Jesse Owens' Legacy: Hitler's Oak Tree Grows In Cleveland U.S. track star Jesse Owens made history at the 1936 Berlin Olympics 75 years ago, when he destroyed the Nazi myth of Aryan supremacy. He brought home four gold medals, and four oak saplings. The whereabouts of those trees has been a mystery.
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Jesse Owens' Legacy, And Hitler's Oak Trees

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Jesse Owens' Legacy, And Hitler's Oak Trees

Jesse Owens' Legacy, And Hitler's Oak Trees

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As Frank just noted there, Jesse Owens made history at the 1936 Olympics. He made a lie out of the Nazi myth of Aryan supremacy, bringing home four Gold Medals.

From WCPN in Cleveland, Mhari Saito reports on a mystery surrounding a gift that Owens and other Olympic champions received from Hitler.

MHARI SAITO: In 1936, the German Olympic Committee gave athletes small oak saplings for each gold medal they won. The U.S. team received 24 such saplings and Jesse Owens came home with four of them. One of Owens' trees towers over Rhodes High School in Cleveland where he trained. There's no plaque marking it, but track coach Tyrone Owens says it has long been a source of pride.

Mr. TYRONE OWENS (Teacher/Track Coach, Rhodes High School, Cleveland): Several track coaches have sent champions down to the state meet over the last 70, 80 years. And we always have taken pictures, when the kid places down state, underneath this tree.

SAITO: Tyrone Owens is a distant relative of Jesse Owens, and says it's a happy coincidence that he's spent 31 years here as teacher and coach. While alumni come and pick acorns and occasional visitors drive to see the huge oak, Tyrone Owens says not everyone cares.

Mr. OWENS: To the regular student body it's just a tree. It's just a tree. And we try to push it through athletics. So it's a very important piece of history that sits here in Cleveland, Ohio.

SAITO: While this tree is a part of history, what happened to the other Owens' oaks is probably better thought of as legend. Some say one died. The University of Southern California had an oak in honor of the relay team for which Owens won his fourth medal. Another tree was said to be planted at the Cleveland home of Jesse Owens' mother, but fell when the house came down in the 1960s. And in the film "Jesse Owens Returns to Berlin," Owens himself explains where there is one more.

(Soundbite of cheering and singing)

Mr. JESSE OWENS (Olympic Athlete, Track-And-Field): And one stands among the cherished mementos on All-American row at Ohio State University, where I spent my college days.

SAITO: But there's no Oak at Ohio State's All American row on the Columbus campus, and the school has no record of Owens ever planting a tree there.

Jim Constandt, who wrote a book about the trees, says only four of the team's 24 Olympic trees are thought to be alive. Some died. Some athletes threw them away or hid them because of their association with Hitler. Few records were kept and, Constandt says, there may well be undocumented Olympic trees out there.

Mr. JIM CONSTANDT (Author, "The 1936 Olympic Oaks: Where Are They Now?): Well, the basketball team, I mean

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CONSTANDT: they cut cards to see who's going to plant it and somebody planted it. But where they planted it no one knows and the same with Jesse Owens' trees. I think nobody knows for sure the status of the four trees.

SAITO: An English Oak near Ohio State's library has long been the rumored lost Owens' tree and arborists determined it is the same species, age and size as the famous oak in Cleveland. The university wants to prove the tree's identity by comparing its DNA with other Olympic trees.

OSU Forestry Professor Davis Sydnor says he's banking on the theory that the original seedlings all came from one or maybe two parent trees.

Professor DAVIS SYDNOR (Urban Forestry, Ohio State University): And if they're that closely related, DNA testing can come pretty close to saying, you know, it's from this group of trees. You know, that this one is found.

SAITO: Sydnor has cloned the Owens tree in Cleveland. He hopes to clone the Ohio State tree too, if its link to Jesse Owens and the Berlin Olympics can be proven.

For NPR News, I'm Mhari Saito.

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