Sept. 3, 2009
The Monroe Monitor & Valley News
August 4, 2009
By Polly Keary, editor
It was perhaps the most famous moment in American Olympic history. It was 1936, and Hitler was just beginning to ramp up his white supremacist rhetoric. African American runner Jesse Owens crossed the finish line at the Berlin Olympics easily in first, a living repudiation of Hitler's racist philosophy. Sharing the moment, just two steps behind Owens, was American runner Lee Orr, of Monroe. Orr died Thursday, July 23, at home. He was 92.
Gladys Orr, Lee Orr's wife, said that she always knew about his Olympic accomplishments. But it wasn't until after his death that she learned about his other athletic accomplishments.
"He went to grade school here and excelled at some things in school, but I didn't know he did until they brought out things for his memorial," she said.
Orr wasn't much for blowing his own horn. But his athletic promise showed up early. The native of Saskatchewan, Canada, came to Monroe in 1920 at the age of three, where his father had a watchmaking business and his grandfather had a carpentry business, and then entered Park Place School.
While still in Park Place School, in the sixth grade, he won his first track trophy. He went on to letter in football and track for the Monroe Union High School Bearcats.
"I can remember one touchdown he made in football where John Danhoff gave a key block for Lee and Lee ran around left end and no one could catch him," said fellow student Merv Boyes to a relative of Orr's. "He had amazing speed."
He dominated competitions in sprint, broad jump, 100-yard dash, 220- yard dash and relay. In May 1935, he was the high point earner at two county track meets. Part of the reason he was so fast is that every day for lunch, he ran from school to his father's jewelry store, a mile away.
He ultimately won two state titles and still holds the record for the 220-yard dash.
After high school, Orr ran for the Washington State University Cougars, working as a stock boy for $35 a day to get through school in the days before athletic scholarships. The six-foot, 175 pound freshman dazzled his coaches. He went on to eight Pacific Coast North Division titles and an NCAA championship in the 440-yard run. And he and his brother Jack ran with the Cougar relay team that set a world record in June, 1937. Orr was inducted into the Washington Athletic Hall of Fame.
But the highlight of his career came when he qualified to go to the Olympics. Because Orr was born in Canada, he was a Canadian citizen, and won a slot on the Canadian Olympic team in the 100- and 200-meter dashes in Vancouver, B.C. in 1936 at the age of 18. He placed fifth in the 200-meter dash, following Jesse Owens.
To his surprise, he did even better in the quarter-finals, when he equaled the world record of 21.2 seconds.
In the finals, he said that it was more of a thrill to lose to Jesse Owens than to win any other race. He described Owens as very likable, a nice, quiet and modest man.
Orr also stood just 10 feet from Hitler, Goebles and Goering, who would go on to become the most infamous war criminals in history. At the time, they didn't seem so bad, Orr later commented. And Germans were very friendly.
In 1938, Orr graduated with a degree in teaching, and put his athletic career behind him, although he remained fit and active for the rest of his life. He did, however, return to Germany in World War II, this time to fight Hitler. During his 18 months in the war, he ran and played football for fun. At one meet, he was presented with a medal by General George Patton himself.
Upon returning from the war, he went to work for the Hormel Meat Packing plant in Seattle, where he met the woman he would spend the last half of his life with. At first, he was too much of a company man to date any of his subordinates, said Gladys, who went to work for him in 1950. But then he was transferred to Nebraska for seven years. "I got to know him better after he went to Nebraska because me came back for vacations," said Gladys. They went on a lot of motorcycle rides, a passion Orr picked up living in Nebraska.
The people he rose with in Nebraska remained in contact for decades after that, said Gladys. And they went camping a lot, another pastime Orr loved.
The couple moved to Monroe and spent the next 30 years working on their home and property just east of Monroe on U.S. 2. During that time, the couple never spent the night apart. They shared a lot of joy, but a lot of sorrow too. Gladys lost her only son 12 years ago, and Lee lost his only daughter one year ago.
Orr loved his grandkids a great deal, including a great granddaughter, who just did a show-and-tell on her great grandpa's Olympic accomplishments. Now those accomplishments will be shared with all, as many of Orr's medals and trophies will go to the Monroe Historical Society.
What Gladys hopes people know, in addition to Orr's athletic prowess, was that he was also a good person. "He was the kindest man in the world," said Gladys. "He was really great to know."