Cognac. He said many African Americans who traveled overseas were treated well and were introduced to cognac, and expected the same premium brandy options when they returned home.
“I picked up on that and pushed it here in the States,” Douglas said.
Douglas started another push in the early 1970s to honor his hero when the idea of the Jesse Owens Award and Jesse Owens Global Peace Award was born.
Owens achieved world fame by winning four gold medals ( 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump and 4×100 meter relay) at the 1936 Games in Berlin. Owens’ achievements defied German dictator Adolf Hitler, who had hoped to use the Games to promote the Nazi Party’s belief in Aryan supremacy.
In the early 1970s, Douglas talked to Owens about the AAU James E. Sullivan Award, given to the nation’s best amateur athlete. Douglas learned that Owens remained disappointed that he never won the award.
“I knew I had to rectify that,” Douglas said.
Since 1981, the Jesse Owens Award is USA track and field’s highest accolade, presented annually to the outstanding U.S. male and female track and field athletes.
The Jesse Owens Global Peace Award has been given to dignitaries such as South African president Nelson Mandela, media mogul Ted Turner and President George H.W. Bush.
“They all had significant backgrounds in sports and did something indelible for peace,” said Douglas, the organization’s honorary chairman.
Now, on Saturday, many men and women touched by Douglas will celebrate his incredible life.
“It would have to be something major for me not to be there to celebrate Mr. Douglas’ birthday,” Kingdom said. “I’ve been to his 80th, 85th, 90th, 95th and now 100th birthday. Like everyone else, I’m extremely looking forward to seeing ‘Daddy Herb’ again.”