This is the first of four stories highlighting Olympic athletes originally from Pine Bluff.
By I.C. Murrell
COMMERCIAL SPORTS EDITOR
Bill Carr came home to a hero’s welcome in Pine Bluff on a late August day in 1932. Earlier that month, he set a world record in the 400-yard dash in Los Angeles. That earned him one of his two gold medals from the 10th Olympiad and helped the Americans sweep the Olympic sprints for the first time in 20 years.
The Pine Bluff Commercial previewed the homecoming as “the most elaborate” ever held in the city. For an area that’s rich in track and field tradition, Carr’s accomplishments may have changed the way locals in 1932 felt about track and field.
“Strange as it may seem, this large celebration will be held by a city that has never cared for track,” the Aug. 25, 1932, article reads. “Even when the Pine Bluff coaches produced some of the best teams in the state at the at the local high school, there was never the enthusiasm over ‘running, jumping, vaulting, etc.’ that has always been expressed by the public over football and other sports.
“And when Carr proved to be one of the greatest high school track stars ever developed in Arkansas, Pine Bluff did not get excited.”
The city did when Carr struck gold — twice — in California.
His coming-home party included a downtown parade in his honor, a “demonstration” 440-yard race at AM&N College (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff) and a dinner in which he received a “Citizenship Cup” trophy from the newspaper.
Carr’s double gold is the start of a history of Olympic success among track and field athletes from Pine Bluff. Three more originally from the city — Dallas Long, Charlie Greene and Kenny Evans — would compete in the Olympics, two of whom won gold.
William Arthur Carr was born Oct. 24, 1909, in Pine Bluff, the second of two boys to William L. and Ann Holmes Carr. His neighbor and childhood friend Lawrence Blackwell, in his personal recollection to local historian Russell Bearden, remembered Bill in his younger days as “an outstanding athlete.”
“In our children’s play, Bill exceeded in all activities — running, jumping, broad jumping, high jumping,” Blackwell said.
Carr’s athleticism carried into high school. He joined the Pine Bluff High track and field team and competed in all events except the shot put, javelin throw and pole vaulting, according to Blackwell. History has it that Carr stood only 5-feet-7 and weighed 125 pounds at the time, but during the homecoming celebration, his first high school track coach, Foy Hammons, recalled Carr’s athletic ability as a center on the junior high basketball team. He also said Carr sprained an ankle during a jumping event and missed the 1925 track season.
Despite his small frame, in 1927, Carr won the high jump with a height of 6 feet, ¾ inch, and the long jump with a distance of 21-4 at the state high school meet. He was second in the 100- and 220-yard events that meet, after matching the state record in the 100 (10.0 seconds) in a previous meet.
A Pine Bluff banker persuaded Carr to accept an athletic scholarship to Mercersburg (Pa.) Academy, a boarding school that prepares its students for Ivy League academics. The school produced Olympic champions before Carr in James Meredith (800 meters, 1912) and Allen Woodring (200 meters, 1920).
Blackwell recanted a story about Carr’s talents that he heard from a friend who went to Mercersburg with Carr:
“Probably as part of Bill’s scholarship he worked in the dining rooms of the academy. He said Bill, while carrying a tray of filled water glasses would, as a stunt, jump over a dining table and not spill a drop of water.”
In his first year at Mercersburg, Carr set meet and school records with a 23-4 long jump. Before graduation in 1929, he was a state champion in the 100- and 200-meter events. A statue of Carr now stands at Mercersburg highlighting his academy and college accomplishments.
In the fall of 1929, Carr began college at the University of Pennsylvania. He was elected sophomore class president and was inducted into the Sphinx Senior Society, the oldest honor society at the school.
While at Penn, he never lost a race. He was co-captain of the track team and helped it regain “its prominent position in the world athletic arena” during his time there, according to his university archives bio.
Yet it wasn’t until 1932, when Carr was a junior, that he ran his first major individual race. Carr was considered the best collegiate athlete on the East Coast, while a Stanford runner named Ben Eastman was attracting worldwide attention from the West Coast as the fastest quarter-miler on the planet.
The two met for the first time that year in the Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletes of America meet in Berkeley, Calif. As then-Penn Relays director Ken Doherty told the Philadelphia Bulletin in 1968: “Eastman was primarily a half-miler and 440 man while Carr was a sprinter, running anything from the 100 up to the 440.”
Carr scored an upset victory, running 47.0 seconds in the 400 to beat Eastman. He lowered that time by 0.1 a few weeks later in another meeting with Eastman at the Olympic trials in Palo Alto, Calif., where Stanford is located.
According to the Bulletin, Lawson Robertson, who coached Carr at Penn and in the Olympics, suggested to Stanford coach Dink Templeton that Eastman run the 800 in the Olympics since Carr now proved dominant in the 400. Templeton’s response: “Hell, no. Eastman is still the best quarter-miler in the world.”
Sure enough, Carr and Eastman ran against each other again in the Olympics. The men went through two heats and won separate 400-meter semifinals — Carr in 47.2 seconds and Eastman in 47.6 — to set the stage for the final.
The medal race would be held 2 hours after the semis on Friday, Aug. 5. Eastman led Carr going down the backstretch, but Carr moved in front by a foot going around the last curve. They raced side-by-side for about 60 meters down the homestretch before Carr pulled away and won the race by 2 yards. His time was 46.2 seconds, a new world record.
“Bill’s just too fast for me,” Eastman said. “You don’t need to sympathize for me; I know when I’m licked by a better runner.”
Carr wasn’t done in Los Angeles. Two days later, he substituted for an injured teammate on the U.S. 4x400-meter relay team, and again Carr needed to pull off an upset to win gold.
Great Britain was the favorite to win, although the U.S. won the first elimination heat with a new world record of 3 minutes, 11.8 seconds. In the final race, Ivan Fuqua of Indiana, Edgar Ablowich of Southern California and Karl Warner of Yale teamed with anchor Carr to break their own mark by 3.6 seconds, finishing 20 yards ahead of the British.
The day after Carr’s 400 victory, The Commercial announced the homecoming celebration for Carr would take place “on or about August 24.” Eastman even was invited to the celebration.
Carr didn’t know about the plans until after the Games ended. He wrote his mother that he was going to take a trip to the Canadian Rockies before coming back to Pine Bluff, and the festivities were rescheduled for Aug. 25.
At the celebration dinner that night, Carr received his Citizenship Cup and tried to control his emotion when giving his acceptance speech.
“What little I’ve done for Pine Bluff has been in an indirect way and I feel that in giving me this cup you have not conferred a reward upon me but have placed in me a trust,” Carr said. “The real work of living up to the inscription on this cup has just started. I have a whole life before me in which to do something for the credit of Pine Bluff and I hope that I can deserve the honors you have showered upon me.”
Athletics wouldn’t much longer be a part of Carr’s life. On March 17, 1933, Carr was badly hurt in an automobile accident in the Philadelphia suburb of Bala (now Bala Cynwyd). He and two young women were riding in a vehicle driven by a fellow Penn student when it collided with another car. Carr, the only person involved who was hurt, suffered serious hip injuries and a possible fracture of the pelvis. He did not compete again.
Carr entered the U.S. Navy in World War II and was a naval officer in the Pacific, according to Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture. He met his future wife, Rachel, near the end of the war in Shanghai, China, and worked for several American insurance companies in Japan. They also spent time in New York City.
Carr died of a heart attack in Tokyo in 1966 (archives list different dates of death between Jan. 14-16). He left behind Rachel and their son, whom Bill adopted from Rachel’s previous marriage. He is buried at Graceland Cemetery in Pine Bluff.
Bearden, a history teacher at White Hall High School, said he learned from a conversation with Rachel Carr that Bill very seldom mentioned his Olympic experience to anyone.
“He was just a very humble type of person,” Bearden said. “He probably mentioned very little to his adopted son. He just kept a low profile, wasn’t really outgoing. He was a quiet type of guy.”
But 80 years ago, Carr made enough noise to put Pine Bluff on the map.
Information from archives of The Commercial, University of Pennsylvania and Russell Bearden was used in the article.