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YARBROUGH COLUMN: Final Olympic memory a lasting one

One last word about the 25th anniversary of the Centennial Olympic Games and then we will move on.  Nostalgia is not one of my strong points but having been associated with such a high-profile, once-in-a-lifetime (for me) event makes it hard to not take a quick peek back, especially when I keep getting asked about those times.

For instance, a reporter wanted to know if I could single out one personal highlight from my involvement in the 1996 Games. That took a moment because there were a lot of them: Seeing the Olympic flame being lit in Olympia, Greece; walking on the actual field where the ancient Games were conducted some two thousand years ago; watching the Olympic flame pass through the White House Rose Garden with my daughter; getting to run the Torch in my mother’s hometown of Cartersville with my son and son-in-law by my side.

But the most satisfying personal moment occurred on the final night of Olympic Games competition. There is a back story, so bear with me.

I grew up in East Point, south of Atlanta. In our church was a distinguished gentleman by the name of Fred Alderman. I knew him only as a quiet and dignified man and very polite to everyone including a kid like me. But that is all I knew about him.

Years later after having joined Southern Bell Telephone Company, I was selected to be part of a program to visit with AT&T shareowners and bring them up-to-date on the latest developments in the business and to ensure that their telephone service was satisfactory.

One of the names assigned to me was Fred Alderman. I could not have been more pleased. Although in truth I occupied a low rung on the corporate ladder, I hoped he would be impressed to see that the kid he had known from church in East Point was now a telephone company manager.

It was a pleasant conversation that evening as I filled him in on the doings in the Bell System. At one point, he excused himself for a moment and left the room.

As I awaited his return, I noticed a book on an end table entitled “Amsterdam Olympics.” 

I was casually leafing through the book when suddenly I came across Fred Alderman’s picture with 3 other athletes and a caption reading “4×400 gold medal winners.” This quiet man I had known all my life was an Olympic gold medalist? I had no idea. I’m not sure if anyone else in East Point did, either.

Forget the shareholder visit. I wanted to know all about the experience and about the gold medal.

He said the medal was somewhere upstairs, tucked away in a drawer. He talked about how he had been selected to compete in the Amsterdam Olympics. He was the NCAA sprint champion at Michigan State and was paired with 3 other collegiate sprinters from around the U.S. Later, I found that they set a world record in the 4×400 in Amsterdam with a time of 3:14.2.

The years passed but not my admiration for the man.

When I joined the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, I promised Fred Alderman that he would see the 4 x 400 relay finals as my guest. And he did, although by now he was in a wheelchair.

What I was not prepared for was that Mr. Alderman’s family had located and brought to Atlanta the other surviving member of that 1928 gold medal relay team, George Baird. Baird, a sprinter at the University of Iowa, had passed the baton to Fred Alderman in the finals in Amsterdam.

The two men had not seen each other since getting off the boat from Amsterdam in New York 68 years earlier. Now, here they were together once again in my box at the Centennial Olympic Games. Fred Alderman, 91, and George Baird, 89.

It was fascinating to watch these two old comrades as they sat silently and observed the finals, even leaning into the turns in their seats as the runners were doing on the track.

To cap off a perfect evening, the United States 4×400 relay team won gold that night as they had in 1928, albeit with a faster time: 2:55.9.

Fred Alderman died two years later at the age of 93.

But I had kept my promise to my hometown hero, an Olympic gold medalist. That was a moment I will forever treasure. Thank you for letting me share it with you.