EUGENE — Like many others, Royd Faust of Pleasant Hill is eager to see the much-anticipated film “Unbroken,” which starts showing in theaters on Christmas Day.
Unlike others with an interest in “Unbroken,” however, Faust can say he heard the subject of the film speak in person — in Eugene.
Louis Zamperini spoke to students at North Eugene High School in 1958, said Faust, then a 16-year-old junior at the newly opened high school.
Faust recalls Zamperini humorously recounting his experiences as a long-distance runner in the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany.
The film “Unbroken,” directed by Angelina Jolie, is based on the best-selling biography of Zamperini by Laura Hillenbrand.
Much of Zamperini’s story centers on his World War II experiences as a survivor of a plane crash and his brutal treatment during 2Â½ years as a Japanese prisoner of war.
Faust, now a 72-year-old retired teacher, read the book last year and said he was surprised to learn about Zamperini’s wartime experiences.
“Who knew?” he said. “When I read that book, I was just in shock.”
Ginny Haynes Brobeck, then a 16-year-old junior, said she went to the school assembly at North Eugene High thinking Zamperini’s talk was “going to be so boring.”
But she was captivated by his description of the 1936 Olympics.
“He caught my interest, even though my classmates were poking me and prodding me, all the things that high school students do,” said Haynes Brobeck, now 72 and a retired teacher who lives in Indio, Calif.
Zamperini visited Eugene at the invitation of North Eugene High School Principal Ray Hendrickson and Vice Principal Bob Newland, Faust said.
Both men, along with legendary University of Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman, were close friends and leaders in Eugene’s track community.
“Bowerman, Newland and Dad were like this,” said Martha Pratt of Eugene, Hendrickson’s daughter, as she crossed her fingers. “You couldn’t keep them apart.”
Newland coached high school runners and was instrumental in the UO hosting three U.S. Olympic Trials.
“He was the high school version of Bill Bowerman,” said Kenny Moore of Eugene, an author and two-time Olympian. “If Bob Newland hadn’t convinced me to take meaning from everyday improvement, then I would never have been good enough for Bill Bowerman to think I was worth coaching.”
North Eugene High opened in 1957, the year before Zamperini spoke.
Hendrickson was the school’s principal for 18 years, and he was the head starter at hundreds of Hayward Field track meets at the UO.
Pratt said her father may have met Zamperini during the 1936 Olympics on the way to Berlin.
Hendrickson recently had graduated from the UO. He visited Berlin as a member of the International Physical Education Congress, which recruited 27 top American university physical education students to observe the Games as guests of the German government.
The students traveled to Germany with the Olympic team — including Zamperini and sprinter and soon-to-be four-time gold medal winner Jesse Owens — across the Atlantic Ocean on the USS Manhattan.
“One of my father’s stories was that Mr. Owens would go to the students’ tent camp to get away from the paparazzi,” Pratt said.
After the Olympics, Hendrickson coached football, basketball, baseball and track at University High School, which later merged with Eugene High School.
During the war, Hendrickson served in the U.S. Army, where he taught soldiers to swim. He was stationed in Hawaii, the Philippines and in Japan during the postwar U.S. occupation.
Newland, Bowerman and Hendrickson all died within six years of one another, with Hendrickson the last to die, in 2001.
“Unbroken” was published nine years later, quickly rising to a best-seller, where it has remained ever since.
Pratt said her late mother, Virginia, was given a copy of the book to read, but she stopped when the story began to describe Zamperini’s wartime experiences.
Passages about the war brought back bittersweet memories of Hendrickson’s former student-athletes at University High who did not return from the war, Pratt said.
“Too many of (Hendrickson’s) student-athletes were drafted or joined the Army and were lost in the Pacific Theater,” she said.
Meanwhile, Faust, like Brobek Haynes, was part of the first graduating class at North Eugene High, in 1960.
After serving in the U.S. Air Force and working at Luby’s Sporting Goods store in Eugene, Faust enrolled at the UO and graduated in 1986.
He became a special education teacher in the Lowell School District, where he worked until his retirement nine years ago.
Last year, a neighbor, Ralph Hesse, told Faust that he had just “read this fantastic book, and he brought up Louie Zamperini’s name. And I said, ‘I remember that guy.’??”
Hesse bought a copy of the book for Faust.
About the same time, Faust’s brother, Guy, also had read the book and found it inspiring, so he gave Faust another copy.
Faust said he doesn’t recall Zamperini, in his visit to North Eugene High, talking about his inhumane treatment as a POW or anything negative.
Instead, Zamperini was funny, regaling the students about his attempt to steal a Nazi flag at the Berlin Olympics and other track stories.
“He was almost like a stand-up comedian,” Faust said. “I don’t think he wanted to put any bad words about his wartime experiences in front of the kids.”
Zamperini died in July in Los Angeles at age 97.
Faust said he is looking forward to seeing the movie.
“It won’t be on Christmas Day; I’m pretty sure of that,” Faust said, chuckling. “But pretty soon thereafter.”