Orr, Lee (1917-2009): World-Class Sprinter

  • By Nellie E. Robertson, assisted by Mervin Boyes
  • Posted 4/03/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8573
Lee Orr was a champion Monroe (Snohomish County) athlete who excelled in track and football and had an illustrious career in the 1930s, first for Monroe Union High School Bearcats and then for the Washington State Cougars. Before his college career ended, he had won eight Pacific Coast Northern Division titles and an NCAA championship in the 440-yard run.  In the spring of 1935, Orr ran track for the Monroe Bearcats, winning two state titles.  He still holds the record for the 220-yard dash. His distinguished track career landed him a place in the Washington State Athletic Hall of Fame.  But the highlight of Orr's career was on August 9, 1936, when, at 18 years of age, he chased Jesse Owens down the track at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and placed fifth in the 200-meter competition. Lee Orr died in 2009.

Lee Orr’s Early Years             

Orr was born in Saskatchewan, Canada, in April 1917. At the age of 3 he moved with his family to Park Place, just west of downtown Monroe. The family lived in a little shingled house next to his grandfather’s cherry orchard. His only sibling was Jack, two years older. His grandfather, also named Lee Orr, worked as a carpenter and built a number of buildings in the area. Orr’s father was a very successful watchmaker in his Monroe business. He contracted with the Great Northern Railway to repair their watches.

Orr went through the first six grades of elementary school at the Park Place School but had to go to Monroe for the final two grades before he went to Monroe Union High School. While a sixth grader at Park Place School, Orr won his first track trophy. He competed in the 90-pound-and-under category in the 50- and 100-yard dashes.

The Bearcat Years           

At Monroe Union High School, he turned out for tennis, football, and track and as a freshman he lettered in track and football. He confesses that he was a mediocre student.

Demonstrating unexpected strength in a Snohomish County track meet in May 1933, Orr, in his sophomore year, broke one sprint record and fell just short of a new record in the broad jump. He finished first in the 100-yard dash, bringing his total of earned points to 15.

He placed first in three events at the district meet in Everett and was the lone representative from Monroe at the state track and field meet in Pullman in May 1934. At that meet, he took the 220-yard dash, placed third in the 100-yard dash, and was one of four who placed second in the relay race. He finished third overall. A year later, Orr won the broad jump and the 220-yard dash, placed third in the 200-yard dash and was one of four who ran second in the relay race.  In two subsequent county track meets in mid-May 1935, Orr was high-point man.

Bill Boyes of Monroe attended all the track meets, often with his younger brother Merv.  Merv said, “We were able to walk around the infield of the track, and got to see everything up close.”  According to the brothers, Monroe Union High School had the best track in Snohomish County. Merv added, “I can remember one touchdown he made in football where John Danhoff gave a key block for Lee and Lee ran around left end and no one could catch him. He had amazing speed” (Merv Boyes).

At noon, Orr would run from school to his father’s jewelry store in downtown Monroe to have lunch, just short of a mile. Then he’d run back. That was the only time he’d do anything longer than a quarter-mile. He said in a 2004 Larry Henry (Everett Herald sports writer) interview, “I wouldn’t run distances for anybody, too much pounding.” Running for him was effortless.  In the spring of 1935, Orr ran track for the Monroe Bearcats, winning two state titles. Orr still holds the record for the 220-yard dash.  

WSU and the Berlin Olympic Games

Lee Orr enrolled at Washington State University after graduation from high school. There were no athletic scholarships back then. He got a job as a stock boy in a bookstore at $35 a month. He played freshman football as a running back and ran the sprints in track. In those days, freshman could not participate in varsity sports. They could only compete during practice. "Orr wasted no time impressing his college coaches, winning freshman meets and beating varsity sprinters in practice,” Larry Henry wrote. His six-foot frame carried 175 pounds. Before his college career ended, he had won eight Pacific Coast Northern Division titles and a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship in the 440-yard run.

Orr and his brother, Jack, ran with the Cougar relay team that set a world record in early June 1937. It was the fastest mile ever run by four men. With the Orrs filling two of the slots, the WSU mile relay team raced to the new record at the Pacific Coast track and field meet held in Los Angeles. The Cougar quartet raced the mile in three minutes and 12.3 seconds.

1936 Olympics

Orr won his first try toward the Berlin Olympic Games in 1936. He successfully competed in the western Canadian Olympic trials in track and field events in Vancouver, B.C. He was chosen to represent Canada in the 1936 Olympics. He was the first representative from Monroe in any Olympic event qualifying for the 100- and 200-meter dashes and to his knowledge, the only one from the town in any Olympics competition.

In Berlin, Orr placed fifth in the 200-meter dash, following Jesse Owens. Not expected to be a winner in the most coveted race of all, Orr nevertheless equaled the world record in the 200 meters when he ran the distance in 21.2 seconds in the quarter-finals.

In the finals, he was in the sixth lane on the outside, which worked to his disadvantage. He couldn’t hear the starter so he got a bad start.  Thinking of Jesse Owens, whose win angered Adolph Hitler that year, Orr commented,  “It was more of a thrill to lose to Jesse Owens than winning any other race.” He added, “He was a gentle man. He was very nice, a quiet, modest individual and very likeable.”             

Orr wasn’t involved in politics but he did stand about 10 yards away from Hitler, Goring, and Goebbels. At the time Hitler was just a celebrity. “I didn’t get the sense he was anything else because of the things he did prior to that we didn’t know anything about.” He added, “The German people were very friendly and Berlin was an awfully clean city.”   

“I really loved running fast,” he said in a Kirk Ericson 1984 interview. “There’s really no other feeling like it in the world. Running is not jogging. When you run fast enough it really doesn’t take much effort. It’s like an electric motor on a work bench. When it starts out it moves all over the place but when it gets up to speed it goes really smoothly” (Orr).

“After all these years, he is still in the top 10 in a couple of events in the WSU record book,” Henry wrote. His distinguished track career landed him a place in the Washington State Athletic Hall of Fame.  He graduated from WSU in 1938 with a degree in teaching but never taught a day in his life except as an example of applied endeavor and sportsmanship.

World War II and After

Orr made one more trip to Germany courtesy of the United States Army during World War II as a member of a cannon company. He spent 18 months overseas and was involved in combat. During the last part of his Army time, he played football and ran track to entertain his fellow soldiers. At one of those meets, General George Patton presented him with a track medal that still resides in his collection of memorabilia.

He worked for the Hormel Meat Company in the Midwest for 40 years before retiring and returning to Monroe. In January 2008, Orr lives two miles east on Monroe on State Route 2 with his wife, Gladys. They married in the mid-1990s, a second marriage for both of them.

At 90, he mourned the death of his only child, a daughter, who died unexpectedly in late 2007. He was an affable gentleman who looks back on his years as an athlete embodied in a lot of memorabilia. One of his prize possessions was a copy of Time magazine showing a photo of Jesse Owens running in the 1936 Berlin Olympics with Orr right behind him. Lee Orr died in 2009.


Sources: Kirk Ericson, “Past Olympian Remembers Without Regret,”  Monroe Monitor, July 23, 1984, p. 4;  Larry Henry, “Memories of Owens and Hitler,” The Herald, February 15, 2004, pp. C-1, C-6; Nellie E. Robertson, Monroe: The Next Thirty Years, 1911-1940 (Monroe: Nellie Robertson, 2002), 6, 65, 123, 135-137; Nellie Robertson interview with Mervin Boyes, 2008; Nellie Robertson interview with Lee Orr, January 27, 2008, Monroe, Washington.                        

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