Monday, September 2, 2013

Remembering Bob Mathias November 17, 1930 - September 2, 2006

Bob Mathias served the United States in various ways, from his accomplishments in the sports arena, to his service to his country both politically and his devotion in the U.S. Marine Corp, and his skills as an actor.  Peter Ueberroth, chairman of the U.S. Olympic committee, said of him  "Bob Mathias was one of those rare individuals with the ability to inspire a nation through his determination and perseverance."

Bob Mathias was born in Tulare, California having attended Tulare Union High School. During his early childhood, Mathias suffered from anemia and had to live on special diets and required frequent naps to conserve his strength. He took an interest in decathlon while in high school.  His track coach encouraged Mathias to try out for the 1948 U.S. Olympic Team that would be held in London.  Unaware of the Olympic rules, Mathias was nearly unsuccessful but overcame his difficulties to win a gold medal and became the youngest gold medalist to win a track and field event at the age of 17.  He also won the James E. Sullivan Award as the nation's top amateur athlete. He continued his success at the following Olympics in Helsinki in 1952 where he was recognized as one of the world's greatest athletes and won the decathlon by an astonishing 912 points. He became a national hero.  He also was the first director of the United States Olympic Training Center, a position that he held from 1977-83.

He played himself in a film called "The Bob Mathias Story."  As an actor, he also had other roles including "Frank Dugan in "The Troubleshooters"  Theseus in "Minotaur, the Wild Beast of Crete" and in the John Wayne movie "China Doll"

Congressman Bob Mathias
In 1949, Mathias was accepted at Stanford University and played football (fullback) for two years.  During that time, he led Stanford to a Rose Bowl appearance as well as setting his first decathlon world record. He was drafted by the Washington Redskins but chose not to play professional football. After graduating from Stanford with a BA in Education, Mathias entered the U.S. Marine Corp where he spent two years and achieved the rank of Captain.

Bob Mathias funeral program
Mathias took an interest in politics and would soon run for the U.S. Congress as a Republican.  He served four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives having represented the San Joaquin Valley of California.  He also served as the Deputy Director of the Selective Service.

Bob Mathias was diagnosed with cancer in 1996 and died from its complications on September 2, 2006 at the age of 75.

Hundreds, including several Olympians, gathered for his funeral (funeral program pictured) in Tulare United Methodist Church at his hometown of Tulare.  Dick Fosbury of "Fosbury Flop" fame said of Mathias, "He was a childhood hero of mine, as he was to anyone in the 60's doing track and field.  He made it seem like it was possible.  He was a prince of a guy."

Mathias casket was draped with an American flag and on one side of the casket stood the Olympic flag and the other side was a wreath of flowers that read "The Kid. The Greatest."

Following the service at the church, a hearse carrying Mathias, processed past the school and stadium named for him while the high school band played the alma mater.  The procession then continued to the Tulare Cemetery where the U.S. Marine Corps honor guard paid tribute to him before laying him to rest.

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