A salute to an Olympic cham­pion and his pursuit of excellence

The Covington News - - OPINION - You can reach Dick Yar­brough at yarb2400@bell­south.net; at P.O. Box 725373, At­lanta, Ge­or­gia 31139; on­line at dick­yarbrough.com or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dick­yarb.

Dr. Melvin Pen­der Jr. is a bona fide Amer­i­can hero: An Olympic gold medal­ist (4x100 re­lay in the 1968 Mex­ico City Games at 31 years of age); a Bronze Star re­cip­i­ent with two tours of duty in Viet­nam, re­tir­ing as a cap­tain af­ter hav­ing joined the Army at 17; a col­lege grad­u­ate; a mem­ber of 11 halls of fame; a coach; an au­thor and mo­ti­va­tional speaker; a cancer sur­vivor and a de­vout Chris­tian. A list of re­mark­able achieve­ments to which many of us would as­pire but which few, if any of us, could ever equal. He has.

But what makes Pen­der a real hero is the ob­sta­cles he had to over­come to at­tain that suc­cess. He grew up in the sep­a­rate-but-un­equal South of the 1950s. “It was a time when blacks sat in the back of the bus and in the days of ‘white only’ wa­ter foun­tains,” he says.

He has also bat­tled sub­tle and some­time not-so-sub­tle racism for much of his adult life. The man has ex­pe­ri­enced the worst in us and not only per­se­vered, he suc­ceeded be­yond any­one’s wildest imag­i­na­tion — ex­cept his.

“I never had any doubt I would make it,” he told me re­cently. “I used the sys­tem to my ben­e­fit.” Let it be known that Mel Pen­der is a loyal Amer­i­can who fought for his coun­try and has lit­tle pa­tience with those who dis­re­spect our na­tion and its flag.

Sadly, his coun­try didn’t al­ways show him a lot of re­spect in re­turn. His Olympic ex­pe­ri­ences were sand­wiched be­tween tours in Viet­nam and lit­tle recog­ni­tion by his su­pe­rior of­fi­cers as to his ac­com­plish­ments on the track. He was de­nied ser­vice at restau­rants even while in uni­form. He was un­wel­comed as a coach at the United States Mil­i­tary Acad­emy be­cause se­nior of­fi­cers said “West Point isn’t ready for a black head coach.”

“That hurt,” he ad­mits. “I had fought for my coun­try and had been awarded a Bronze Star and was an Olympic ath­lete.”

Why isn’t he bit­ter with the sec­ond­class treat­ment he ex­pe­ri­enced more than he de­served and thrown down the race card? “My grand­fa­ther taught me to never let oth­ers drag you down to their level,” he said. His grand­fa­ther also told him to be the best he could be in life. Even when he was a vic­tim of racism, rather than give up and give in, he put his 5-foot, 5-inch self into over­drive in the pursuit of excellence, which in­cluded an Olympic gold medal that he has do­nated to the Charles Wright Mu­seum of African-Amer­i­can His­tory in Detroit.

To­day, Mel Pen­der is ap­proach­ing 80, and has em­barked on a na­tion­wide tour to dis­cuss his book, “Ex­pres­sion of Hope” (Chris­tian Faith Pub­lish­ing.) A visit to his web­site, www.md­con­sult­ing­firm.net, will list some of Pen­der’s up­com­ing speak­ing en­gage­ments, in­clud­ing this Satur­day at the Cen­ter for Civil and Hu­man Rights in At­lanta.

“It is a book I have been en­cour­aged to write for many years,” he told me. “It is a chance to help young peo­ple and par­tic­u­larly young blacks to un­der­stand what it takes to be suc­cess­ful.” You owe it to your­self to hear this man’s story. And what a story it is.

The first time he ran track was in the Army, while sta­tioned in Ok­i­nawa. His first-ever com­pet­i­tive race was against mem­bers of the Ja­panese Olympic team. He won. He was 25, a time many elite sprint­ers are slow­ing down. Mel Pen­der was just get­ting started. “I was fast,” he says mat­ter-of-factly. Was he ever.

To­day, some six decades later, in ad­di­tion to Olympic gold, he still holds the world record in the 50- and 60-yard dash and once owned the world record for the 100-meter dash.

Pen­der and I got off to a rocky start in when he took um­brage at one of my col­umns re­gard­ing a lo­cal po­lit­i­cal race in which he was serv­ing as an ad­viser and I didn’t par­tic­u­larly care for his anal­y­sis of my anal­y­sis. Out of that ini­tial cranky con­tact has come a mu­tual ad­mi­ra­tion and a strong friend­ship. A short black guy fast as the wind and a tall white guy who couldn’t walk and chew gum si­mul­ta­ne­ously. Who would have thought?

Dr. Melvin Pen­der Jr. beat a lot of peo­ple in races. He also beat the odds against him. He is proof that in this coun­try, one can get out of life what one is will­ing to put into it. He is truly an Amer­i­can hero.

DICK YAR­BROUGH COLUM­NIST

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