Campbell Receives Honorary Degree

By Tim Morris
Updated: May 28, 2008

Milt Campbell, Simply the Greatest.

Milt Campbell, Simply the Greatest.

NEW JERSEY — Pioneers don’t always get the recognitio New Jersey’s Milt Campbell, who wore the mantle of World’s Greatest Athlete when he won the decathlon at the 1956 Olympics, was a trailblazer who has often gone unrecognized. Maybe it’s because the America of the 1950s wasn’t ready to accept the first black American to earn the title of World’s Greatest Athlete.

Monmouth University took a big step toward giving Campbell the recognition he deserves at its May 20th commencement ceremonies at the PNC BankArts Center in Holmdel. The university awarded him an honorary degree that cited him for more than just his Olympic gold.

He was given a Doctor of Public Service degree.

Monmouth University professor James Mack, who sits on the university’s alumni board, recommended Campbell for the degree with help from Campbell’s 1956 Olympic teammate Elliott Denman.

“Milt’s athletic achievements are just one side,” said Mack. “Everything he did with the community and social work was outstanding. He inspired the young.

“His work with the community and social causes is as great as his athletic achievements,” he added. “He was overlooked all these years. I was honored to nominate him.”

Campbell, 74, a Plainfield High School graduate, moved his family back to Plainfield after the 1967 Newark riots. He believed that education was more important than guns. He saw himself as someone who could bridge the gap between the white and black communities. He was a founding member of the Chad School in Newark and took a keen interest in public schools and education. He was an adviser to the Model Cities Program in Newark and has been a motivational speaker.

“Life was very fortunate for me, and I wanted to give something back,” Campbell said of his social work.

In the athletic arena, Campbell was quite simply one of the most gifted athletes this country has produced. He won a silver medal in the 1952 Olympic Games in the decathlon behind Bob Mathias while he was a junior at Plainfield (imagine telling everyone how you spent your summer vacation: “I won a silver medal in the Olympics.”). Campbell, who went to Indiana University (where he played football) after graduating from Plainfield, came back four years later in Melbourne and put on one of the great decathlon displays of all time. He grabbed the lead after the first event (the 100-meter dash) and continued to stretch his advantage in every event, setting a new Olympic record (7,937 points). He left runner-up Rafer Johnson looking ahead to 1960 and Rome for his chance to win gold.

At Plainfield, there wasn’t anything that Campbell didn’t or couldn’t do.

“I was the type of kid that if I saw you do it, I’d do it,” he said.

And it was usually better than you. Like a talented musician who can pick up any instrument and play it, Campbell was that to athletics, a virtuoso.

He was All-State in football. He was a swimmer (he was an All-American and is a member of the National Swimming Hall of Fame) and wrestler during the winter and competed in indoor and outdoor track and field with obvious success.

Campbell credits his older brother, the late Tom Campbell, with being his inspiration.

“He was my carrot,” said Campbell. “I always had a target because of him.

“He was a good athlete, he did everything perfectly,” he added. “Growing up in the same house, I realized if he can work like that, I can work like that.”

It was when he could finally beat his brother (who joined the Air Force after graduating from high school), Campbell said, “I knew I could beat anybody, he was that good.”

Campbell read a book on Jim Thorpe 1912 Olympic decathlon and pentathlon champion) that got him thinking about the decathlon. He asked his coach, “To be the best in the world, what do I have to do?”

There were some events, like pole vaulting and the 1,500 meters, that he hadn’t done before, and he began training for the event as a freshman at Plainfield. His very first decathlon was the ’52Olympic Trials, where he made the U.S. Helsinki team.

Despite being a literal novice at it, he went on to claim silver. By Melbourne, he had mastered it.

In addition to his decathlon expertise, Campbell was a world-class hurdler. He finished fifth at the U.S. Olympic Trials in 1952 in the 110-meter high hurdles. In 1957 he set the world record for the 120- yard hurdles (13.40) and held the world indoor best for the 60-yard hurdles (7.0).

After completing his track and field career, Campbell turned to football, where he briefly played with the Cleveland Browns, where they had a running back named Jim Brown and head coach Paul Brown, both NFLlegends. From Cleveland he went to have a fine career in the Canadian Football League with the Montreal Alouettes.

Campbell said that he and fellow black athletes in the 1950swere fully aware of the changes they were bringing toAmerica.

“Wilt Chamberlain, JimBrown,we knew we were breaking down barriers,” said Campbell. “Itwas our time.Wewere getting America to look at the black athlete.”

Campbell played his part by becoming the first to win to the Olympic decathlon.

“I have a record that will never be broken,” he said of being the first black American to be known as the World’s Greatest Athlete.

But, as Monmouth University pointed out, Campbell’s contributions didn’t end in the athletic arena.