Remembering Mel Patton, Uni’s greatest athlete
[Posted August 17, 2014] In the 90-plus years of University High School, there has been one athlete who accomplishments stand above all others: Mel Patton. The two-time track & field gold medalist from the 1948 Olympic Games in London died at age 89 on May 9 in Fallbrook, California, south of San Clemente.
Pictured above: Patton winning the 200 meters at the 1948 Olympic Games in London, just ahead of American teammate Barney Ewell.
Patton attended Uni, then a three-year high school, in 1941-42-43 before entering the U.S. Navy to serve two years during World War II. During his Warrior track career, he set school records in both sprints:
- 100 yards: 9.8 in 1942;
- 220 yards: 21.2 on the straightaway in 1943;
- 220 yards: 21.5 on the curve in 1943.
Frank Litsky, in his appreciation of Patton in the New York Times wrote of his development at Uni:
Jim Pursell, his coach at University High School in West Los Angeles, taught Patton to explode out of the blocks, drive hard for 50 yards, then float at top speed. As Patton remembered it, ‘You just settle down and go along for the ride.’
Pursell told him to preserve his leg strength and not to dance, swim or dive. Patton complied.
Those dash records lasted quite a while. Patton’s 100-yard mark stood for 32 years until David Duffy ran 9.7 in 1974, while the 220 mark of 21.5 (around a curve) held up for 35 years, finally broken by Baxter Slaton (21.4) in 1977.
After his Navy service, he returned to Los Angeles and attended USC, becoming one of the world’s top sprinters. He won the NCAA 100-yard title in 1947 as a sophomore and the 100 m and 200 m titles in 1948 and 1949. Along the way, he tied the 100-yard world record of 9.4 (held by Jesse Owens) in 1947 and set a new mark of 9.3 in 1948. In the 220, he ran 20.2 at the USC-UCLA dual in 1949 to break Owens’ record of 20.3.
Slim and trim at six feet and 151 pounds, he was the favorite to win both sprints in the 1948 Games in London, but finished fifth in the 100 m, but rebounded to win the 200 m and anchored the U.S. 4×100 m relay to the gold medal. “Pell Mel” came home with two gold medals.
Patton wanted to become a coach after the Games, and after collecting bachelor’s and masters degrees in physical education, did coach at Long Beach City College from 1949-55 and then the University of Wichita (today known as Wichita State) from 1955-56. He had a long career in the electronics sector for Northrup Corporation and Litton Industries after that, never running again after finishing his collegiate career at USC.
He’s Uni’s greatest-ever athlete and deserves to be long remembered both for his speed and for the gentleman he was to his fellow competitors, fans, friends and co-workers.