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Gazette Premium Content Simla 1936 Olympic decathlon champ Glenn Morris reached dizzying heights before fall

By David Ramsey Updated: June 9, 2013 at 1:11 pm

SIMLA - Glenn Morris had this glorious vision for his future. Many of us have such visions. Here's the difference:

His vision came true.

He departed Simla High School in 1930 for Colorado State University driven by a plan to escape the family's pinto bean farm on the dusty high plains 50 miles east of Colorado Springs. He had reason for modest hope. He had served as editor of Simla's school newspaper and finished third in hurdles at the state meet.

He left his hometown armed with immense ambition, and through relentless labor, he transformed himself from small-town star to elite athlete. Decades after his death, he remains one of the state's all-time greatest athletes.

He came home as Olympic decathlon champion, a world record holder. He dominated his 10-event competition at the Berlin Olympics. As Morris sprinted the final yards of the decathlon's last event, Adolf Hitler shook his fists in support.

On Glenn Morris Day, Sept. 12, 1936, the conquering hero sat in a convertible alongside Gov. Edwin C. Johnson. They drove along Sioux Avenue, waving to a crowd estimated at 5,000, seven times Simla's population. The crowd cheered an inspiring and, as it turned out, teetering hero.

His cousin, Georgia Woolsey, stood in the crowd, shouting and celebrating. She was 9 years old. Nearly 77 years later, she clearly remembers the day Glenn Morris came home.

"For him to come back with that gold medal, that was a really neat thing," Georgia said last week from her home in Calhan, "He was quite good looking and quite well built and someone to be proud of. He was, I thought, a really handsome man."

So much was ahead. Hollywood soon noticed his powerful physique and cast him as a scantily clad Tarzan. He married his elegant, gorgeous college girlfriend, Charlotte Edwards. He played briefly in the infant NFL. He served nobly during World War II on the gruesome stage of the Pacific Theater.

But so much would crumble.

Morris, as he waved at fans, harbored a secret. While competing in Berlin, Morris tumbled into a torrid affair with Leni Riefenstahl, the enigmatic, brilliant propagandist for the Nazi cause.

Her documentary, "Triumph of the Will" showed Hitler descending, by airplane, from the heavens to greet thousands of jubilant Germans in Nuremburg. Hitler described "Triumph" as an "incomparable glorification of the power and beauty of our movement."

The Morris-Riefenstahl affair remained secret or, at most, rumor until she revealed her lingering love for Morris in a 1987 memoir.

"We couldn't control our feelings," Riefenstahl wrote. ". I imagined that he was the man I could marry. I had lost my head completely. I forgot almost everything, even my work. Never before had I experienced such passion."

In four pages of her 669-page autobiography, Riefenstahl sealed Morris' legacy. The man who won Olympic gold will be remembered first for his fling with the woman who masterfully sold the virtues of a short dictator with an odd mustache.

Morris has emerged in recent months from the mists of yesterday in a novel by Terry Frei, a Denver writer. In "Olympic Affair," Frei imagines details, some steamy, of the Riefenstahl-Morris affair. The novel could lead to a movie about Morris and his fling with the Nazi propagandist.

Frei, in an interview in a Denver coffee shop, emphasized the extreme fame Morris briefly enjoyed. Those months of promise haunted him the remainder of his short life.

"You would think the guy would be guaranteed prominence for the rest of his life," Frei said. "He did not take advantage of it, and much of that was his fault. There was a bitterness when he realized his medal didn't open all doors. His era was not the same as ours. He didn't get a reality show. There was a term limit on his celebrity."

Yes, there was. Following Glenn Morris Day, his life unraveled. His marriage collapsed after two years. He never made another movie after "Tarzan's Revenge." He was cut by the Detroit Lions eight games into the 1940 season. He was left scarred and confused by the atrocities of war.

He spent the final decades of his life wandering, working as parking lot attendant, security guard and steelworker. He developed an intense interest in UFOs. He struggled with smoking and drinking.

In his final months, with his health fading and the end near, he confided to his brother, Jack, about the affair with Riefenstahl.

"You know, I should have stayed with Leni in Germany," Glenn told Jack, according to Mike Chapman, author of the Morris biography "The Gold and the Glory."

Think about that. Morris departed Germany, and his lover, just as the world awakened to the evil of the Nazi regime. He departed before Hitler led his nation into a war that killed between 5 and 7 million Germans.

And Morris wished he had stayed. He died Jan. 31, 1974. He was 62.

Today, Glenn Morris remains what he always was:

A mystery.

I talked last week with Vernon Davis, Morris' cousin. Vernon lives on land on the Colorado plains owned by his family for decades. He's 93 but speaks and hears clearly. We talked for several minutes about Morris' accomplishments.

"You know more about Glenn Morris than I do, actually," Vernon said.

Georgia laughs when she thinks back to Sept. 12, 1936, the height of Glenn Morris' fame. She stops laughing when she realizes it was the last time she saw her cousin. It was his final trip to Simla.

Morris departed his hometown in 1930 with this vision. He wanted more. He wanted to escape that bean farm. He practiced his hurdles technique outside during snowstorms. He buffeted his body daily. He transformed from skinny farm boy to premier college athlete to, finally, the world's most versatile athlete.

He traveled to Simla, for his very own day, and bathed in the adulation of thousands of new and old Colorado friends.

Who could have known, who could have guessed, he would get so lost he never again returned home?

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Twitter: @davidramz

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