Teacher, coach, Olympic athlete
A talented high school and college athlete, Lou Jones set two world track records and was part of a gold medal winning Olympic relay team in 1956. He was also a devoted family man who raised his children, coached, and taught high school and college in the town where he was born.
Louis Woodard Jones III was born on January 15, 1932, in New Rochelle, New York, a small suburban town just north of New York City. He graduated from New Rochelle High School in 1950, then went south to attend New York's Manhattan College. In college, he studied business administration and became a star member of the track team, becoming the Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletes of America (IC4A) champion in the 440-yard race in his senior year.
After graduating from college in 1954, Jones entered the U.S. Army. He continued to run track throughout his military career, and it was while he was in the Army in 1955 that he broke his first record. That year, Jones participated as part of the U.S. team in the Pan American Games, held that year in Mexico City. Begun in 1951, the Pan American (or Pan Am) Games is an amateur sports competition among the nations of North, Central, and South America. Like the Olympics, the Pan Am Games occur every four years in a different city and include a wide variety of sporting events.
In March 1955, Lou Jones ran the 400-meter race in the second annual Pan Am Games. He finished in 45.4 seconds, 0.4 seconds less than the previous world record. Competing in international races can be especially challenging for runners, because geographical features such as altitude differences can affect their ability to perform. Mexico City, at almost a mile and a half above sea level, can be a grueling test of any athlete's endurance. Lou Jones, accustomed to running on New York tracks at almost sea level, managed to break the world record to win the 400 meters on the high-elevation Mexico City track, but he collapsed with altitude sickness afterwards.
Jones continued to keep in touch with his Manhattan College coach, George Eastment. Shortly before the Pan Am competition, Eastment had sent Jones a good luck present, a new pair of running shoes, which Jones wore in the Pan Am race. After Jones' record-breaking run, Eastment proudly displayed a letter from Jones thanking him for the shoes and stating that they were a "perfect fit," as noted in the New York Times.
Little more than a year later, Jones went to Los Angeles to try to earn a place on the U.S. Olympic team. At the trials in the Los Angeles Coliseum in June 1956, he broke his own world record, running the 400 meters in 45.2 seconds. He won his race and his place on the U.S. track team for the 1956 Olympic Games, scheduled to begin in late November in Melbourne, Australia.
Though Jones was highly favored to win the 400-meter race in Melbourne, he came in a disappointing fifth place. The gold medalist was Charlie Jenkins, an American runner who had placed far behind Jones in the Olympic trials. Jenkins and Jones were both competitors and friends, and Jenkins said of his Olympic victory over Jones, "He treated defeat as well [as] he did his victories. That never affected our friendship," as quoted by the U.S.A. Track and Field Web site.
Jones and Jenkins may have been rivals in the 400-meter individual race, but they teamed up for the 4x400 relay. Jones helped set the pace as the second leg of a relay team with Jenkins, Tom Courtney, and Jesse Mashburn. In a fierce competition with well-regarded teams from Australia and Great Britain, as well as many others, the American team placed first, and Lou Jones took home a gold medal.
Upon his release from the Army, Jones entered Columbia University's Teachers College to continue his education. He earned his master's degree in physical education in 1960; then he went to work as a teacher and coach at his former school, New Rochelle High School. He taught there for five years before taking a job in the school administration as a dean. In 1968, he left New Rochelle High to become an assistant professor in the heath and physical education department of Queensborough Community College, a part of the City University of New York system of colleges.
He remained at Queensborough for a year, then left to take a job as dean of student personnel at Manhattan College, where he worked until 1974. In 1975, he left the academic world to work for fair hiring practices within the county government as an equal employment opportunity coordinator in the Westchester County Equal Employment Opportunity Office. He remained in the Westchester County EEO Office until his retirement in 1991, rising to become first director of affirmative action, then assistant to the county director.
Lou Jones lived and worked for most of his life in his hometown of New Rochelle. He died from complications of diabetes on February 3, 2006, at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx borough of New York City.
At a Glance …
Born Louis Woodard Jones III on January 15, 1932, in New Rochelle, NY; died on February 3, 2006, New York, NY; married Vivian Jones (divorced); children: Louis Jones IV, Steven, and Carla. Education: Manhattan College, BA, business administration, 1954; Columbia University Teacher's College, MA, physical education, 1960.
Career: Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletes of America, champion, 440 yards, 1954; Amateur Athletic Union, champion 600 yards, 1956; 1956 Olympic Games, 4x400 meters relay team, gold medal, 1956; New Rochelle High School, physical education teacher and coach, 1960-65; dean 1965-68; Queensborough Community College, health and physical education department, assistant professor, 1968-69; Manhattan College, dean of student personnel, 1969-74; Westchester County Equal Employment Opportunity Department, equal employment opportunity coordinator and director of affirmative action, 1975-88; assistant to county director, 1988-91.
Award: Manhattan College Athletic Hall of Fame.
New York Times, February 8, 2006, p. 16.
"Best Ever," Time,http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,893479,00.html (September 25, 2007).
"Charlie Jenkins," U.S.A. Track and Field,http://www.usatf.org/HallOfFame/TF/showBio.asp?HOFIDs=81 (September 25, 2007).
"Obituaries," International Society of Olympic Historians,http://www.isoh.org/pages/obituaries.html (September 25, 2007).
"Olympian Lou Jones Dies," U.S.A. Track and Field,http://www.usatf.org/news/view.aspx?DUID=USATF_2006_02_10_14_03_30 (September 25, 2007).
"Men 4X100 Meter Relay at 1956 Melbourne Olympics," Sports of World,http://www.sportsofworld.com/olympics/athletics/men-4x400m-relay-1956.html (September 25, 2007).
Information for this profile was obtained through interviews with employees of the New Rochelle School District, Manhattan College, Columbia University Teachers College, Queensboro Community College, and the Westchester County Equal Employment Opportunity Office.