Nov. 11, 2008
Stories That Live Forever
Editor's Note: The following story is the ninth installment of the Stories That Live Forever series. The series originated in 2007 to commemorate Memorial Day and honor the names listed on the Washington State University Veterans Memorial on the WSU campus. Beginning Veterans Day 2008, the scope of the series has been expanded to include Washington State student-athletes who have served, or are serving, the United States in the military.To access the entire series please click HERE.
Part IX - A Storied Life
By Jason Krump
Lee Orr's accomplishments as a track and field athlete at Washington State College earned him a place in the school's hall of fame.
His accomplishments in life earned him a place in world history.
Track proved to be the vehicle that transported Orr, 91, to not only great accomplishments, but brushes with history. However, it was only recently that the significance of what had been achieved resonated with this modest man from Monroe, Wash.
Born in Saskatchewan, Canada in 1917, and transplanted to Monroe at the age of three, Orr's story began to take shape in this western Washington town; for it was here that his prowess in the sport became evident at Monroe High School, where he became a 3-time state champion in the 220-yard dash in 1933, '34, and '35.
"The 220 was my favorite race of all," said Orr, who won his three titles at the state meet in Pullman. "I couldn't start fast enough to run the 100 so well; I didn't like the pounding of a distance runner."
His success in Pullman at the state meet served as a precursor to what Orr accomplished as a student-athlete at Washington State College. As a freshman, he turned in times that were varsity caliber; however, in 1936, freshmen were not allowed to compete in varsity competition.
"I couldn't run in the varsity meets as a freshman, even though I could beat the varsity runners, which was a little bit odd," Orr said.
Though Orr was not able to compete as a freshman, Washington State coach Karl Schlademan believed Orr had a legitimate shot at competing at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
"The coach decided that I could qualify, so I tried out for the Canadian Team." Orr said.
Orr raced in a trials competition at Vancouver and qualified for the Canadian Olympic Trials at Montreal, where his performance was impressive enough to be chosen on the team, but, there was a caveat, only if there was financial backing to send him to Berlin.
That backing occurred when John Muter, President of the British Columbia Track and Field Association, and his associates provided the finances to send Orr to Berlin, ensuring that Orr, not yet 20 years of age, would be performing on the grandest stage in the sport.
"I was pretty young and didn't know what was going on," Orr said. "I just enjoyed every minute of it."
He illustrated how much he was enjoying the moment when he finished second in the first round of 200 meter qualifying, only behind an American runner from Alabama, Jesse Owens.
During his preparation for the races, Orr found himself not only nearby, but in conversation with the Olympic legend in the making.
"I warmed up with him on the track and talked with him as we were jogging around," Orr said. "He was a very nice gentleman. He was in his prime and he ran real well."
While Orr was near Owens, he also found himself in close proximity to the German leader, Adolf Hitler.
"He had a place to sit and watch that was directly in front of where the non-competing athletes sat," Orr said of Hitler. "We walked up the same aisle. Hitler, (Hermann) Goring, and (Joseph) Goebbels walked up there and sat right in front of us."
In his quarterfinal heat, Orr ran an Olympic-record equaling time of 21.2 to advance to the semifinal round. As it had been in the preceding days, it was raining the day of the 200 meter semifinals and finals. The rain had become so intense, in fact, that it forced Hitler to wear a raincoat.
Owens had already secured gold medals in the 100 and long jump and was attempting to win his third gold medal, something that had not been achieved at the Olympic Games since 1924.
In the morning semifinal, Orr finished second to the United States' Mack Robinson, older brother of Jackie Robinson. Owens won his semifinal heat.
By finishing second in his semifinal heat, Orr was placed in lane six for the final; it would prove to be a disadvantageous position for Orr. Owens started in lane three; Robinson in lane four.
"In the final, I had an outside lane, and I hate to say it, but I couldn't hear the starter very well," Orr recalled. "I was bouncing around and got a poor start."
That poor start cost Orr, who finished fifth as Owens went on to secure his third gold, clocking an Olympic record time of 20.7. Second was Robinson with a time of 21.1.
"I warmed up with him on the track and talked with him as we were jogging around. He was a very nice gentleman. He was in his prime and he ran real well."
- Lee Orr on Jesse Owens
Robinson later ran for the University of Oregon and raced against Orr. The two met several times during their collegiate days, most notably, May 21, 1938, when Orr faced Robinson in the 100, 220, and 220 low hurdles at the Pacific Coast Conference Northern Division meet.
Orr was the victor in all three races; in fact, the Olympics proved to be the only time Orr ever lost to Robinson.
"I came back and I never lost to Mack Robinson again," Orr recalled of his competition with Robinson after the Olympics.
When he departed Germany, Orr had no idea he would be returning to the country in less than a decade, or the circumstances that it would be under.
What Orr did know was that, while he entered the Olympics as an athlete with little experience to draw upon, he departed the Games a seasoned veteran who carried that experience over to Washington State.
"I was nationally more experienced and began to realize what was going on," Orr recalled. "Before I didn't really know what was going on. I was a green kid."
When his career at Washington State was completed in 1940, Orr claimed eight Northern Division titles, four individual Pacific Coast Conference titles and, in 1940, a title at the Princeton Invitational in the 400, as well as an NCAA title in the same event.
After graduation from Washington State, Orr worked for the Hormel Meat Company before circumstances soon propelled him back to Germany, but this time in a much different situation.
At the Olympics, Orr witnessed Owens not only make sports history by winning four gold medals, he also witnessed how one man single-handedly repudiate the German leader's ideology on a world stage. Less than a decade later, Orr joined a world effort to destroy that ideology, which had ruled the host city of those '36 Games, and much of the European continent since.
Still a Canadian citizen at the time, Orr became a United States citizen and was drafted in the Army. He tried to get in the Air Corps but could not because he had not been an American citizen for a long enough time.
Unable to serve in the air, Private First Class (PFC) Orr performed on the ground once again in Europe; however, unlike years earlier, when he was running for Canada, this time he was serving the United States in World War II.
"I was with Cannon Company shooting 105 howitzers," Orr said.
In early 1945, Orr was awarded the Combat Infantryman Badge, given for satisfactory performance of duty in ground combat against enemy forces. At the time, Orr was with a division commanded by Major General Withers A. Burress in France. Later in the winter, during the latter stages of the war, Orr served in an armor division under General George S. Patton.
When the war was over, Orr stayed in Germany. Less than a decade after running in the audience of Hitler, he now witnessed the aftermath of what the former German leader had wrought.
An excerpt from a letter to his wife that was published in the Aug. 24, 1945 Pullman Herald provided a sobering account of what he witnessed in July, just two months after Germany's surrender.
. . . Our first stop was at Dachau, the first and most famous of the German concentration camps. Here they took the lives of more than 250,000 and this was one of the smallest camps.
Despite witnessing the war's devastation, Orr was provided the opportunity to return to the discipline that he enjoyed most following the end of combat in Germany.
"I competed on the football team and I did run a couple of track meets to entertain the troops," Orr said. "That was pretty good duty after the war was over."
On August 11, 1945, Orr set what was described as a European theater of operations record in the 400 meters with a time of 50 seconds flat. In addition to running, Orr coached entries from his 398th infantry regiment in a competition that, unlike in the packed stadium of Berlin in 1936, was held in a venue that only months earlier served as a staging ground for German soldiers.
So accomplished was Orr in entertaining the troops with his athleticism that Patton presented him with a ribbon to recognize his feats, ironic in that the war denied Orr another opportunity to vie for an Olympic medal as the 1940 and 1944 Games were canceled due to the conflict.
But it doesn't take a medal or ribbon to recognize the meaning of Orr's accomplishments although, as Orr admits, the significance was something he hadn't considered until, as he said, five or six years ago.
"I had a lot of natural ability and I enjoyed doing it and I worked hard at it." he said. "I didn't realize a lot of other people had not done the same thing.
"I didn't know what I had accomplished until recent times. There weren't that many that did it."