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CROWE'S NEST

To protect and preserve a tree rooted in Games

August 20, 2007|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

A majestic oak tree towers over the gritty neighborhood and shades the backyard of a modest home on a corner lot in Koreatown, its branches and limbs spreading out over the adjacent street and its roots reaching back into history.

Though a backboard and basketball hoop are nailed to a low-lying branch, there is no indication that the tree is linked to the 1936 Olympics.

No plaque or other marking explains that it was awarded to high jump gold medalist Cornelius Johnson at the Berlin Games, made famous by Jesse Owens' magnificent debunking of Adolf Hitler's theory of Aryan supremacy. Nothing indicates that it was planted at the home where Johnson, a Los Angeles High graduate and, like Owens, an African American, grew up to become a champion.

Johnson and 129 other gold medalists in Berlin were given 1-year-old oak seedlings from the German people, a gift unprecedented in Olympic history.

More than 70 years later, the fate of many of the Olympic oaks is unknown, but one of two planted on the USC campus survives to this day as a living legacy to record-breaking Trojans discus champion Ken Carpenter.

Others reportedly were destroyed during and after World War II because of anti-German sentiment and the oaks' "Hitler Tree" reputation, while a few of the 24 that were awarded to U.S. gold medalists were victims of urban sprawl, inattentiveness or carelessness. One never made it through U.S. customs.

A few died of natural causes, which was the fate of the other USC tree -- the one awarded to the record-setting 400-meter relay team consisting of Owens, Ralph Metcalfe and Trojans alums Foy Draper and Frank Wykoff.

But a random few of the Olympic oaks are known to be standing tall all around the world, mostly in public settings such as the Palermo Polo Field in Argentina, the 1928 Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam and at James Ford Rhodes High School on the west side of Cleveland, where Owens practiced.

And then there's the one in Koreatown, which should be designated a historic landmark before somebody comes along and unknowingly destroys it.

"Absolutely," says James Constandt, a financial specialist for the Michigan Department of Education whose research of the Olympic oaks was the subject of a 1994 book. "Let's have some historical perspective. Let's honor the past."

The Los Angeles branch of Dr. Carter G. Woodson's Assn. for the Study of African American Life and History, known as Our Authors Study Club, stops every February at the Johnson oak on its annual Southland bus tour of African American-related historic sites. It is considering applying for landmark protection for the tree.

At the property, the family that lives in the little white house that once was the Johnson family is vaguely aware of the tree's significance.

"It's cool to know that we have a tree from the Olympics," Joaquin Tomas, 22, tells a visitor, noting that his parents, Joaquin and Gisela, were informed of the tree's history a few years ago. "I was amazed when I found out."

As a youngster, Johnson practiced running and jumping in the yard where the tree now stands. Son of a plastering contractor, he was still in high school when he placed fourth in the high jump at the 1932 Olympics at the Coliseum.

Still, despite the obvious abilities of African American standouts such as Owens, Johnson and others, Hitler anticipated an Aryan landslide in Berlin. And when Germans and a Finn won the first three events on the opening day of the competition, the excited Fuehrer personally congratulated them.

But after Johnson cleared 6 feet 8 inches to win the high jump, Hitler left the stadium without greeting him. Whether it was a deliberate snub is still debated, but the German dictator met with no other winners the rest of the Games.

Back home in Los Angeles, Johnson's Olympic triumph brought neither fame nor fortune. He delivered mail after the Games and was only 32 in 1946 when he died of bronchial pneumonia while serving as a ship's cook in the Merchant Marine.

But his Olympic tree endures, and it should be preserved.

In New Zealand, Constandt says, the tree won by 1,500-meter gold medalist John Lovelock is a national treasure. "Kids go there every fall, grab the acorns and go back to their villages to plant them," Constandt says.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says that the Jewish human rights organization he founded is not opposed to the Olympic trees, as long as they are not labeled as shrines to Hitler or Nazism.

"It depends on what the plaque says," Hier notes. "But a tree planted for an Olympic champion, I would not advocate that the tree come down."

At USC a few years ago, after the tree won by the 400 relay team died of root rot, another was planted in its place and a new plaque dedicated. It lists little more than the names of the champions and the event they won.

Michael L. Jackson, the school's vice president for student affairs, says of the simply worded monument, "What we focused on was honoring the U.S. athletes, in particular those affiliated with USC, who represented our nation, represented freedom and represented the best in youth of that era."

In Koreatown, another champion's tree deserves no less.

--

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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