fb pixel

Log In

Reset Password

Olympian's adventure brought him to the Applegate

Unless you've been hiding under a rock for half a century, you know that Olympic gold medalist Dick Fosbury hails from Medford.

And you probably know that he invented what became known the world over as the Fosbury Flop, a high-jump technique still employed in global competition. He used the flop to win the gold at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City with a record jump of 7 feet 41/4 inches.

And if you are an avid sports buff who lives for details, you are aware he developed the technique while a sophomore at Medford Senior High School. It was at a 1963 track meet in Grants Pass that he first tried his newly developed style of high-jumping in competition, taking the event with a personal-best height of 5 feet 10 inches.

Yet Fosbury, who would capture three Pacific-8 championships and two NCAA titles at Oregon State University, where he earned an engineering degree, is not the only gold medalist with ties to Jackson County.

The other world champion who once lived quietly in our midst was Fred Warren Kelly, gold medalist in the 110-meter high hurdles at the 1912 Summer Olympics — with a time of 15.1 seconds — in Stockholm.

Kelly moved to the Applegate Valley in 1966 from his native Southern California. He died in Medford on May 7, 1974.

There was a small story in the Mail Tribune the following day under the headline, "Fred Kelly, 82, track star and ex-pilot, dies."

The story duly noted that Kelly won the 1912 gold medal in the hurdles and had retired to the picturesque Applegate country.

The Army veteran later became a resident at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs domiciliary in White City, now known as the VA's Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics, the story noted. Kelly died in a nursing home in Medford, it added.

Funeral services were held at the dom, followed by burial in Glendale, Calif., the article concluded.

The story didn't do justice to the Olympic athlete, pioneer military pilot and barnstormer. For that, let's turn to his old friend, Sydney Albright, 79, of Post Falls, Idaho.

"He was very modest and soft spoken with a ready smile — he was a very upbeat guy," Albright recalls. "You couldn't help but like him."

"He thought of his participation in the Olympics as a great honor as well as a lot of fun," he adds. "In many ways, his whole life was a big adventure."

Albright, a writer who once taught journalism at UCLA and is a former longtime spokesman for Western Air Lines in Los Angeles, tracked him down in 1965 to be part of the firm's 40th anniversary celebration.

"When I found Fred, who was Western's first pilot when it started in 1925, he was living in a trailer in a place called Shady Acres Trailer Park (near L.A.)," Albright says. "He had retired before there was a pension so he was living on $143 a month," he continues.

Kelly had earlier lost his wife and only son in a house fire.

When Albright told the firm's president about Kelly, who had retired in 1946 as the firm's chief pilot, the president awarded him a pension that enabled the old athlete to retire to the Applegate Valley.

In 1968, Albright, who would later give the eulogy for his friend, wrote an excellent 34-page article on Kelly in the Journal of the American Aviation Historical Society.

Right after the Olympics, two memorable events happened to Kelly, both on the same day in 1916, Albright wrote.

"At a track meet in Rheims, France, he raced against the great Jim Thorpe for the first time," he wrote. "During the course of the race, an airplane circled over the field. Fred was distracted and looked up. It was the first time he had ever seen a flying machine. He lost his stride and the race. But it changed his life.

" 'Flying was for me,' " Kelly told Albright in an interview for the article.

The following year, in 1917, he joined the newly minted aviation section of the U.S. Army's Signal Corps about the time our nation joined the fray in World War I.

He became a flight instructor at a base in Montgomery, Ala., but asked to be sent to France to join those at the front. The first lieutenant was about to be deployed when the war ended on Nov. 11, 1918, Albright noted.

Kelly would later barnstorm in Cuba and fly notables around the United States, including the likes of humorist Will Rogers.

Yet flying over the hurdles is what Kelly is remembered for today.

"I don't think any of the athletes in 1912 could compete with the athletes of today," Albright says. "They are better trained and have better equipment. Fred told me he would practice by putting a pencil on top of the hurdles. He would try to knock the pencils off without knocking over the hurdles."

It may not have been as legendary as the Fosbury Flop, but it helped earn Kelly the gold a century ago.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.