When Steve Harris was growing up in Wilton, one of his heroes was Bob Mathias, the American decathlete who was a two-time Olympic gold medal champion in the decathlon. Much later, as a writer on a milestone Olympics history project, he got the thrill of interviewing his hero and others.
Mathias, an actor and a congressman from California later in life, at 17 became the youngest Olympic track and field champ at the 1948 London Summer Olympic Games, and then set a world record in winning the decathlon again at the 1952 games in Helsinki, Finland.
“Later, my son, Mark, was a decathlete in high school (for Staples) and competed at the FCIAC championships in Wilton (in the late 1980s),” Harris said in an interview by emails with The Bulletin last week. “Watching him compete, I thought what a great book the History of the Olympic Decathlon would make. I started research and became friends with Bill Toomey, from New Canaan, who set the decathlon world record at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.”
On Friday, Jan. 20, Stephen L. Harris, now of Anthem, Ariz., received the 2016 Vikelas Plaque awarded by the International Society of Olympic Historians for his many contributions to Olympic history. The Vikelas Plaque was presented to him in Anthem by ISOH president David Wallechinsky, who flew in from California for the presentation.
“The award was a complete surprise and a humbling experience. When you do your everyday work, you never realize that people take notice. And when they do, it’s very gratifying,” Harris said.
Harris served as editor and associate editor of the Journal of Olympic History beginning in 2001. (He is now the U.S. editor.) In 1996, he authored 100 Golden Olympians: 100 Years of Achievement, a book written for the United States Olympic Committee to honor America’s greatest living gold medalists as part of the 100th anniversary of the modern Olympics Games. He was also senior writer on three best-selling CD-ROM histories, including Olympic Gold: A 100-Year History of the Summer Olympic Games. Olympic Gold won the 1996 Gold Milia d’Or Award at the Cannes Film Festival as Best Reference Title in the World.
When an Israeli company, SEA Multimedia, was producing a CD-ROM history of the Summer Olympic Games, it found out about Harris’s research and hired him as its senior writer.
“In the meantime, Toomey got me connected to the U.S. Olympic Committee and I was asked to write 100 Golden Olympians to be published by Xerox on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the modern Games in 1996,” Harris recalled. “It was a thrill. I interviewed almost all the Olympians, except Ali. Many of them were heroes of mine, from Bob Mathias to the Rev. Bob Richards to Glenn Davis, an Ohio State intermediate hurdler who won three gold medals from 1956 and ’60. He asked me to write his biography, and I did: No Excuses. It was privately published by his hometown, Barberton, Ohio.”
Harris never got around to the decathlon book, but pursued other book projects. The former editor of General Electric’s worldwide corporate magazine, Monogram, Harris has written four books on World War I, among them an award-winning trilogy about New York City’s National Guard regiments in the war. Why so many books on World War I?
“Because my great uncle, a comic strip artist, told me stories about the war while he served with New York’s Empire Division. When my first book came out, Duty, Honor, Privilege, I first spoke at the Wilton Library — a fitting place, I thought, because Wilton is where my writing career began.”
Harris is a former reporter for The Bulletin and later was editor of The Redding Pilot. He began his writing career at The Bulletin in 1963 and for a number of years wrote a sports column called The Benchwarmer.
The late David D. Gearhart, who was The Bulletin editor from the early 1950s until his death in 1981, “was a big influence in my life while I was learning the newspaper trade in the early 1960s,” Harris said. “I wrote a piece about it for The Bulletin’s 50th anniversary issue.”
Another mentor for Harris was Nick Zeoli, Wilton High School’s first football coach and the longtime athletics director, who was Harris’s seventh grade gym teacher at Wilton Junior High (now Middlebrook School). And another tale of Olympic proportions he shared was one about a young Bruce Jenner, now the transgender TV personality Caitlyn Marie Jenner, who set a world record winning the decathlon gold medal during the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal.
When Jenner, who was born in Mt. Kisco, N.Y., was competing at a track championship in Wilton, Zeoli watched him compete and said to longtime Wilton youth sports booster John Snow that “he thought Jenner would make a terrific decathlete,” Harris recalled. “Standing behind them was Jenner’s mother. She heard the comment and told them her son could not get into college because of his poor grades. He suffered from dyslexia, she said. Nick got him into Graceland College and, you know, the rest is history.”
Before moving to Arizona, Harris and his wife, Sue, who had worked for the Gregory and Adams law firm and Hastings Realty in Wilton, lived in Vermont, where Zeoli, in his late 90s, resides. “We saw Nick a number of times. The last we heard, he is doing very well, plays golf at the Middlebury College golf course often, and enjoys his son, Chris, who also lives up there, and other family members.”