Why OKC native Bob Peoples is going into track hall of fame — and why he's largely forgotten in Oklahoma
The story sounds like a tall tale, something that's surely been exaggerated over the years.
But the more you learn about Bob Peoples, the more likely it seems.
The account comes from the 1930s, likely around 1936 or 1937, when Peoples was a student at Classen High School. He was at Taft Stadium for a track meet, and he was preparing to throw the javelin, his best event.
His great nephew picks up the story: "He told whoever was in charge, 'You'd better move those people that are in the stands out of the way because I may hit them," Lee Peoples said. "They were laughing like that'll never happen.
"Apparently, he threw it over their heads."
Bob Peoples was larger than life. He was one of the best javelin throwers in the country, qualifying for the Olympic trials before he was out of high school. He was one of the top football players in Oklahoma, headlining the All-State team. He also played basketball, water polo and even boxed.
He was a poor man's Jim Thorpe.
Later this week, Peoples will be inducted into the National High School Track and Field Hall of Fame. He will join the likes of Jesse Owens and Jim Ryun, Bob Mathias and Steve Prefontaine, Renaldo Nehemiah and Allyson Felix.
In his home state of Oklahoma, we have largely forgotten Peoples.
"I think if he had not passed away at 36 or had any children," Peoples' niece Joe Ann Terrill said, it might have changed the way people remembered him.
Several factors led to Peoples fading from memory, but before we get to that, you need to know who he was.
Robert E. Peoples was born in Oklahoma City, the second of three children. He grew up in a house on NW 19 Street, just east of Pennsylvania Avenue, and eventually went to high school less than a mile away at Classen.
He played almost every sport. Even though he was a standout on the football field — when The Oklahoman named its all-century team in 1999, he was a second-team defensive back with greats Bob Fenimore and Clendon Thomas — Peoples was even better in track and field.
Javelin was his specialty.
He started popping throws of over 200 feet regularly.
"It's the way he does it that is so amazing," a newspaper story marveled. "Smoothly, effortlessly, he goes into his toss like a new eight-cylinder car on the straightaway."
What's more, the story said, Peoples' coach at Classen was a basketball man who admitted to not knowing a ton about the javelin.
Peoples qualified for the 1936 U.S. Olympic trials while still in high school. The summer before his senior year, he missed a third-place finish by less than 3 feet.
The top three finishers made the American team in the Berlin Olympics.
Instead of traveling to Berlin, Peoples returned to Oklahoma and continued making headlines. As a senior at Classen, he set the national high school record in the javelin with a throw of 220 feet, 1 inch. That shattered the previous record by more than 13 feet.
His record would stand for more than 20 years.
Javelin and football
Peoples went on to college at Southern Cal where he not only threw javelin but also played football. He was a fullback for the Trojans who twice played in the Rose Bowl, beating Duke after the 1938 season and Tennessee the next season.
But again, as good as Peoples was on the football field, he was even better on the track. As a sophomore at USC in 1939, he set the American record in javelin with a throw of 234 feet, 1 7/8 inches.
Later than season, he also won a national championship.
Peoples was nearly a shoo-in to be an Olympian in 1940.
He even appeared in Life Magazine. The publication had a feature on Olympic hopefuls, and there were two full pages of Peoples throwing the javelin. He was not only supposed to go but also expected to contend for gold.
Then World War II began.
What started in September 1939 raged around the world for the next six years. The fighting forced the cancellation of the Olympics in 1940, then again in 1944. Those were Peoples' prime athletic years; he would've been 21 during the Games in 1940.
Enlisted in U.S. Navy
Instead of throwing javelin or playing football — the New York Giants drafted Bobby Peoples in 1941 — he enlisted. He went to ensign school and joined the U.S. Navy supply corps after graduating from USC in 1941.
When the war was over, Peoples returned to California, married and eventually went to work for Douglas Aircraft Company.
On Sept. 19, 1955, Bob Peoples suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died in his sleep.
He was only 36.
His death made headlines in Oklahoma. Even though he'd moved across the country and lived all of his adult life in California, he was still remembered in his home state.
When she was a kid and was known by her Peoples maiden name, Joe Ann Terrill remembers meeting people who would perk up at the mention of her last name.
"Peoples?" they'd ask. "Are you Bob Peoples' daughter?"
She had really only known of her uncle. He died when she was 8, and in those days, phone calls were expensive and letter writing was the primary source of communication. Near as Terrill can remember, her father had limited communication with his brother, Bob.
She, in turn, has few memories of Uncle Bob.
"Alan was giving me a hard time," Terrill said of her husband. "He finds it unbelievable that I don't remember him"
But Bob Peoples moved far away at a time when it wasn't easy to stay connected.
"Maybe if he went to OU or OSU and played sports there, more people would know about him," his great nephew Lee Peoples said. "But he went to USC."
Out of sight in those days.
Out of mind nowadays.
Of course, had Bob Peoples been an Olympian, we would have remembered him regardless of how far away he lived. That distinction is so powerful it transcends time or space.
But he had the misfortune of being great during a great war.
"We've always known about him," Joe Ann Terrill said, "but nobody ever made a big deal out of it."
Remembering Bob Peoples
The National High School Track and Field Hall of Fame changed that. The hall selects inductees based solely on high school performance, and even though it has been around for only a couple of years, some of the sport's giants are already a part.
Marc Bloom, who has written about track and field for nearly 50 years, was one of the nominating committee members who pushed for Bob Peoples' inclusion among the elite.
"I certainly didn't have to twist any arms," Bloom said.
He said Peoples stood head and shoulders above the javelin throwers of his day, then continued to rank nationally decades later. Only about 10% of national records, Bloom estimated, stand as long as Peoples' did.
"He would have to qualify as one of the greatest high school javelin throwers ever," Bloom said. "He clearly dominated the javelin during his era."
Thursday evening at the New York Athletic Club, Bob Peoples will be celebrated for that excellence. Joe Ann and Alan Terrill will be there to see her uncle inducted into the high school hall. Lee Peoples will make the trip from Oklahoma City, too.
They couldn't be happier about the whole thing.
"He was just back in the background forever," Joe Ann said.
A move west and two canceled Olympics changed the way we remember Bob Peoples, but, perhaps now, we will not only remember him but also celebrate him among our state's greats.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.