James Cleveland Owens was born in Alabama in 1913 and moved with his family to Cleveland at age nine. An elementary school teacher recorded his name "Jesse" when he said "J.C." It became the name he used for the rest of his life. Owens' dash to the Olympics began with track and field records in junior high and high school. Owens chose The Ohio State University without scholarship, supporting himself by working many jobs, including one in the University Libraries. The pinnacle of his sports career came at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where he won four gold medals, frustrating Adolf Hitler's attempt to showcase Aryan superiority. After his return, Owens found work as a playground director in Cleveland beginning his life work with underprivileged youth.
Jesse Owens served as the personal representative of President Eisenhower at the 1956 Olympic Games, and, in 1976, President Ford presented him with the Medal of Freedom, the highest honor the U.S. can bestow on a civilian. When Owens died in 1980, President Carter added his voice to tributes from around the world: "Perhaps no athlete better symbolized the human struggle against tyranny, poverty, and racial bigotry. His personal triumphs as a world-class athlete and record holder were the prelude to a career devoted to helping others. His work with young athletes, as an unofficial ambassador overseas, and as a spokesman for freedom are a rich legacy to his fellow Americans."