Local News

Thursday, Feb 03 2011 09:49 PM

Olympian ran with Owens, proudly insulted Hitler

BY STEVEN MAYER, Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

In the heady days of his youth, Bob Young competed alongside Olympic hero Jesse Owens, helped set a world record in the two-mile relay, and once gave the finger to Adolf Hitler.

But it was his 71-year marriage to his lifelong love, Alice, and the quiet yet successful life they built together in Bakersfield and beyond, that may have been his proudest accomplishment.

The track and field champion, Olympic medal winner, accountant and wine grape grower died Thursday at his Bakersfield home. He was 95.

Young remained lucid and "definitely with it" to the end, said his granddaughter Jennette Green, though he experienced heart problems in his later years.

"I just talked to him on Friday," she said. "We had a great conversation."

Born and raised in the Weedpatch area, Young attended Kern County Union High School, which would later be renamed Bakersfield High. After graduation, he studied and ran track at Bakersfield College.

Alice and Bob shared only one date before he headed off to UCLA where he studied economics and lettered three years in a row.

In a 2006 interview with The Californian, Bob Young recalled competing in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. He couldn't have known that the uniformed dictator who arrived each day to watch the games would later become history's most infamous war criminal.

Nevertheless, Young, just 20 at the time, remembered feeling a sense of foreboding at the German military presence and the Nazi-era rituals that were already becoming commonplace.

"Every day, Hitler would come into the stadium and everyone would stand up and give him the ol' Heil Hitler salute," Young remembered. "Sometimes, if the Gestapo wasn't around, we'd give him the finger."

Young graduated from UCLA in 1937, but the Great Depression had made good jobs scarce. So he went on to graduate school.

Following his silver medal performance at the Olympics, his four-man relay team would set a world record in the two-mile relay in London.

The end of his amateur track career came in 1938 with a pulled hamstring. It was the end of something great but the beginning of something wonderful.

Young landed a job with Standard Oil, which brought him back to Bakersfield -- and back to Alice. By chance or luck, they met again, this time at the La Granada Ballroom.

They were married on July 14, 1939, and would never be apart again.

Young worked a stint as an accountant at UCLA. But when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, he was determined to do something to help with the war effort. He became an auditor and civilian administrative officer for the U.S. Navy at Terminal Island naval base and shipyards in Southern California.

After the war, the couple moved back to Bakersfield where they raised two sons, Michael and Gary. Bob earned a living by handling the accounts of farmers in Arvin.

"I learned the business end of farming," he said in 2006. "What I learned is how not to go broke."

In 1955, that knowledge would serve him well as he embarked on yet another chapter in his life, this time as a pioneering grape farmer in Paso Robles.

"He started the irrigated wine grape industry in Paso," said his son Mike Young. "He was recently recognized for that by the vintner's association."

They had some tough, lean years, but they survived -- and later thrived.

They lived on the ranch for 22 years, made good friends and sold their grapes to Paul Masson Winery.

But eventually, it was time to come home again. After selling the vineyard in 1977, the Youngs moved back to Bakersfield to be close to family -- which as of Thursday had grown to include nine grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.

It wasn't until he was well into his 80s that Young's family was able to convince him to display his beautifully tarnished Olympic medal at home, along with a newsprint photo of Young training alongside the legendary Jesse Owens.

"He was a very humble man," Mike Young said Thursday night. "He was just a regular guy."

A regular, extraordinary guy.

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