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For 92 years, Jesse Martinez, a former Olympian, lived a rich and varied life

In his younger years, Jesse Martinez ran track, training with famed 1936 Olympian Jesse Owens. Mr. Martinez died Friday at age 92.

Special to the Times

In his younger years, Jesse Martinez ran track, training with famed 1936 Olympian Jesse Owens. Mr. Martinez died Friday at age 92.

NEW PORT RICHEY — Jesse Martinez was 92 when his heart finally wore out on Friday (Aug. 7, 2009). He was just another Florida retiree, quietly living out his life here, the aging embodiment of a rich and singular American experience.

West Pasco's subdivisions are densely populated with such stories — of immigrants, war heroes, former athletes, parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. Mr. Martinez was all those things. Here is his story:

He was actually born in Mexico. His parents moved to Illinois when he was a baby and then had five more children. It wasn't until he retired at 62 and needed his birth records in order to collect his Social Security benefits that he realized he'd been celebrating his birthday on the wrong day. When he finally tracked his records down in Mexico, he discovered he was really a year older.

He always played sports. As a high school student in Chicago, he bested local and state records in track and qualified for the U.S. Olympic team in 1936.

Those were the Games at which Jesse Owens won four gold medals but endured racism and segregation from his American teammates. Because he was a minority, Mr. Martinez was made Owens' training partner. Mr. Martinez didn't win anything, but he felt he accomplished something just by being there.

He married a girl he knew from high school.

They had five children. When the first ones were babies, he went to fight in World War II. He was injured while serving as the lookout from a tank. Everyone below him was killed.

• • •

After the war, he worked as a millwright for U.S. Steel, a union job that enabled a man with no education to support his family.

He was captain of the mill baseball team and played in other leagues. He also played basketball, and later could dominate his taller grandson when they played in the driveway.

His first wife died in 1976, and 15 years later he met a Southern belle named Billie at a Sunday dance in Illinois. They danced the waltz and married five months later.

After a vacation to Florida, they decided to move where it was warm all year and settled in Holiday, then New Port Richey. Here, he played in a 75-and-older baseball league, won medals in the Senior Olympics, organized bocci tournaments and bowled. He started slowing down and had to give up sports about age 88. He disliked being idle.

The last time he and his daughter went for a walk in the neighborhood was in May. She's 64, but he still insisted on holding her hand.

This story is based on interviews with Mr. Martinez's wife, Billie, daughter Rose Skarski and son-in-law Richard Skarski, as well as a first-person interview Mr. Martinez gave the Times in 1989.

Fast Facts

Pay your respects

Visitation for Jesse Martinez begins at 2 p.m. today, with a service at 3:30 p.m. at Dobies Funeral Home at 8825 Old County Road 54 in New Port Richey.

For 92 years, Jesse Martinez, a former Olympian, lived a rich and varied life 08/10/09 [Last modified: Monday, August 10, 2009 11:00pm]
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