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 (From On the Colorado Scene)

 

 

October 27, 2017

CSU Fetes Glenn Morris

With Olympic Oak Tree 

 

 

 

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FORT COLLINS -- This was the Glenn Morris Oak Tree Sequel.

 

On Friday afternoon, outside the Iris and Michael Smith Alumni Center

at the northwest corner of the new stadium, Colorado State planted an

oak tree to honor Morris, the 1936 Olympic decathlon champion from

tiny Simla, 49 miles northeast of Colorado Springs.

 

Before winning gold at Berlin and becoming briefly one of the most

famous athletes in the world, Morris was a football and track star,

plus the student body president, at what then was known as Colorado

A&M. 

 

The main speaker during the ceremony Friday was CSU's Tony Phifer,

a former Coloradoan sports writer whose self-described "obsession" to

track down the oak tree Morris was presented in Berlin -- to go with the

gold medal -- started a chain of events that, indirectly, led to me writing 

Olympic Affair. It's why I dedicated the book to Phifer and Morris Ververs,

the long-time educator in Simla who in essence was the trustee of Morris'

legacy.

 

Here's the beginning of that Afterword (touched up to avoid repetition): 

 

In May 2010, I heard from former newspaperman Tony Phifer, a senior writer for Colorado State

University's Division of External Relations. Tony and I serve together on the selection committee

for the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame. Tony suggested that an upcoming ceremony on the CSU

campus in Fort Collins might be in my wheelhouse for a Denver Post story. CSU was going to

plant an oak-tree seedling to salute Glenn Morris. 

 

Why an oak tree?

 

Tony explained that the German Organizing Committee officials handed out seedlings for the gold

medalists to take home and plant, preferably in their hometowns or at their universities. As the trees

grew, they would be reminders of the Olympic spirit. Less trumpeted was that they also could be

considered links to mythology's Thor and his "Donar Oak." Tony found a picture that proved Morris

presented his tree to CSU president Charles Lory in September 1936. By the 21st century, though,

nobody seemed to know where it had been planted, if it had been planted at all, or what happened to

it. Tony wrote stories for university publications on the mystery, and he hooked up with Don Holst,

the 1968 Olympic men's decathlon coach and an Olympic historian who lives in Chadron, Nebraska.

Holst sought to trace the few known surviving Berlin trees, produce second- and third-generation

oak seedlings, then plant them at various sites tried to the 1936 Olympians around the country.

In May 2010, it was CSU's turn -- in honor of Morris.    

 


In advance of that 2010 ceremony, I visited Simla, meeting with Ververs and

even holding Morris' gold medal, and did considerable additional research on

Morris. I pre-wrote an extensive feature on Morris that I would touch up while

attending the ceremony for publication in The Denver Post. What I had came

across was fascinating, including that controversial German filmmaker Leni

Riefenstahl and Morris had an affair tied to the making of her acclaimed

documentary, Olympia. Morris told others about it, including his brother

and A&M booster Sparks Alford, and Riefenstahl wrote about it in her 1987

autobiography. A half-century after the affair, she stunningly admitted that

she, a manipulative woman accustomed to getting her way, was crushed

when Morris declined to remain in Germany, or return soon, to be with her

and act in German films. Instead, he soon married his college girlfriend and

embarked on a brief, unsuccessful stint in Hollywood, including portraying

Tarzan in the dreadul Tarzan's Revenge.


After doing that story, I realized I had just scratched the surface, and

plowed on in the research and writing -- and two years later, Olympic

Affair was published. 

  
Phifer also was instrumental in the CSU decision to rename the field

house on the east side of the campus after Morris.  


It seemed only right to find a way to honor Morris at the new stadium

and that's what Friday was all about. The tree planted near the field

house seven years ago is not particularly robust, but it turned out that

Tim Buchanan, the city of Fort Collins' forester, also had obtained two

additional oak saplings of the same lineage from Holst seven years ago,

and one had grown into a healthy, if still developing tree. Buchanan

donated it to CSU, and the decision was made to plant it at the stadium

in Morris' honor.

 

Before the ceremonial first shovels and then the replanting of the tree,

Phifer outlined the Morris story in his turn at the microphone, including

the Olympic champion's stay at A&M/CSU. Then he brought up the

oak-tree saplings, pointing out that Morris had remained in Europe

after the Games competing in other meets at the behest of the USOC.

(He also returned to Berlin for supplemental Olympia filming with

Riefenstahl.)

 

"Then he was back on the ship for another week, and so he carried this

seedling with him for all this time, and I started to think, 'Where would

it be at CSU and where would they have planted it?'" Phifer said. "I was

still at the Coloradoan at the time, writing for the newspaper, so I started

looking for the tree around the Oval, which was really the only part of

campus that existed back then. I couldn't find anything that resembled

a tree that would be the right size, the right type. I looked at every tree

over there ... Then I started doing some research in other ways. I went

to the Morgan Library to start looking for old copies of the Collegian and

I was really getting frustrated because I couldn't find any information

about this tree."

 

Then came the discovery.

 

"Finally, this one day I was just flipping through these pages and I really

wasn't paying attention and, voila ... "

 

He then pointed at an easel to his right, where the picture of Morris

presenting the sapling to President Lory was displayed.

 

"... that photo appeared on the front page of the Collegian. And I said,

'Oh, my God, the oak tree made it to Fort Collins, made it to campus.'

That me even more crazy about this story. In fact, my wife (Kathy), who

is right over here, one day looked at me and said, 'You know what you

are? You're obsessed. You're obsessed with this story. You're obsessed

with this oak tree,' and I really kind of was. Then I wrote a story and

that story was seen by the foresters at CSU and also Tim Buchanan, the

forester for the City of Fort Collins. They agree with me, there was no

Olympic oak on this campus. That became more and more of a mystery.

What happened to this tree?"

 

Phifer noted that after he joined the CSU staff a couple of years later,

he wrote another story on the mystery for the university's magazine,

and it caught Ververs' attention. Ververs contacted Phifer and they

talked about Morris, and then also a CSU alum in Chadron pointed

out the story to Don Holst. That led to Holst offering an Olympic

oak-tree seedling to CSU, and giving two more to Buchanan.

 

And that all led to Friday's ceremony.                

 

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John Woodruff, second from right during the 800 meters in Berlin,

weaved though traffic to get to the front and claim the gold medal,

plus an oak tree seedling.     

 

Buchanan also spoke at the ceremony Friday, and he explained that

Holst's seedlings, including the three he gave to CSU and Buchanan,

were third generation in the lineage. The original seedling was the

one given to 800-meter gold medalist John Woodruff and was planted

in Connellsville, Pennsylvania. That tree flourished, and still is alive, and

Holst -- who since has passed away -- took seeds from that tree and

planted them near the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame on the Butler

University campus in Indianapolis. The seedlings brought to Fort Collins

are the offspring of that tree. 


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So while the mystery of what happened to the seedling Morris himself

presented to CSU might never be solved, he now is honored with two

offspring trees from from the Olympic crop on the campus.


Morris' gold medal, transported from Simla to CSU five years ago,

now is in a case inside the Alumni Center, honoring CSU's

Olympians -- also including six-time gold medalist Amy Van Dyken.


One part of getting the game-day football experience back to campus

now can be saluting Morris and the tree outside the stadium, and

seeing his gold medal in a tour of the Alumni Center. 

 

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Glenn Morris and Leni Riefenstahl.

 

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