LeBARON: Salute to an Olympic legend born, raised in Healdsburg

Every four years, when the Summer Olympics roll around, we tell Olympic tales. (Winter, not so much. We don't have a lot of ski jumpers with hometown connections.)

The fact that the games are in London this year is the perfect opportunity to retell one of the great Sonoma County Olympic stories of all time.

That would be the account of the brief but significant life of Ralph Waldo Rose.

It was Dan Murley who reminded us of the Rose legend — a story that has, indeed, assumed legendary proportions. A retired state parks ranger, Murley spent seven years as curator of the Healdsburg Museum. That's where he "met" Rose.

A dedicated sports fan, he was intrigued by the stories of Rose's athletic achievements — and of his tragic death in 1913, at age 29, of typhus.

Rose also, as Murley learned, had a role in the global politics of 1908.

That aspect of the story resonates now, as London gets ready for the grand entrance of the participating nations.

For a column he writes for several newspapers, Murley compiled a historical sketch of Rose. He sent a copy along to me and, because he has done the hard work, let's let Murley explain why Ralph Rose matters.

"A GENTLE GIANT," he calls him. And "a landmark figure" in the history of Healdsburg. Indeed, we can make a "landmark" case far beyond Healdsburg. For two continents — at least.

He was born in Healdsburg in 1885. His mother, Martha Rose, ran the family household on Center Street. His father, John Wesley Rose, was an attorney and judge, much respected.

Ralph grew up — grew tall, as Murley points out, at least 8 inches and 50 pounds bigger than his classmates by the eighth grade — in that small farm community.

This is where Murley, the romantic, waxes nostalgic about Healdsburg: "It wasn't long," he writes "before childhood games on the dusty downtown streets and playful runs followed by energetic swims in the nearby Russian River turned to more focused training in the athletic arts of track and field at Healdsburg High School."

Rose set a state high school record in the high jump as a sophomore and won the state shot put championship in both his junior and senior years.

A star at the University of Michigan, he had won, by age 19, three medals at the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis — gold in the shot put, silver in the discus and bronze in the hammer throw.

At the next Olympics, in London in 1908, he was the big guy, at 6 feet 5? inches and 250 pounds, who was chosen by the U.S. Olympic Committee to lead the American team, carrying the Stars and Stripes, in the opening ceremony of the London games of 1908.

As the proud Irish-American son of Irish parents, born on St. Patrick's Day, Rose was well aware of the "tensions," shall we say, between England and Ireland. The British government had refused, just that year, to grant independence to Ireland, which resulted in Irish athletes refusing to participate in the games and many Irish-Americans joining the protest.

Also, Murley writes that Rose and the others on the American team were "upset that few if any United States flags were displayed in the stadium."

So it was a protest gesture when Rose, passing the royal box, failed to abide by the customary dipping of his country's flag to the host country's leader, King Edward VII.

The failure of the high-flying 46-star Old Glory to "bow to the king" did not go unnoticed. (Think of the clenched fist "Black Power" salutes in Mexico City in 1968.)

Journalists wrote about it. The Irish cheered. The English were outraged. Some athletes claimed that British judges took out their anger by lowering American athletes' scores. It was something of an international incident.

Rose, described by Murley as "unrepentant" did not talk to the press but explained, through a teammate, that "This flag dips to no earthly king."

Fortunately, he did not have to rely on the judges. He won the shot put again that year. And again in 1912 at the Olympic Games in Stockholm. Three gold medals, two silver and a bronze in three consecutive Olympics.

After he passed the bar exam and became a partner in his father's firm, as well as Healdsburg's city attorney, he was the whole town's friend — big, handsome, gregarious and genial. And he was nationally known for, among other things, drinking beer.

Nearly 20 years ago, Jim Crowhurst, a student of Sonoma County track and field history, was surprised when Rose's name turned up in a USA Track newsletter.

It was in a story the editor had found in a 1910 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about track and field competitors who drank "intoxicants" regularly while in training.

Among the four nationally ranked stars who admitted to draining a few brewskis was our Ralph.

Between Olympics, he competed for San Francisco's Olympic Club, holding seven AAU titles in the shot, discus and javelin. He was the first ever to throw a shot 50 feet. His world record, the first ever recorded by the International Association of Athletic Federations, was set in 1909, at 51 feet.


People don't die of typhus in Healdsburg anymore. And the current world record for the shot put, held by Randy Barnes of the U.S., is 75 feet, 10.2 inches, half again as long as Rose's mark.

But, to this day, the American flag is not dipped in salute to any foreign government.

You watch as the American team marches in London. And tip your hat to Ralph Rose.

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