Even though he has been dead for nearly a decade, the honors keep coming for Al Oerter, the Village of New Hyde Park’s legendary Olympiad.
Recently, Oerter was inducted posthumously into the Nassau County High School Athletic Hall of Fame. Oerter, a graduate of Sewanhaka High School and a four-time Olympic gold medalist, is part of a class that includes NBA Hall of Famer Julius Erving, New York Jet running back Matt Snell and former Duke University and New York Knick, Art Heyman.
“Sports provide our young people with important lessons, personal value, leadership skills, physical activity and social interaction skills that will benefit all involved for the rest of their lives,” said County Executive Ed Mangano in announcing the inductees. “The Nassau County High School Athletics Hall of Fame provides an avenue to honor the most gifted athletes, coaches, contest officials, administrators and related contributors while helping promote healthy competition here and strengthening interscholastic sports.”
An induction ceremony will be held on Wednesday, Sept. 28, at the Crest Hollow Country Club.
Oerter wasn’t the only inductee from the local area. Also selected for the Hall of Fame were local legends Bill Piner, William Ritch, Patricia Thomason and Bea Toner.
Piner was athletic director at Sewanhaka High School from 1979-81 and Cold Spring Harbor from 1981-99. He was a major force in creating the Long Island Football Championship and served on the state football committee for 16 years. The Bill Piner Award, created in 1997, is given annually to the top linebacker in Nassau County high school football.
Ritch coached lacrosse teams at Sewanhaka High School that dominated their Long Island opponents. His teams posted an outstanding 362-60-1 record on his watch. Under his leadership, Sewanhaka went undefeated in eight consecutive seasons from 1948-57. They were Long Island Champions from 1949 to 1959 and broke the National High School record by winning 91 consecutive games. County officials hailed Ritch’s lifelong enthusiasm to the promotion of his sport, noting that “his leadership roles in county and national coaches’ associations were legendary.”
Pat Thomason was a physical educator, coach and the female representative to Section VIII during her tenure at West Hempstead and Herricks High Schools. As a member of the Section VIII Reorganization Committee, she contributed to the implementation of Title IX for Section VIII Athletics.
Toner served on the advisory committee for girls’ athletics created by the New York State Education Department, and was a driving force in promoting Title IX in Section VIII athletics. She worked as a physical educator and coach at Herricks High School for 33 years. Toner was the Nassau County field hockey coordinator, and was inducted into its Coaches Association Hall of Fame. The Nassau County Exceptional Senior Girls Field Hockey Game is named in her honor.
During the Golden Age of Sports in the 1960s, Oerter, along with Jim Ryun, was the most famous track and field star in America. Born in Astoria, Queens, Oerter moved with his family to New Hyde Park at a young age and graduated from Sewanhaka High School in 1954.
Legend has it that Oerter discovered his specialty, the discus throw, when at age 15, a discus landed at his feet during a track event. Oerter allegedly picked up the discus and hurled it back with such a force that he was compelled to take up the specialty himself. And the rest was Olympics history. At Sewanhaka, Oerter excelled in both the shot put and discus. He was a two-time South Shore, Nassau County and New York State discus champion and also held the National Scholastic record. He won four Nassau County Winter Track and Field shot put championships, and four spring season shot put and discus championships. After graduation from Sewanhaka, he matriculated at the University of Kansas, where he was a national track champion.
Then, it was on to the Olympics. Oerter competed in the 1956 Summer Olympics at Melbourne, Australia, when he was only 19 years old. He won the gold medal at that Olympics and then won three more golds at the 1960 games in Rome, the 1964 games in Tokyo and, finally, the 1968 games at Mexico City, where Oerter had become a sentimental favorite for fans nationwide. With his crowning achievement in Mexico City, Oerter became the first athlete to win a gold medal in the same individual event in four consecutive Olympics. Oerter also had the good luck to compete in a team when track stars—still amateurs—received publicity on the same level as baseball, football, basketball, gold, tennis, boxing or hockey stars.
In both 1976 and 1980, Oerter attempted comebacks in Olympic competition. They fell short, but by then, Oerter had found a passion in abstract painting. In his adopted hometown of Fort Myers, FL, Oerter eventually founded the Art of the Olympians (AOTO) organization. Its first show, held in 2006, included artworks and sculptures from 14 Olympians, including Florence Griffith-Joyner, Ronald Bradstock, Shane Gould, Cameron Myler, Rink Babka and Larry Young. A year later, Oerter passed away at age 71 from heart failure. Two years later, this native of Queens County was honored with the Al Oerter Recreation Center, at Flushing Meadows Corona Park.
The opening ceremonies attested to Oerter’s hold on the public’s imagination.
“This multimillion-dollar facility is an investment in the future both above and below ground. It will improve the environment and will boost spirits and opportunities for visitors of all ages,” said Queens Borough President Helen Marshall at the opening ceremony. “Who knows what future Olympians will start to build their dreams here? For today, we take great pride in Astoria’s own Al Oerter, whose name will now be known by generations to come, who will use this center.”
“Al Oerter was a man of exceptional integrity, humility, and kindness—a Queens native who became a legendary Olympian—and it is fitting that our new recreational center be named in his honor,” said Council Member John C. Liu.
“It’s an honor for our family to have the Al Oerter Recreation Center to open in his name. He’s been an inspiration to many,” said Cathy Oerter, the Olympiad’s wife. “I hope all those that walk through those doors will know the power of fair play, hard work and being at your best.”
The center attracts athletes from all over the metropolitan area, keeping Oerter’s legacy alive for decades to come.