During the latter part of January, 1996, I received what appeared to be just another marketing scheme by a company (which just happened to be Coca-Cola) promoting another of their many products packaged to make it seem that I had won something great. I was rather indifferent, but I read the letter. Vivian already knew what I came to ecstatically realize. Surprised, but still not really getting it, I read the letter again, giving Viv a reason to stand a bit closer to me. As my expression changed to unbelief, she started smiling even more. Then, I got the picture: something special had happened. I could not yet comprehend what William Payne, President and CEO of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games had related in his letter.
His exact words announced,
Congratulations! You have been selected as a Community Hero Torchbearer for the 1996 Olympic Torch Relay. In honor of the outstanding contributions you have made to others in your community, I would personally like to invite you to carry the Olympic Flame, the most sacred symbol of the Olympic Movement.
For 84 days, beginning April 27, 1996, the 1996 Olympic Torch Relay will bring the Olympic Flame to thousands of communities across America. You have been selected by a panel of community leaders from your region as one of the 5,500 individuals who will represent the best of their community by carrying the Olympic Flame.”
(One of the panelists happened to be Mary Buddemeier, an old Northeast High School classmate, whom I had not seen since the mid-1970s.)
“Please read the enclosed information carefully. It briefly explains the 1996 Olympic Torch Relay and the important role you will play as a Torchbearer.”
Two paragraphs later, Mr. Payne ended the letter with the words, “I hope you will accept this prestigious honor to participate in the Olympic Movement and carry the Olympic Flame. I look forward to your response and your involvement in the 1996 Olympic Torch Relay.”
There was no question of whether I would accept the honor; my thinking was more in line with, “WOW! ME? MAN!”
At this point, Vivian just laughed and celebrated with me.
In the weeks that followed, I discovered that a dear friend, Tricia Baldwin, whom I had first met through my involvement with Leadership Anne Arundel, had recommended me to the selection committee. Also, Tricia’s sister, Chris O’Meara, had recommended Tricia to receive this honor. Tricia ran the Torch in the Arnold area, and I ran for the City of Annapolis.
As events progressed, new and even more exciting details essential to the success of the Relay were provided to all torchbearers as we learned and complied with the guidelines.
I received documents expounding upon the spirit and importance of the XXVI Olympiad to the City of Annapolis, a 1996 Visa Planning Guide, along with an Olympic baseball cap, tee-shirt and gym shorts; I used my Annapolis Fire Department issue running shoes to round out my gear.
We also received a Coca-Cola paper-weight, and a purple rectangular banner and staff encrypted with the Coca-Cola logo and a silhouette of an Olympic Runner. Everyone selected to participate had the opportunity to purchase the Olympic Torch that they would carry in the relay. Without a doubt, it was imperative that I purchase my Olympic Torch. For me, it was a treasure worth owning – a major piece of history – which far outweighed the costs. I had come to appreciate that there are times when one must place historical import above monetary value and I had come to understand the importance of providing heirlooms for our children.
The Torch came with its own plaque, mounting brackets, an 8 ½ x 11 plexi-glass cover under which a color photo taken of the Torchbearer during the ceremony would eventually be placed. A name plate commemorating the participation of the City of Annapolis, the date that the Torch passed through Annapolis, and the date when the Torch Relay began its journey from Los Angeles, California across the United States to Atlanta, Georgia would be provided as well.
Across the world, Torchbearers were hailed as hometown heroes, and given parades in their honor with people lining the streets, taking pictures and just enjoying the fact that the torch had come through their town and/or city. The Flame made its way across, over and through the heartland of the nation, transported by the Official 1996 Olympic Torch Relay train. The nineteen-car train conveyed the Flame for over 3,000 miles. The exclusive “cauldron car” was especially designed to safely carry the Flame.
Hundreds of thousands of Americans witnessed and experienced firsthand the excitement of that extraordinary moment in history, which many might have viewed only through T.V. news or print media. Salt Lake City, Cheyenne, Greeley, Denver, Oklahoma City, Dallas, Texas, Chicago, Baltimore and Annapolis, were just a few of the cities and towns which served as hosts to this spirited celebration.
I had no clue about the distance I would be asked to run in the relay; we weren’t told. All I knew was that I would run with the torch, and I knew I had to consider this responsibility as serious as that of a firefighter serving the public, “It’s better to have something and not need it, than to need it and not have it.” Therefore, I ran as much as my right ankle would allow me. (I had twisted my ankle in February as I got out of my fire marshal vehicle; but I had recently completed my therapy sessions and I felt I was in adequate shape for the job.)
June 14, 1996, marked the start of a series of events that would unfold throughout the summer. Vivian had a four-day conference to attend in Vail, Colorado, and I took the opportunity to tag along. While we were there, I religiously continued exercising at the same level and pace as I had in Maryland … A MAJOR MISTAKE! When we arrived at Denver’s airport, we were told to walk a bit slower and to drink a lot of fluids. But on our second morning there, I went for a run: I had not hydrated my body adequately, and I did not slow my pace. The next day, I could not get out of bed. But, I learned my lesson well. I made it back to Maryland healthy, well and wiser.
It is amazing that not even inclement weather can spoil such special moments. In anticipation of the Relay, on June 19th, Baltimore City had created its own celebration at the Inner Harbor, hosted by WBAL TV’s own Jerry Sandusky. I was invited by the United Way to sing the National Anthem for the event. The ceremony was short, but allowed me to be a part of history, along with other Torchbearers and their families from around the State of Maryland. The crowd was well-informed about the threatening weather, and most came prepared for the conditions which increased in intensity. As Jerry wished the crowds good night, everyone left with the knowledge that something unique had occurred and their presence had contributed to the success of the event.
“All Aboard the Torch Relay Express!”
June 20th. The big day had arrived! I had received instructions to meet the shuttle bus at Pendennis Mount, my collection point. From there the shuttle would transport Torchbearers from the Annapolis area to their specific running locations. There the fun began. Folks from the City’s neighborhoods and throughout Anne Arundel County gathered across the Route 2/450 bridge, King George Street, Randall Street and the City Dock area, specifically in front of Rainbow Cleaners, at 40 Randall and Prince George’s Streets, the starting point for my leg of the relay, which was the last stop before the lighting of the Annapolis cauldron.
Vivian, my son Aaron and our cousin Nancy Gist, met me in front of the cleaners. I truly felt encouraged by their love, their support and their presence. Alfred Hopkins, Mayor of the City of Annapolis, members of the City and County Councils, members of the Annapolis Fire Department, fellow employees, local businesses, the faith community, teachers, students, other friends and communities also gave their full support.
When my moment to carry the torch arrived, I was given the same special treatment afforded all runners: I was flanked by a young Olympic swimmer from Towson State College, Escort Runners from a couple of federal government agencies, the Maryland State Police, and a team of motorcyclists to ensure the safety and security of each Olympic Torch and its Torchbearers.
On Your Mark, Get Ready, Go!
The excitement was incredible as I approached Market Square where people were cheering from both sides of the street. Some were next to Middleton’s Tavern, Stevenson’s Hardware, in front of the Market House and the Alex Haley Memorial. I then ran toward the flag pole, circled around it, and along Ego Alley, now filled with smiling faces. The shouting became cheers, as if I were racing to become the first Torchbearer to cross the finish-line. The next right turn led me past Stevenson’s Hardware again, past Armadillos, Storm Brothers Ice Cream Parlor, the Harbor Master’s building, still flanked by the Escort Runners and hundreds of citizens.
As I passed the last group of spectators, I made a left turn, just before the Susan Campbell Park entrance, the last hundred feet before the stage where the cauldron would be lit. I was directed to come up on stage and was met by a Federal Parkway Policeman in full uniform. There seemed to be a momentary sense of confusion among the master of ceremonies on stage and the folks on the ground.
The cauldron was positioned in the left corner of the stage. I had only been given instructions to go up on the stage. As I went up the steps onto the stage I asked the trooper, “What do I do from here?” (What do I do now?”)
He didn’t know, and no one said anything more. But the crowd was whistling and cheering still. My instincts led me to go to the end of the stage and just raise the torch, as if to share a victory toast with my team. That was the end as far as I was concerned. But no, I had one more responsibility: Someone whispered to the State Trooper, and he whispered to me. He bestowed upon me with the honor of lighting the cauldron for the 1996 Olympic Torch Relay for the City of Annapolis.
I was one of 5,500 Community Heroes across the nation offered the chance to participate with three other Annapolitans: Dr. Orlie Reid, Cherron Robinson, and Collis Crankfield. Four African American men celebrated in an area 500 meters from the docks where Kunta Kinte and many other slaves were once sold to the highest bidder. What a difference in circumstances.
After lighting the cauldron, I was instructed to stay on stage. Again I just waved the torch to the cheering and celebrating family and friends. Mayor Hopkins then came to the microphone, shook my hand. I left the stage floating on air. At the base of the stage were fellow Torchbearers, and current and former Olympic competitors. We were asked for autographs, photo ops, and we shared in elation a once-in-a life-time encounter. All of us who were there would be forever bonded by that special moment.
Weeks later on August 8th, there was a special luncheon, hosted by the United Way of Central Maryland, one of the local sponsors of the Relay. All of Maryland’s Olympic Torch Relay runners were invited to the home of the Baltimore Orioles, Camden Yards, and honored for their participation. There we received thanks and congratulations for playing a significant role in the success of the Relay. The organizers again asked that I sing the National Anthem, this time for the luncheon. This would be the last time I would be blessed with that honor during the 1996 Olympics. However, Governor Parris Glendening had yet to offer his thanks. He arranged a photo opportunity with all of the 1996 Maryland Olympic Torchbearers on the steps of the State House on August 20th.
I deeply regard the moment for what it was: evidence that I was truly blessed by God and fully supported by Vivian. God gave me the strength to participate in this once-in-a-lifetime event. Viv cheered me on and allowed me to thrive and shine for my family, the City of Annapolis, my friends and the State of Maryland.
The Lady is all right…!