Turning Silver into Gold

Kevin O'Toole, former senator from the 40th Legislative District, advises current and future politicians to have the courage to surround yourself with strong staff that are willing to stand up and tell you when you are wrong. Otherwise, they risk becoming disconnected from reality.

In politics it is not cool or even remotely aspirational to want to be in second place; unless of course it is a calculated decision to strategically hang back as the front runner gets served up as the chum of the day, or where second place today sets up a clear field for tomorrow – when timing and opportunity collide to create the perfect storm as in the case of Whitman v Bradley 1990 or McGreevey v  Whitman 1997. Other than that, who thinks second place is worth a conversation? Mack Robinson certainly did – who is Mack Robinson?   

I was watching the movie, “Molly’s Game,” which is an entertaining and somber movie about a 26-year-old former aspiring Olympian (skiing), who after a devastating injury later went on to run the world’s largest underground poker game.  Molly Bloom was eventually arrested and pled guilty – none of which is important. What was marginally important is the drive and imagination this individual possessed to capture her corner of the world in something, anything.  

During one of the pivotal points in the movie, Molly describes a person who broke an Olympic Record in the 200-meter run in the 1936 Olympics. This same individual (these upcoming facts were not divulged in the movie), later set the National Junior-College pole vault record of 25 ½ feet and this same person won National Collegiate and Amateur Athletic Union track titles at the University of Oregon. Despite all these amazing and record setting accomplishments, very few have ever heard of Matthew MacKenzie Robinson (Mack) – WHY? 

Well, Mack Robinson set the World Record in 1936 by running the 200-meter in 21.1 seconds; problem was Jesse Owens ran in the very same race and his time was an astounding 20.7 seconds.  Two record setting times but less than ½ of one second meant all the difference – Jesse went on to win the Gold medal in the 200-meter and 3 more gold medals, and with that came international fame and icon status. Who doesn’t know the legend of Jesse Owens? But what ever happened to the second-place finisher?  

The New York Times ran an obituary for Mack Robinson on March 14, 2000 and started it with noting that Mack was a Silver medalist “overshadowed by track great Jesse Owens and by his younger brother, pioneering baseball Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson.” That’s a tough way to start an obituary, which is there to serve notice to the world about who and what you were, what you accomplished and what you left behind – among his very noteworthy contributions Mack left behind an interesting quote (on winning a silver medal at the 1936 Olympics), “It’s not bad to be the second best in the world at what you are doing, no matter what it is. It means that only one other person in the world was better than you. That makes you better than an awful lot of people.”  

A lot of wisdom in this quote that few of us have ever heard.  

After watching the movie and later reading up on Mack and his incredible journey, I felt compelled to add a few more things about Mack that speak more broadly about this amazing individual: 

  1. Mack was essentially fatherless and was raised by his hard-working mother. Mrs. Robinson raised 5 children and was an incredible role model for all parents – of every generation.  
  2. Mack was only able to attend the United States Trials for the 1936 Olympics after local business members in his town of Pasadena, CA raised the $150 for train fare and expenses. 
  3. Mack quit college his senior year to help raise money for his family. Mack was known to wear his Olympic sweatshirt (with great pride) as he swept streets and facilities with a broom. When a judge ordered public pools in Pasadena to open to African Americans, the city retaliated by firing all the African American workers, including Olympic hero, Mack Robinson. 
  4. In the Olympics, Mack wore the same spikes he wore in Junior College. 
  5. Mack eventually went back to the University of Oregon and graduated.  
  6. Mack became an advocate for volunteerism, fighting street crime and strived to make his hometown better for everyone. 
  7. In the 1984 Olympics, Mack and others carried the American flag into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. 
  8. Mack received the Webfoot Award from the University of Oregon Alumni Association.  
  9. The Pasadena Robinson Memorial was dedicated to Mack and Jackie Robinson. 
  10. In 2000, Pasadena City College dedicated a stadium in his honor and the United States Postal Service named a new post office in Pasadena after him. 

When we all pass on in this life, and it will happen, we would like to think that we will leave something special behind. As the wise man, Steven N Adubato, Sr. used to preach, and I paraphrase – we (politicians) won’t be judged or known by the titles we have or awards that we possess, we ultimately will be judged by the good deeds we do and by the friends and the family that we keep.  

In politics and in life, we sometimes believe that second place is first place loser (Talladega Nights), but as Mack Robinson proved – when the marathon that is life ends, you don’t have to finish in second place.  

By his actions, Matthew MacKenzie Robinson should be a gold medalist.

Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Chairman Kevin O’Toole is the former 40th District senator.

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