Mighty oaks from little acorns grow

OAKVILLE, Ala — Tall and thin, gangly looking. Those are words people used to describe a youthful Jesse Owens in his first few years of living in Cleveland in the early 1920s.

That’s also how the tree sapling which will be planted at the Jesse Owens Museum and Park looks today.  It came from an acorn which master arborist John Palmer harvested from the Jesse Owens Olympic Oak Tree, one which Owens himself planted in 1937 at Rhodes High School in Cleveland.

“This sapling is from one of the oldest acorns, which I gathered from the Owens Tree at Rhodes in fall 2016” says Palmer. “I just planted these into window planter boxes, and about 3-4 weeks later some of them just pushed through the soil.”

Initially the trees grew on a south-facing window seat in Palmer’s home.  “This tree is most likely from that first crop,” he adds. “Genetics and nature took its course. Some didn’t live. Some have grown more quickly than others.”

This particular oak sapling and all the others (about 25) that are growing fine have actually been transplanted three times, once in a plastic nursery-type container and twice into soil. The saplings were in their containers for a brief period of time, less than two years, to help protect the tree’s roots from girdling, or circling inside the container.

When he took the saplings outdoors, Palmer squirrel-proofed the site by encircling them with chicken wire. He tried to duplicate what nature would do with the saplings. For example, he only employed a small amount of top dressing on the acorns in the containers to stimulate germination. Once the saplings were outdoors, periodic watering was the only ongoing care provided. He moved trees outside in their containers in the early spring, after the coldest weather was past, then took them back inside in December to help them survive harsh winter conditions.


As mentioned in the Part One of this “Full Circle” series, there’s no doubt that Jesse Owens himself planted the Olympic Oak Tree at Rhodes High School in October 1937. Researchers and writers can confirm this because the school’s newspaper, the Rhodes Review, reported numerous times about the tree’s presence and on Owens visiting the tree in the decades since its planting.

For example, (then) student Bob Cummings, sports editor, wrote in the Rhodes Review in its May 8, 1946 issue about Owens returning to Rhodes high school for a reunion with his former coach, Charles Riley, and to look in on his tree.  That entire publication is linked below. Here is what Cummings wrote more 76 years ago:

Jesse, as did Dave Albritton, Willy Clark and innumerable other cinder renowns, went from under (Coach Charles) Riley’s tutelage up , the long hard road to glory. Long will the name of Jesse Owens be engraved in athletic annals of the great.

Cummings was certainly prophetic in his writing.

Palmer was pleased that the Jesse Owens Olympic Oak was only a 20-minute drive from his home. “I didn’t know where Rhodes High was originally,” he recalls.  “Once I went there, I made at least eight trips to harvest acorns, and also later corresponded with some of the people who were overseeing the original tree as well as propagating the tree from cuttings.”

What is surprising to Palmer and to many others is the lack of knowledge about the other Owens-planted trees, especially the one at Ohio State University. “Owens mentions one of his trees being planted at All-American Row at Ohio State, but the university has no record of it. No one has found a story in the OSU student newspaper, the Lantern, or in Columbus newspapers, about Owens’ giving the tree to OSU,” Palmer adds. It’s a mystery to this day.”

If you’re interested to know more about the trees, here’ a link to a 2011 National Public Radio story on the subject:



Trees are living organisms. Through photosynthesis, tree leaves take in carbon dioxide. They also exhale oxygen. So when one plants a tree in honor or in memory of another person, they are also helping the environment.

On a personal level, significant studies have proven that people are just healthier with trees in our lives.

“Research has shown that we recover from illness and injury better if we can see trees from a hospital,” Palmer says. “Trees calm us, and begin around trees actually reduces blood pressure among many people.

“There’s a wealth of research about the benefits of trees,” Palmer continues.  “Studies among school-aged children found that if school children can see trees during their learning days, it is connected with higher tests scores, lower incidences of bullying, and even higher graduation rates.  Other studies have shown being around trees actually reduces the severity of symptoms of ADHD and ADD.”

Palmer also has read multiple studies that correlate a higher incidence of trees in cities with lower crime rates. Also, people living with trees in their yards and homes have lower incidences of stress and mental health issues.

So there are many health benefits to growing and keeping trees.


Due to the tireless efforts of a non-profit board which began its work in the early 1990s, Northern Alabama has the only place in the United States dedicated to Owens’ life and legacy. The Jesse Owens Museum and Park (JOMP) is an amazing place to visit. It contains more than two dozen larger-than-life display panels that highlight Owens’ athletic accomplishments, his humanitarian efforts, and his impact on the world.

You can hear and see Owens here too! The museum has a mini-theater which shows the movie Return to Berlin, the first sports documentary film made. In it, Owens narrates the 1936 Olympics. Watching this film, one can feel what it would have been like to have been around in August 1936 to hear and see the XI Olympiad in Berlin. Much of the sports footage shown in Return to Berlin came from the cameras of famous German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl and her crew.

Visitors to the JOMP can follow those panels throughout the museum that depict Owens’ life beginning in Oakville, Alabama to his death in 1980. The displays highlight Owens’ athletic accomplishments as well as his humanitarian efforts.

Some of the exhibits at the Jesse Owens Museum. Photo Copyright 2022 Jesse Owens Museum and Park

Besides the museum, the Jesse Owens Park incudes a baseball field, playground, a sharecropper cabin, a replica of the home the Owens family lived in, the tree which Jesse’s wife Ruth Owens planted in 1998, and even a long jump pit, in case any visitor wants to try to replicate Owens’ records in the event.

Here is a link to the museum and park’s website. Anyone interested in track and field, the life and challenges of the greatest Olympian in U.S. history, and the civil rights movement as well should consider making a journey there.



It’s puzzling how America has never done well honoring its black heroes. It took 15 years after the death of the nation’s most important civil rights leader, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., until the U.S. finally dedicated a holiday to him. In Cleveland, city leaders struggled, without a consensus, how to honor Jesse Owens after his 1980 death. There was significant community support to rename Cleveland Municipal Stadium after Owens. But an advisory group which examined the move, chaired by (then) Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell, recommended against it. A statue (which few people see) on West 3rd and Lakeside Avenue, a post office, and a portion of the quadrangle roadway around Public Square are about the only tangible manifestations that Cleveland remembers Owens.

Sports Legends of Cleveland is out to change that, and to do much more as well. This is a non-profit group dedicated to assisting athletics in the Cleveland Schools today and to commemorate and memorialize those who played sports with excellence in the Cleveland Schools.

Right now, Sports Legends of Cleveland (SLC) is seeking to raise $150,000 to complete a new granite monument dedicated to Jesse Owens, Harrison Dillard, and all the Olympians who have come from Cleveland and Northeast Ohio. The monument will be located at University Circle in Cleveland, near Rockefeller Park, at a site called the Jesse Owens Memorial Plaza.

To help raise these funds, master arborist Palmer is donating a second of his Jesse Owens Olympic Oak Tree saplings to SLC.

Here are many ways anyone interested can support the Sports Legends of Cleveland:

  1. Become a SLC Charter Member – https://www.paypal.com/instantcommerce/checkout/LHANPLVPLG2MN
  2. Donate Online – https://www.betterunite.com/sportslegendsofcleveland
  3. Donate through AMAZONSMILE – https://smile.amazon.com/ch/84-2196346
  4. Adopt the Jesse Owens Tree Sapling (see below)
  5. Shop the Online Store – https://sportslegendsofcleveland.shop/

To learn more about Jesse Owens, adopting this tree sapling, and the Sports Legends of Cleveland, watch this video, titled “A Deep Rooted Legacy Preserved,” produced by Portia Booker:



SLC will hold an informational sesision on the tree adoption on Saturday, February 4, 2023, at 1 pm EST to learn more about the JESSE OWENS TREE SAPLING and the ADOPTION process for all interested parties.

Click here to register for the INFO SESSION: https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZIkceuoqjgtH90j72Hzm38Cg9VOy1mr4Ypp *

OR contact SLC board member Coach Tyrone Owens at info@sportslegendsofcleveland.com to schedule a time to discuss the adoption process.

PART THREE: Details about the tree planting ceremony to come

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