DILLARD, WILLIAM HARRISON (8 July 1923-15 November 2019) was a runner and an Olympic champion.
Born to William and Terah Dillard, Harrison grew up on the east side of Cleveland, idolizing JESSE OWENS and meeting the Olympic sprinter while still a student at Kennard Junior High School. Dillard, like Owens, went to EAST TECHNICAL HIGH SCHOOL, where he won two state titles as a senior. His high school coach, Ivan Greene, gave him the nickname “Bones” for his slender build. After graduating high school, Dillard went to BALDWIN-WALLACE in Berea, where he won four national titles in hurdles.
Dillard was drafted into the U.S. Army in World War II, and served in the segregated 92nd Infantry Division, known as the buffalo soldiers. Following the war’s end, he competed in a military Olympics in Germany, winning four events, which prompted Gen. George Patton – himself a former Olympian – to call Dillard the best athlete he’d ever seen.
After returning home, Dillard went back to Baldwin-Wallace. He graduated in 1949 with a degree in economics and continued running, setting a record by winning 82 straight hurdles finals. He entered the 1948 Olympic trials as the prohibitive favorite to qualify in the 120-yard hurdles, as the event’s record holder. But he failed to qualify, smashing into several hurdles in his race. He did qualify for the 100-yard dash, and ended up winning the gold medal in that event at Wembley Stadium in London before a crowd that included King George VI. Dillard’s time in the event tied the Olympic record in the first photo finish in Olympic history. He also won a gold medal as part of the U.S. 4 x 100 relay team. In the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, he won the gold in the hurdles and as part of another relay team. In 1956, just a week before his 33rd birthday, he tried unsuccessfully to qualify again for the Olympics.
In addition to his four gold medals, Dillard won a total of 11 indoor and outdoor national titles. In 1955, he won the Sullivan Award, given to the best amateur athlete in America.
Following his racing career, he wrote a column for the CLEVELAND PRESS, hosted a radio show, sat on the Cleveland Boxing Commission and worked for 27 years for the Cleveland schools.
BILL VEECK hired Dillard to work in public relations for the CLEVELAND INDIANS in 1949, and he also served as an instructor in spring training for the Indians in the 1950s – and for the Yankees 30 years later, during the ownership of Cleveland native and fellow hurdler GEORGE STEINBRENNER.
A life-sized statue of him stretching over a hurdle was unveiled in front of George Finnie Stadium at Baldwin Wallace in 2015. He’s a member of halls of fame including those at Baldwin Wallace, the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission, the U.S. Olympic Committee and U.S. Track and Field.
He married Jamaican athlete Joy Clemetson in 1956. She died in 2009. They were parents to a daughter Terri. At the time of his death from cancer, Dillard was the oldest living American Olympic champion.