Meadows, Earle Elmer (1913–1992)


By: Henry Franklin Tribe

Type: Biography

Published: April 19, 2021

Updated: April 23, 2021


Earle Elmer Meadows, Olympic pole vault champion, was born on June 29, 1913, in Corinth, Mississippi. He was the third of four children of Sidney Clyde and Emily Etta (Stutts) Meadows. While he was still a youngster, Meadows’s family relocated from Mississippi to Little Rock, Arkansas, and later to Fort Worth, Texas. Under the supervision of his father, young Earle first practiced pole vaulting with an old rug cane over a clothesline in his family’s front yard. Sidney Meadows paid his son a nickel for every inch he vaulted over five feet. Growing up in Fort Worth, Meadows attended the local schools. At Central High School (later R. L. Paschal High School), Meadows first established his reputation as an athlete. As a member of the track team, he competed in the pole vault, relays, high jump, javelin throw, discus, and the half mile. Using the standard bamboo pole, Meadows distinguished himself as a pole vaulter. In 1932 he vaulted eleven feet six inches for a first-place tie with Buddie Atkinson of North Dallas for the Texas high school championship. As a senior in 1933 Meadows captured a second high school title outright with a record vault of thirteen feet and one and one-half inches—a state meet record that stood for twenty-five years until broken by Baylus Bennett of Amarillo with a vault of thirteen feet two inches.

After graduating from high school in 1933, Meadows accepted a scholarship at the University of Southern California (USC). Trojan coach Dean Cromwell, known as the “Maker of Champions,” had developed a number of outstanding athletes, including Charles Paddock and Frank Wykoff. In Los Angeles, Meadows was a member of Trojan teams that captured three National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) track and field championships in 1935, 1936, and 1937. Meadows generated much attention and success with USC teammate and pole vaulter Bill Sefton. The pair learned much from each other and from their coach. Nicknamed “The Heavenly Twins” and the “Twins of Troy,” they won the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) title in 1935 and the NCAA pole vault championship with first place ties in 1935 and 1936. Three USC pole vaulters, Meadows, Sefton, and Bill Graber, earned spots on the U. S. Olympic team in 1936.

The 1936 Summer Olympics held in Berlin were plagued with controversy. Adolf Hitler sought to use the games as a means to promote Nazi Germany, Aryan supremacy, and antisemitism on the global stage. Determined to put on a good show, the Germans constructed a new 100,000-seat stadium for track and field events and other athletic facilities. However, Jesse Owens, an African American sprinter and long jumper from Ohio State, led the U.S. team and destroyed much of the Nazi propaganda by winning four gold medals and coming away from the games as its most successful and popular athlete. 

Held in the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, the pole vault competition in the Olympic Games took place on August 5. The twelve-hour event proved to be quite grueling and an epic struggle for the participants. With little distinction between them, the three Americans were viewed as favorites to win the event. Bill Graber finished fifth, and Bill Sefton finished fourth in the competition. Late into the evening, Meadows and his Japanese opponents Shuhei Nishida and Sueo Oe battled to near exhaustion under the stadium floodlights. With 30,000 spectators viewing the contest in the cold and rain, Meadows vaulted fourteen feet, three and one-quarter inches to establish a new Olympic record and win the gold medal. Olympic officials awarded Nishida the silver and Oe the bronze medal. The next day, German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl re-staged the pole vault competition and featured a close-up of Meadows saluting the American flag with the “Star Spangled Banner” playing in the background for her Nazi propaganda film Olympia Part One: Festival of the Nations (Olympia: Fest der Voelker) (1938).

After his success at the Olympics, Meadows returned to Los Angeles for his final year at USC. He finished his college career on a high note. On May 8, 1937, at Stanford University, Meadows and Sefton both vaulted fourteen feet eight and one-half inches for a new world record. Three weeks later on May 29, the pair vaulted fourteen feet eleven inches at the Pacific Coast Conference Meet in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for another world record. Ironically, Meadows and Sefton were forced to quit competing at that height because the standards that held the crossbar would go no higher. At the NCAA meet later that season, Sefton won—his third consecutive NCAA title—and Meadows took second.     

After graduating from USC, Meadows remained active in the sport. He took first place in three USA Indoor Championships in 1937, 1940, and 1941. The Texan’s hopes of defending his Olympic championship were dashed by the advent of World War II and the cancellation of the games in 1940 and 1944. Like other athletes, Meadows enlisted in the military in 1942 and saw service in China as a member of the U. S. Army Air Forces; he rose to the rank of captain. With the global conflict concluded in 1945, Meadows sought to defend his Olympic title with the resumption of the games in 1948. Celebrating his thirty-fifth birthday in June 1948, he failed, however, to make the U. S. Olympic team.  

Meadows returned to Texas at the end of World War II. For a number of years, he operated a musical instrument business in Fort Worth. He also worked in parks and recreation management. Near the end of his life, Meadows took satisfaction in that he served as a role model for two Texans that won Olympic gold medals as pole vaulters (Guinn Smith at the London games in 1948 and Fred Hansen at the Tokyo games in 1964). At the age of seventy-nine, on November 11, 1992, Earle Meadows died of natural causes at his home in Fort Worth. He had lived sixty-five years in Fort Worth. Meadows was married three times. On July 4, 1938, he married former USC women’s sprinting champion Marguerite Elenor Caswell “to clear up a question of legality” after it was widely reported that the pair had “secretly” wed the previous year. On March 3, 1946, he married Nannie Mae Corbett. In 1949, Meadows wed Fairy Tidwell Harrell. He was survived by his daughter Earline, sons Earle and John Ray, four grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. A Baptist, he was buried in Laurel Land Memorial Park in Fort Worth. 

A member of the Texas Sports Hall of Fame since 1963, Earle Meadows continued to receive recognition for his athletic accomplishments in the years following his death. In 1996 Meadows was inducted into the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame. The University of Southern California Athletic Hall of Fame named Meadows and his “Heavenly Twin” teammate Bill Sefton as members of its 2001 class. The Texas Track and Field Coaches Association Hall of Fame inducted Meadows into its shrine in 2016.

Dallas Morning News, November 14, 1992. “Earle Meadows,” USATF.org (http://www.usatf.org/HALLOFFAME/TF/showBio.asp?/HoFIDS=224), accessed March 11, 2019. “Earle Meadows,” USATF.org (http://www.usatf.org/HALLOFFAME/TF/showBio.asp?/HoFIDS=224), accessed March 11, 2019. Fort Worth Star-Telegram, November 14, 15, 1992. David Clay Large, Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007). Los Angeles Times, November 14, 1992. Richard D. Mandell, The Nazi Olympics (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1971). Anton Rippon, Hitler’s Olympics: The Story of the 1936 Nazi Games (Barnsley South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military, 2006). Sports Reference: Earle Meadows (http;//www.sports-reference.com/olympics/athletes/me/earle-meadows-1.html), accessed March 11, 2019. Track & Field State Champions, University Interscholastic League (https://www.uiltexas.org/track-field/historical-archive), accessed April 14, 2021. “Trojan Twain,” Time, June 28, 1937. Texas Sports Hall of Fame: Earl Meadows (https://www.tshofinductees.org/product-page/earl-meadows), accessed April 14, 2021. David Wallechinsky, The Complete Book of The Olympics (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1991).

Categories:
  • Sports and Recreation
  • Sports (Track and Field)
Time Periods:
  • Great Depression
  • World War II
  • Texas Post World War II
Places:
  • North Texas
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Fort Worth

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Henry Franklin Tribe, “Meadows, Earle Elmer,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 16, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/meadows-earle-elmer.

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April 19, 2021
April 23, 2021

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