Southeast Nebraska man experienced 1936 Olympics

By SCOTT KOPERSKI
Beatrice Daily Sun

BEATRICE, Neb. (AP) _ The 2012 USA men's basketball team recently took the gold medal in the London Olympics in a 107-100 victory over Spain.

A similar story happened with the first ever USA Olympic basketball team 76 years ago in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Or at least the gold medal part.

The inaugural Team USA's 19-8 victory over Canada was not the fast-paced action fans are accustomed to today. Basketball was different back then.

The game was played outdoors on a clay court with a concrete border. When it started to rain during the championship game, the court transformed into a muddy mess.

Using a ball comparable to a modern soccer ball that soaked up the water didn't make things easier.

But the USA Olympic team made the best of it, and walked away with the gold medal.

And one of those players was from southeast Nebraska.

Willard Schmidt grew up in Swanton playing basketball in high school, then at Creighton University before going on to play for the McPherson Refiners, an AAU squad from Central Kansas.

Schmidt and five others from the Refiners (the team was composed of employees of the Globe Refining Company who sponsored the team) competed in the Olympics, though the decision to participate in those days wasn't an easy one.

Roselyn Shaffer, a distant relative of Schmidt's from Beatrice, has worked with other family members at reunions to research the former Olympian. Despite being 6-foot-8, Shaffer pointed out that Schmidt and the other competitors were just regular guys, working regular jobs.

These were depression times. Anyone who left for the Olympics also left their job behind, knowing it wouldn't be waiting for their return.

"These guys that played basketball at that time were just regular working men,'' Shaffer said. ``They were working for an oil company, and when they got picked to go to the Olympics, they had to raise money in order to pay for their passage to go over there. Things were a lot different back then.''

The games, described by Schmidt's daughter Connie Schweer as ``Hitler's Olympics'' were held in Berlin that year.

Schweer, who at 6-foot-1 inherited her father's height, recalled Schmidt talking about his time in Germany just three years before World War II.

``He would talk about how he was concerned for one of his teammates who was Jewish,'' said Schweer, Schmidt's only daughter. ``I heard him talk about that and how everybody was watched constantly. They were made to look welcome there, but even the street cleaners did it in precision.''

Getting to Berlin for the games also posed a challenge for the team. They had to raise money to pay their own way to Europe. After the games, the team couldn't afford to get home and played exhibition games to raise money before making it home.

For all their trouble, only three gold medals were initially minted, though everyone on the team later received one.

Schweer keeps her dad's prized medal in a safety deposit box, though the Olympic artifacts weren't always cherished. Schmidt's Olympic gear was originally just stashed in a box.

``When I was in high school, we didn't have sweats so one winter I was going sledding and had to wear his USA warmup suit,'' Schweer explained. ``It wasn't any big deal. I could roll it up and I was fine.''

After returning from the Olympics, Schmidt traveled around and spent time playing ball in Colorado Springs, occasionally making trips with his daughter back to Nebraska to visit his brothers in DeWitt and Western.

Schmidt died in 1965 in Coffeyville, Kan., of a heart ailment at 55.

More than 45 years after his passing, Schweer still recalls growing up under the Olympian, who was a gentle parent.

``He was always very easy going and laid back,'' Schweer said. ``He enjoyed playing basketball and watching sports of any kind. He was just a great man.''

___

Information from: Beatrice Sun, http://www.beatricedailysun.com

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