For years I have been proud that I was a classmate of Leamon King, a 1954 Delano High graduate. As I assembled this column item on King, I realized that I really did not know him very well but admired him from afar. Correct pronunciation was “Leamon as in Demon.”
I am unsure if he enrolled at the Cecil Avenue Elementary School as a seventh or eighth grader. Back in those days when I knew nothing about prejudice or racism and still don’t claim to be an expert. I realized that in the late 1940s Delano’s east side of the tracks was populated almost entirely by white residents, and most minorities lived on the west side of the tracks. I think most students of those days did not even think of racism, although they may have been aware of the east-west situation in Delano.
I THINK that King’s mom, Bea Wallace, wanted Leamon, who lived west of the tracks, to attend Cecil so he could continue his music as a saxophonist in the school band, and she may have thought that Cecil offered a better chance in academics.
Many Cecil students came from the west side — either by vehicle or walking.
I recall three eighth grade classes, with me in Mr. Yount’s room and Leamon in Mr. Benton’s room.
In 2001 Californian columnist Robert Price wrote a story on King as athletic facilities at Almond Tree Middle School in Delano were being dedicated in his name. That was the school where King closed his teaching career.
Price noted that in 1952 as a 16-year-old, King and three Delano High track teammates were turned down for service at a Bakersfield malt shop. Price said that the incident was one of the very few examples of out-front discrimination that King remembers from what was “a Midas-touch youth.”
Price’s article said that King generally did not run into racism and, in fact, was elected Cecil’s student body president. The opponent in the election wasn’t even disturbed for losing because he knew King was so well liked. That opponent was ME!
I just remember hearing rumors — maybe true — that when King and Cecil tracksters went to compete in Bakersfield or other Kern County sites that King once ran in Levi's and boots and STILL ran 10 flat, a time pursued by many high school athletes at the time. I knew little of track, but I did recognize that King was from a distance a likable young man who was the best football, basketball and track athlete at the school.
During eighth grade spring he even ran at practice at Delano High and beat all the high school runners in the 100-yard dash, including senior Lon Spurrier, who would go on to University of California track stardom.
I wrote many stories about King for the Delano Record but got most of my information from King’s coach, Dan Della. I recall once before the Olympics actually interviewing King — and maybe once later when he was at Terrace School.
Spurrier and King often were featured at the Fresno West Coast Relays. King as late as July after high school graduation — according to a Delano Record quote from his mother — still had not decided where to attend college.
I always thought he wanted to follow in the footsteps of Spurrier at Cal or that Cal track coach Brutus Hamilton had gotten close to him over the four years that King starred in the sprints in state meets.
In any case, King DID go to Cal, even though he was encouraged in a 15-minute phone call to go to UCLA, the alma mater of the caller who happened to be Jackie Robinson!!
King was a member of a powerful Cal freshman spike team and tied the world record for 100 yards and 100 meters while a Cal frosh.
At Delano High, King shot into the track spotlight, and as a freshman lost a photo finish in the state meet 100 and came back to win the 220. I was told (by whom I don’t recall) that only still photos were available of the 100 finish and that CIF officials spent an hour in a room determining WHO had won the 100. I was told that finally King was noted as the winner but that the CIF official making the report to reporters exited the room and said it was Glendale Hoover’s Bob Cunning!!
Slowed by illness in the spring, King placed only third and fifth in the sprints at state as a sophomore.
As a junior there was wet weather in the valley that delayed the state meet and only at the last minute was the go-ahead given for the meet at Fresno’s Ratcliffe Stadium. King won the 100 (9.6) and 220 (21.4).
He lost close races to Alameda’s James Jackson in the state meet as a senior. King had beaten Jackson in a preliminary race.
By 1956 he had tied the 9.3 100-yard dash world record and 10.1 100-meter record.
In June, 1956, Spurrier at the Olympic Trials in Los Angeles qualified for the Olympics in the 800 meters, but King was bothered by strep throat and was just fourth in the 100 and thus on the 400-meter relay team.
King was in top form when the Olympic team assembled in September in the LA area to prep for the November Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.
For three straight weeks King beat Olympians Bobby Morrow, Ira Murchison and Thane Baker, but Ohio State and Olympics coach Kelly would not budge and boost King to the threesome running for the USA.
Controversy continued at warmup meets in Australia, including following King running a 9.3 100-yard dash on GRASS, a notoriously poor surface for runners. He was hailed by Olympians and followers as “King of the Sprinters” but had the chance only to run the second leg on the winning USA 400-meter relay team. The only flaw was King’s pass to Baker, which drew Baker’s after-race comment that “King got to me too fast!” King’s “leg” in the relay was the fastest of the four.
I am unsure of the next few months and heard just isolated comments concerning King. Either because of bad advice, no advice, or not following advice, King must have returned to Berkeley to complete his semester studies, probably with only a month or less remaining in the semester and reportedly taking 18 college units.
Either “catching up” across the bay with a girlfriend or too late to catch up on college work, King was not eligible for the second semester. Fresno State coach J. Flint Hanner was drooling with the prospect when King visited Fresno State, but he could not qualify for Fresno State and decided to enroll in classes at Fresno State extension in Bakersfield.
I knew of only ONE more race that he entered a couple years later, but I was told recently he did race a few times — but I don’t recall that.
He began teaching at Richgrove School, taught 25 years at Delano’s Terrace Elementary, and taught three years at Almond Tree Middle School, where he planned to retire at the end of the 2001 school year but passed away May 22, 2001.
Of the four children of Leamon and Peggy Ann (Brown), the oldest was Leamon Jr., who I had as a Delano High student. The family in 1978 moved to Bakersfield though Leamon Sr. continued teaching in Delano.
Leamon Sr. and Lon Spurrier were Delano’s Harvest Holidays Grand Marshals in 1956. Leamon was honored as African American Hero on his 65th birthday during Black History Month. Lon Chaney of Merle Reed American Legion Post promoted to the school district naming of the athletic facilities at Almond Tree School after him, and the Kern County Bob Elias Hall of Fame lists him as a member.
The names of Spurrier and King remain as Delano “ties” to the Olympics.