Feb. 1, 2008
SEATTLE - A small ceremony took place outside the Conibear Shellhouse on the University of Washington campus Friday morning to plant a replacement for an "Olympic Oak" that once stood on campus.
The original oak tree was brought to campus in 1936 by rower Joe Rantz, a member of the Husky varsity eight that won the gold medal at the Berlin Olympic Games. Each gold medal winning individual or team at the 1936 Summer Olympics was given an oak tree sapling.
Rantz received the oak designated for the gold medalist in rowing and brought it to Seattle as he was the only member of the crew returning directly home.
The tree was originally planted on the Montlake Cut, but was moved to other locations on campus on at least two occasions. The oak thrived for a long time on campus, but it eventually died.
Rantz passed away in September and the planting ceremony was organized by his daughter, Judy Willman. She worked to procure the replacement oak tree that was ceremoniously planted outside the UW's shellhouse.
After some comments from UW rowing coach Bob Ernst, Willman made a brief speech to recognize the 1936 crew. After that, she placed nine shovelfuls of dirt on the base of the newly-planted oak -- one for each of the nine athletes in the legendary crew.
The members of the 1936 Oympic gold medal crew, all of them UW students, were Roger Morris, Charles Day, Gordon Adam, John White, James McMillin, George Hunt, Joseph Rantz, Don Hume and coxswain Robert Moch.
The location for the "Olympic Oak" is ideal as the building contains numerous trophies and memorabilia commemorating the proud tradition of Husky rowing. Also inside the crewhouse, hanging from the rafters of the dining room, is the shell the 1936 crew used to win the gold medal.
The Huskies' eight-oared crew defeated the highly favored teams from Germany and Italy in front of Adolph Hitler-- a moment believed to be one of the greatest in Seattle sports history.
"The importance of what Bob and those guys did in Berlin really came to light in 1999 when the Seattle PI named the 1936 gold medal team `Sports Event of the Century'," said Ernst. "Winning that race was one of the first things in sport that gave the community a personal identity.
"There were no major league teams or professional sports at that time. The Huskies of course were great in football and basketball but this was an international splash and the community was behind them. What they accomplished in Berlin was huge to Seattle and the Northwest."
The race was held on Lake Grunau in Berlin and the Americans had set the world and Olympic records with a time of 6:00.86 over the 2,000-meter course in their qualifying race.
The Husky boat faced many obstacles in the finals, however. The Americans were assigned lane six, which was the lane furthest from the Belgian starter that provided the opening commands in French. Lane six also had the choppiest water and strongest head wind. Even worse, Don Hume, the Huskies' strongest rower, fell ill before the race with walking pneumonia.
When the race was signaled to start, the Husky boat did not hear the command and found itself in last place. The Americans continued to struggle, still in last after 1,100-meters, and the Huskies were rowing without Hume who appeared to be unconsciousness.
At 1,200-meters, Hume became alert and Moch quickened the boat's pace. The Americans pushed to third place at 1,500, trailing the Italians by half a boat length and the Germans by a few feet. Moch continued to speed the pace, pushing their typical racing rate from 35 strokes per minute to 44.
The Huskies passed Germany and then Italy in the final 10 strokes to win the gold.
The Legacy of the Olympic Oaks
During Berlin's 1936 Olympic games, seedling oaks were awarded to all gold medallists. Over the next 67 years, the U.S. team's 24 seedling trees were subjected to difficult days of anti-German sentiment, neglect, and disease. Today, only a handful remain, each living up to the motto written on its pot when it was presented: "Grow in the honor of victory! Summon to further achievement!"
They were a "gift of the German people." A Berlin gardening firm that supplied oak wreaths for the gold medallists proposed awarding the trees. Although Adolf Hitler did not actually present them, the nickname "Hitler Trees" stuck; many of the plaques and markers were removed during WWII due to the association with the Hitler. The oaks were planted in special soil, treated against disease, and tended carefully during cultivation, according to a report at the time. However, the report said most were in a "sorry state" when released from quarantine back in America.