The Opelousas Olympian
Forty years ago, on Sept. 21, 1972, then-Louisiana Lt. Gov. James E. Fitzmorris approached the podium at the Downtowner hotel in Opelousas and gushed with Pelican State pride about Rodney Milburn, who went from poverty-stricken roots in that city to Olympic champion in just a few years.
“This is the typically American story,” Fitzmorris told the crowd of hundreds. “Rodney comes from a poor family, did not have the advantages many others have. He experienced failures, but he never stopped. He has the kind of determination and drive and desire of the kind of man who may lose but will never be beaten.”
That night at a banquet, Fitzmorris was one of several speakers who lauded Milburn, who earlier that month had won a gold medal in the 110-meter hurdles at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. For others who spoke, the 22-year-old hurdler represented something even more – the possibility of rising above and beyond the grinding racial prejudice that still saturated the state of Louisiana. Opelousas Mayor Wilfred Cortez, for example, called Milburn “a symbol of the great potential of black people everywhere.”
But it wasn’t just elected officials who were bursting with joy at Milburn’s accomplishments. Wrote the local Opelousas Daily World on the day of the banquet: “Opelousas is proud to claim Rodney Milburn as a ‘favorite son.’”
In fact, Opelousas ended up naming a street after Milburn, and the Opelousas Museum and Interpretive Center features a permanent exhibit of information, documents and memorabilia in Milburn’s honor.
And Milburn felt the same way about his hometown, which, despite its social, racial and economic challenges, stirred similar feelings in the hurdler. Opelousas, for all its warts, was close to Milburn’s heart. “It was very important to him,” says his sister, Lillie Milburn Lazard. “It was something that didn’t change.”
But the mutual pride shared by Milburn and his hometown, in the end, wasn’t able to save the runner from a tragic end. Reeling from the costs of his divorce and forced to sell plasma to afford cab fare to his job at the Georgia-Pacific paper mill in Port Hudson, Milburn moved into a Baton Rouge homeless shelter in the fall of 1997.
After taking a taxi to the paper plant on Nov. 19 of that year, Milburn accidentally fell into a hopper train car filled with scalding sodium chlorate, a chemical used in the making of paper. Milburn incurred third-degree burns, including down his trachea and into his lungs, leading the East Baton Rouge Parish coroner to declare thermal burns as the cause of death.
Milburn’s passing sent shock waves through both the U.S. track community and his family and friends in Louisiana. That included Thomas Hill, a native of New Orleans who claimed the bronze medal in the hurdles in Munich, for whom Milburn was not just a track rival but also a dear friend.
Now the vice president of student affairs at Iowa State University, Hill says he was crushed when he learned of his friend’s death, especially because they shared a common Louisiana heritage. Hill also says that Milburn’s demise symbolized the magnitude of the challenges faced by Milburn, Hill and their peers. Says Hill, “There were some tough times for all of us.”
Now, four decades after winning the gold at the Munich Olympics – which were themselves marred by the kidnapping and murder of Israeli athletes by Palestinian extremists – the city of Opelousas remembers Milburn and his achievements, but its populace does so in an abstract way. While those who knew the hurdler keep his memory burning bright, they’re also concerned that other members of the Opelousas community have forgotten about him, which some say is fed by lingering racism.
“I really don’t think Rodney’s accomplishments are appreciated by the majority of the population of Opelousas,” says Hubert White, president of the alumni association of the former J.S. Clark High School, Milburn’s alma mater, “and that is mainly because he was black.”
Hill claims that a grass-roots effort to establish a plaque or other memorial at the former Clark building – the facility is now Magnet Academy for Cultural Arts high school – have been rebuffed by St. Landry Parish school district officials, who, Hill says, assert that tight financial times make establishing such a memorial impossible at this time. (Representatives of the St. Landry Parish school district could not be reached for comment.)
Opelousas attorney Leslie Schiff, who led the committee that organized the September 1972 banquet honoring Milburn, also feels that many in the city have failed to keep the hurdler’s memory alive. Schiff says city officials and others who knew Milburn when he was alive “remember him very fondly,” but he asserts that, in general, Opelousas has let the Olympic champion fade into the past. “We have short memories,” he says.
“I don’t think people in Opelousas keep up his memory and remember his accomplishments,” Schiff adds. “But [his legacy] is out there, and you can’t erase it.”
Rodney Milburn Jr.’s rise to Olympic glory began in humble circumstances. The youngest of seven children, born in 1950, Milburn was the product of Opelousas’ poverty-ravaged black community on the east side of the city. His father toiled as a carpenter, and his mother, Mary Milburn, worked as a cook and housekeeper for two local families at the time of her son’s triumph at Munich, labor that, along with a busted TV, prevented her from watching his victory live.
The Milburn children were also affected by the prevailing spirit of racial separation and bigotry that still gripped much of the state even after the historic Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling that struck down state-sanctioned segregation.
But, says Lazard, Milburn and his siblings didn’t know of any other existence.
“To him, it was just a normal thing,” she says of segregation. “Maybe when he grew up, he began to see it differently. But it was what it was. That situation wasn’t any different at the time. Being a young black male, [he experienced] so much prejudice in Opelousas, even in the ’60s, as he was growing up.”
That climate extended to the local school system, including the area high schools. While white students attended Opelousas High, black students were relegated to J.S. Clark, which was so underfunded that it didn’t even have a cinder running track. Instead, the school’s athletes trained and performed on a grassy field that was mowed by legendary track coach Claude Paxton himself. The wooden hurdlers cleared by Clark runners were made by assistant coach Oliver Jackson’s shop class.
Paxton was the driving force behind Clark’s state championship-winning track and field program, a stern, demanding coach who also possessed a soft side that exuded loyalty and dedication to the athletes he tutored.
And Milburn became one of his prized students, although the youngster’s beginnings as a hurdler were near-disastrous and have now become legend to Clark alumni. During Milburn’s freshman year, veteran hurdler Fulton Lewis came down with a bug on the day of a race, forcing Paxton to solicit volunteers to replace the star.
Milburn, who harbored hidden desires to give the hurdles a try, meekly spoke up, and Paxton, although reluctant at first, eventually acquiesced. During his first race that week, Milburn’s legs smacked into every single hurdle, but the determined youngster still won. Despite Milburn’s subsequent reservations, Paxton saw a kernel of talent and urged his young charge not to give up.
“I told coach Paxton I didn’t want to do it anymore,” Milburn told Boys’ Life shortly before the ’72 Games. “Well, he gave it to me good. … He said I could be one of the best hurdlers who ever lived. I liked that. He said I’d have to have the desire, that it wouldn’t just come to me.”
Paxton said later that he felt a need to push Milburn to succeed in the hurdles. “I recognized very early that Rodney had great natural speed and would have been a tremendous sprinter,” the coach recalled in 1972, “but I guess I encouraged him to work on the hurdles because I was a hurdler myself and a little selfish.”
From there, Paxton nurtured the youth’s burgeoning talent, and by his senior year in 1969, Milburn had become one of the pre-eminent prep hurdlers in the country. It took the Opelousas community – or at least the white segment – a while to take notice. The Daily World provided scant coverage of Milburn and his Clark teammates through much of the spring 1969 season; the OHS track team frequently garnered the banner headlines, not Milburn’s efforts.
It wasn’t until May that the paper began to express pride in the hurdler’s achievements. At that point, sports editor Charles Spicer showered praise on the youngster, especially for overcoming the track community’s belief that greatness could never originate in such a small city in Louisiana.
“People want to believe, but it’s hard to comprehend Opelousas having the best hurdler in the country,” Spicer wrote. “It’s true.”
Spurred partially by a fierce rivalry with Spencer Thomas of New Orleans’ Carver High School and fueled by a quiet but abundant determination, Milburn became a hero to his teammates and younger Clark students and became known by his nickname, “Dice,” because of his aptitude at the game. He also won meet after meet, claiming numerous local, regional, state and national championships, honors and records and being hailed by some as the best high school hurdler in the nation, black or white.
Milburn’s breakthrough into national prominence came in June 1969, when he blew away the field in the 120-yard high hurdles at the prestigious Golden West Track and Field Meet at Sacramento, Calif. Running the course in 13.4 seconds, Milburn set a national high school record in the process. Said Paxton of his student’s performance in the Daily World: “It was beautiful – beautiful all the way.”
In the classroom, however, it was a different story. Although bright and pensive, the young Milburn struggled academically, even getting held back a grade at one point. That decision resulted in Milburn being an academic junior during the 1969 track season despite being a senior athletically.
“School was fun until fifth grade,” Milburn told Boys’ Life. “Then I started playing sick so I wouldn’t have to go to school. I wanted to stay home and play with other kids who pretended they were sick, too. I could do the work OK, but I just liked it better at home than school.”
But despite his early academic struggles, Milburn blossomed in the classroom at the same time he was exploding out of the blocks on the track. “High school was different,” he told the magazine. “I really liked it, and I went every day and got B’s and C’s.”
Milburn, his coaches and school administrators worked to have the talented teen graduate from high school as soon as possible. While this was happening, Milburn inked a letter of commitment to Southern University in Baton Rouge, and after completing his high school work, he enrolled at Southern on a track scholarship. (He was followed by Paxton, who became a Southern track and field coach.)
In Baton Rouge, he became an instant collegiate star, quickly garnering NCAA, national AAU and Pan-American titles and challenging the world record in the 110-meter high hurdles. He went undefeated in the event throughout 1971, and by the end of the year, he held the world record in the 110-meter highs with a blistering mark of 13.0. He was named Track & Field News’ Athlete of the Year and was crowned the gold medal favorite for the 1972 Munich Olympics.
He stumbled at the 1972 U.S. Olympic trials and barely qualified for the American Olympic team. But once he was on the cinders in Munich, nothing would stop the man from humble beginnings in Opelousas. He flew past the competition in the finals with a 13.2.
A flurry of recognition soon followed, including the banquet in his honor in his hometown. In the ensuing few years, Milburn continued to race and met with similar success. But failed attempts at a professional career in both track and football derailed his progress and made him ineligible for the 1976 Olympics. Milburn eventually regained his amateur status and was preparing to run at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, but the U.S. boycott of those games nixed those hopes. He finally retired from the sport in 1983.
He coached track at Southern for several years, but his personal troubles started to mount, a path that led to his tragic death at the Port Hudson paper mill in 1997. Days after his passing, an overflow crowd of mourners packed into Opelousas’ Little Zion Baptist Church for his funeral. “Most of Opelousas, it seemed, had dressed up and come to this brick church to pay respect to one of its most famous sons,” wrote Julie Cart of the Los Angeles Times.
He was then buried in a family plot in tiny Green Chapel Cemetery along State Road 743 outside of Opelousas. Today, visitors drive past horse pastures and manufactured homes to arrive at Milburn’s grave. Long weeds and scrub grass sprout up among the graves, which are bracketed by a small thicket of trees perhaps 30 yards off the highway. A Walmart distribution center buzzes with activity close to the cemetery.
Milburn’s sister, Lazard, now lives hundreds of miles away in Houston. But her brother is never very far from her heart. Forty years after his Olympic triumph and nearly 15 years after his death, Lazard still swells with pride in her sibling. “Very much so,” she says with a sigh.
In 1992, the city of Opelousas named a street in Milburn’s honor. Rodney Milburn Boulevard runs through North City Park. On an overcast day in March, clusters of teens shoot hoops on courts ringed by rusting chain-link fences, children cavort on a playground and mothers walk down Milburn Boulevard pushing strollers. Tennis courts sit unused. The park is well-landscaped, but much of the equipment and fencing is aging and bent.
A city park ranger tours the grounds in a white SUV, stopping to chat with kids and parents – almost all of them black – along the way. “He’s very well-remembered,” the ranger says of the street’s namesake before smiling and climbing back into her vehicle. “You have a blessed day,” she adds as she drives off.
And by those who knew him, Milburn is indeed well-remembered – as a man whose humility and quiet warmth marked his life and his accomplishments. Schiff, the local attorney who organized the banquet honoring the hurdler in 1972, says his friends are bonded by his memory. “The common thread of our friendship was and is Rodney,” he says. “He was a very, very fine fellow.”
Hill, Milburn’s teammate on the 1972 Olympic team, says he and the late star grew close because of their shared love of their home state and pride in their beginnings. “We had a particular bond with respect to our roots,” Hill says. “We really clicked and had a close relationship.”
When speaking of her brother, Lazard becomes especially ebullient when remembering his humble nature. Although he reached the pinnacle of athletic stardom, she says, he always stayed true to his unassuming roots.
“He always acted like an everyday person,” she says. “He never went around bragging, ‘I was this,’ or ‘I was that.’ He was just an ordinary person, just a normal man. I was very proud of him. He always said, ‘Just be yourself, and don’t brag about it.’”
Milburn’s spirit and character is especially exemplified by the Opelousas museum’s section dedicated to him. It’s there, his close friends and family say, that his memory lives on particularly brightly. Included on the museum’s Web site is a quote from the town’s Olympic hero: “It is not what the world sees, but what God sees in your heart that counts.”