Harrison Dillard, Buffalo Soldier And Olympic Gold Medalist, Dies At 96

Cleveland native and Olympic hero, Harrison Dillard, died on Friday afternoon. He was 96. 

Dillard grew up in Cleveland – like many young boys of the day –  idolizing larger-than-life African American sports stars, including Olympic sprinter Jesse Owens.

But Owens was more than a sports hero to Dillard. He was a neighbor who had preceded Dillard at East Tech High School, and at age 13, Dillard dreamed of emulating Owens, on the track and as a role model.

Focused on that target, Dillard set track records, won state titles in high school, and eventually won NCAA and 14 Amateur Athletic Union 120-yard and 220-yard hurdles races. He finished first in 82 consecutive hurdles races, a record that stood for more than 30 years and included matching two world records.

A Hero on the Battlefield

But between wins in track and field, his collegiate career was interrupted when he was drafted into the Army during World War II, serving in the famed all-black 92nd Infantry Division, also known as the Buffalo Soldiers.

In 2004, he spoke with ideastream's Dee Perry about what he gained in the military. "It was an enlightening and rewarding experience in many ways in many aspects," he said, adding, "the war itself changed all of our lives."

Dillard qualified as a sharpshooter and spent eight months slogging across Italy as the war wound down, seeing combat on several occasions. The 92nd is often credited with helping turn the tide in Italy.

Speaking with ideastream at his home in 2018, Dillard was, 70-plus years later, still coming to terms with the idea of being an American hero.

"In retrospect I guess, when you can put it into context, and think of the things that have happened, and what some people view as a hero, it makes a little more sense then. But when you’re going through it boy, all you want to do is get it over with, and get out of here," he said. 

From Baldwin-Wallace to Olympic Glory

Following the war, Dillard returned to Berea, Ohio. He chose not to attend Ohio State University, where his hero Owens had studied, deciding that the 140-mile distance was just too far from his beloved Cleveland.

He competed for a coach who’d befriended him at then Baldwin-Wallace College, now university. He became the first person in his family to attend college, eventually helping the track team there win the Ohio Athletic Conference championship, for the first time.

His fame came from what followed – going to the Olympic Games, representing the United States.

Harrison Dillard standing atop the podium at the 1948 Olympics in London after winning gold in the 100-meter race.
Harrison Dillard (center) at the top of the podium after winning gold in the 100-meter dash at the 1948 Olympics in London. [Baldwin-Wallace University]
He remains the only man to have won Olympic gold as a sprinter and hurdler, taking the 100-meter gold in 1948 and the 110-meter hurdles in 1952, with wins as part of the American relay teams as well.

"I remember vividly when we were presented the gold medal. I stood on that stand, and they played the national anthem. And the flag was slowly raised. I said, ‘Wow, I’m standing just where Jesse stood a dozen years before,'"
he said.

Dillard won the 1953 Sullivan Award as the nation's top amateur athlete. In 1974, he was inducted into the Track and Field Hall of Fame, and in 1983 became a charter inductee into the U.S. Olympic Committee Hall of Fame.

A Life of Public Service

Reflective of his humble origins in Cleveland, he displayed but a few of his many medals in his Richmond Heights home. Those did not include the four Olympic gold. 

His life of service continued far beyond the military and athletic career. Following graduation from Baldwin-Wallace, he eventually found his way to the Cleveland school system, where he worked as a business manager and was a vital part of the administration for 27 years. He loved the work and being among youngsters again.

In a statement extending condolences Saturday, USA Track and Field said: “We are saddened to learn of Harrison Dillard’s death after a battle with cancer. Our sport has lost someone special.”

Following the loss of his wife Joy in 2009, Dillard died Friday afternoon at the age of 96 at the Cleveland Clinic. He is survived by a daughter and three grandchildren.

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