Wichita State’s branch of Olympic hoops history makes a move

10/06/2012 12:00 AM

08/06/2014 11:14 AM

Colin McKenney is a tree person and a basketball person. That unusual combination worked together for Wichita State to rediscover its Olympic Oak, a living, leafing, second-generation tie to the 1936 Olympics.

“Drawing attention to it is a wonderful thing,” McKenney said. “People to this day I talk to have no knowledge of the 1936 team. Sometimes people in Kansas say there’s not much here to be proud of. There is a lot to be proud of.”

The 1936 Olympic team holds an important, if overlooked, piece of Kansas basketball history. WSU’s Olympic Oak, offspring of the oaks given to Olympic champions in 1936, is one attempt to highlight that history.

The McPherson Globe Refiners, an AAU power, contributed six players to the 14-man roster and coach Gene Johnson. Johnson coached at the University of Wichita from 1928-33 and is credited with pioneering the full-court press later used by coaching giants such as Ralph Miller and John Wooden.

Francis Johnson, his younger brother, and Jack Ragland, both former Shockers, made the team. James Naismith, the game’s inventor, accompanied the team on its trip to Germany.

Basketball got its start as an Olympic sport in 1936 on outdoor courts in Berlin. The United States went 5-0 and defeated Canada 19-8 to win the first basketball gold medal.

Wichita State’s connection to the 1936 Olympic team is often overlooked. It is possible to walk around Koch Arena without realizing the school contributed a coach and two players to the United States’ first gold-medal winning team.

“We certainly have not feasted upon it,” said Ted Ayres, the university’s vice president and general counsel and a member of WSU’s Historic Preservation Commission.

On Friday, WSU will dedicate a plaque in the tree’s new home near the main entry to Koch Arena. WSU moved the tree from its anonymous home near the Rhatigan Student Center, where power lines and construction threatened its growth. The ceremony will take place as part of the inauguration of new president John Bardo and the public is invited.

“I’m just tickled to death that they’ve replanted the tree and it’s in a better location,” said Jerry Johnson, son of Francis Johnson. “It’s great for the state of Kansas.”

WSU’s oak, known as the English Oak, is the national tree of Germany and many other countries. Gold-medal winners in 1936 were given a small oak in a pot with the words, “Grow in honor of victory. Summon to further achievement.” Team sports received one tree for winning.

Many of the 24 original trees died or grow unmarked. Some athletes dumped their trees into the ocean, according to legend, to protest Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. Retired McKendree (Ill.) University professor Donald Holst, while working on a book about Olympic track and field, tracked down some of the original oaks in the United States.

Holst, according to research by WSU’s George Platt, secured acorns from an oak in Pennsylvania (won by 800-meter champion John Woodruff) and raised seedlings. He gave two to Francis Johnson, who planted one at his home in St. Louis, according to his son. He brought the other to WSU in 1990 and planted it on campus in a small ceremony.

“It went down there in a five-gallon bucket,” Jerry Johnson said. “I found pictures that mother had taken. They were excited because it was a chance to take something back to Wichita.”

WSU’s oak (Querus robur) grew without much attention near the Rhatigan Student Center. The plaque describing its significance disappeared. Then McKenney’s interests converged.

He grew up in Valley Center and rooted for Shocker basketball. His grandfather was a forester, passing down a love of trees. He lived in McPherson for four years and heard the stories about the 1936 Olympic team, its connection to Kansas and the trees. He searched a park in McPherson, hoping to find a marker that would reveal a tree with Olympic roots.

“I wanted to explore something that had been lost,” said McKenney, now CEO at Starkey, Inc., in Wichita. “No one seemed to be very familiar with the story.”

McKenney sought out Jerry Johnson. He connected with Platt, an associate professor emeritus at WSU, who remembered the tree and its importance. Those memories and the work of the preservation commission, and others, led to the tree’s move and Friday’s ceremony.

Jerry Johnson, who plans to attend, is certain his father would be happy with the move.

“He had a great allegiance to Wichita State,” Jerry Johnson said. “His opportunity to go the Olympics and be a part of that group was a memory he held dear all his life.”

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