Bob Richards, Olympic pole vaulter who landed on Wheaties boxes, dies at 97
Bob Richards, an ordained minister who became the first athlete to appear on the front of a Wheaties box after he won two Olympic gold medals in the pole vault during the 1950s, an accomplishment he parlayed into a successful career as a motivational speaker, died Feb. 26 at his home in Waco, Tex. He was 97.
His daughter Tammy Richards LeSure confirmed the death but did not cite a specific cause.
Known alternatively as the “Vaulting Vicar” and the “Pole Vaulting Pastor,” Richards was one of the most dominating athletes of his time, leaping as high as 15 feet 6 inches with a stiff metal pole in the days before flexible fiberglass helped Olympic vaulters cross over bars nearly 20 feet in height.
In addition to the gold medals he won at the 1952 Olympics in Finland and the 1956 Games in Australia, Richards won 17 national pole vault championships and was ranked No. 1 eight times in an era when pole vaulting and other Olympic track-and-field events were chronicled on the front page of sports sections.
His success in the air, combined with wholesome looks and an upbeat ministerial eloquence, made Richards a fixture in American households. In 1957, he played himself in “Leap to Heaven” on ABC’s “DuPont Cavalcade Theatre” in a dramatization of his life. A year later, General Mills tapped him as its pitchman on the front of Wheaties cereal boxes and in television commercials.
By then, Richards was hopscotching around the country delivering what would add up to more than 25,000 motivational speeches at sales conferences, awards dinners and corporate retreats.
“One recent night,” Sports Illustrated wrote in 1968, Richards is “sitting on the dais in the banquet hall of Vanderburgh Auditorium in Evansville, Ind.. It is a Monday night, and he is to address the annual awards dinner of the Evansville Sales and Marketing Executives Club, attended by some 200 salesmen and their ladies.”
Eighteen salesmen received awards. Then, for the next hour, the floor was his.
“In a matter of minutes he has the Evansville salesmen in his grip. His eyes shut tightly, his hands knifing through the air, he carries the salesmen to successive peaks of grim determination,” Sports Illustrated noted. “Bobbing and weaving, his forehead glistening with perspiration, he is Rocky Marciano on the attack against Archie Moore. He is Bart Starr on third down.”
Richards told them, “I want to set you on fire; I want to get you to go, to act.” And: “You’ve got to go through that line, you’ve got to figure out ways to beat the opposition. The salesman is on the field! He’s out there in the middle of the fight.”
Although he mentioned religion, telling the salesmen that faith in God will translate into enthusiasm for life, the heart of Richards’s motivational routine was telling stories of athletes who tried harder and trained longer to overcome insurmountable challenges, ultimately winning because they set seemingly impossible goals that they believed they could achieve.
“I say this and don’t say this to be humble,” Richards said in a recorded speech sold as “There’s Genius in the Average Man,” “but I reckon that there were over a million guys in America who could have beaten me in both Olympic Games.
“A million guys stronger, faster,” he continued. “But they didn’t believe they could win the Olympics. They had never gotten on a track. They had never tried. Your capacity is only discovered, ladies and gentlemen, in challenge. And the bigger your challenge, the bigger you become as a person. If you’ve got a little tiny goal, a little tiny challenge, you’ll never make it.”
He brought up the boxer Cassius Clay, later known as Muhammad Ali, who was famous for saying, “I’m the greatest!”
“You know how important it is to feel that way about yourself?” Richards said. “To feel that you’ve got it? Most of us say, ‘I’m the worst. I can’t do anything. I’m terrible.’ We wonder why we don’t do anything when we don’t believe we can.”