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Shoeboxes of Medals. A Lifetime of Stories: Don Leis

Geezer Jock
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Don Leis wonders sometimes how he manages to land on his feet and keep going. It's exercise and an unshakeable spirit.
Don Leis wonders sometimes how he manages to land on his feet and keep going. It's exercise and an unshakeable spirit.
Don Leis has shoe boxes full of medals he has won in 24 years of competing in Masters Track national events, state senior games, the National Senior Games, and other assorted meets.
“Those medals won’t buy me a cup of coffee,” Leis said.
Maybe not, but if he wanted to walk the mile from his house down North Altadena Drive in Pasadena to Carmela Ice Cream for a white peach vanilla bean cone, Leis could do it. He is four months shy of his 90th birthday.
If he wanted to hike the other way a mile and a half to Eaton Canyon Falls in the San Gabriel Mountains, Leis could handle that trek, too.
Those medals reveal his fitness, which makes them priceless. It’s not hyperbole.
The Little Old Lady from Pasadena has got nothing on Pasadena’s Leis. She, the terror of Colorado Blvd., can’t “keep her foot off the accelerator” and neither can Leis.
The week after he turns 90, Leis will be at the National Senior Games in Ft. Lauderdale. He is treating the Senior Games like an all-you-can eat buffet.
Leis plans to enter the High Jump, Long Jump, Triple Jump, 50, 100, 200, and possibly the 400. He said he wants to try and do the Shot Put and Discus.
I asked him where he gets this energy. Is it genes?
“Jesus,” Leis said. “I have Jesus in my heart.”
Just like a Geezer Jock not to assume all the credit.
**
Leis not only has medals. He has stories. You can’t help but pick up a few stories along 90 years of road.
Take just 5 minutes and breeze over these stories from a rich life. They are all not icky-sweet, or jaw-dropping, but they explain Don Leis.
**
The man in the dark-colored Buick convertible pulled over and shouted, “Hop in kid.”
It was on a road leading out of Arrowhead Lake, Calif., and Don Leis, 15, was hitchhiking back home to Pasadena. He had been gone two months that summer of 1947, a runaway, sort of, though he always planned on going home.
He tossed his bag into the backseat and got in.
“Do you know who I am?” the man said.
“No,” Don said.
“I’m Colonel Paul Tibbets,” the man said.
The name sounded familiar to Leis.
“I piloted the Enola Gay.”
Leis delivered newspapers back in August, 1945 when Tibbets and the B-29 Enola Gay became front page news. Don knew the names sounded familiar.
The man he was riding with dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.
“He was a darling of the movie stars of Hollywood, a hero, they were making movies about him,” Leis said. “They all hung out at Arrowhead back then.”
What does he remember from the ride with a world famous pilot?
“I left my bag in the backseat of that Buick,” Leis said. “He kept wanting to drive me right home, but I needed some time to think about what I was going to tell my parents about where I’d been for two months. I had him drop me outside of town. I wasn’t thinking about the bag, just what it was going to be like when I walked back through the front door.”
His mother hugged him. His father wouldn’t speak to him.
**
Leis has more stories where that one came from.
Officially, he has been to 74 consecutive Rose Bowl games in Pasadena, the first in 1948 when his father bought him a ticket for $5 and the last, the Jan. 1, 2022 game between Ohio State and Utah, where the ticket cost $268. (The 2021 Rose Bowl was in Texas because of Covid). No one in the world has been to more Rose Bowl games than Don Leis.
Unofficially, Leis has been to 75 Rose Bowls. He crawled under a fence to the 1946 Rose Bowl when he was 14 only to be collared by an usher and tossed out.
**
Don thinks, he’s not sure, that he met the reverend Father Flanagan of Boys Town in Omaha, Nebraska that summer of ‘47 when he ran away from home. Leis showed up at the front gate of Boys Town looking for a meal. A golf cart came and took him down to a chapel. He was seated next to a stern priest.
This must be the Come-to-Jesus for the pilfering of cookies in stores Don did on the road while hitch-hiking. This is what he deserved for just leaving town—at 15—without telling his mom and dad. God had him by the scruff of the neck now.
No, not really. The priest dealt with worse kids than Don Leis. The priest, it might have been Father Flanagan, simply told him to go home to Pasadena immediately. “Yes, Father,” Don said, “as soon as I walk across the bridge to Iowa so I can say I made it as far as Iowa.”
Leis walked across the bridge to Council Bluffs and then turned around and went hitchhiking home. 15. He was 15.
**
His most enduring story, his oldest story, the story that shows the ethos of Don Leis, was in 1939 when he was seven years old. His father, who studied at Ohio State University, took Don and his two brothers to the Horseshoe, the famous football stadium of the Buckeyes.
“You want to run around that track,” Dr. Ward William Leis said to his boys.
Only Don wanted to race. He joyfully dashed around the track, all 400 meters.
“I’ve been running around tracks ever since,” Leis said.
If you’ve done the math that means Leis has been running 82+ years. When he is 90 on May 1 he will be preparing to run in the National Senior Games. It will not be a ceremonial trip. It mostly never is with these older athletes. They are there to win.
Being 90 means Leis will be new to the 90-94 cohort and he aims to make hay and whip those Geezers who are 91, 92, 93, and 94.
It’s just being competitive, that’s all.
Leis wanted to resurrect his boxing career after 65 years.
He was 16-1 as a boxer in Golden Gloves as a 18 and 19 year old and had thoughts of the U.S. Olympic team back in 1950. His feet were fast—he was on the track team at Pasadena City College, a school that turned out Jackie Robinson—but his fists were also fast.
He was 84 or 85, he said, when he entered a Masters boxing event. Just before the event, he was chasing around a kid who ducked under a swing set. Don followed, but didn’t duck. He was clobbered by a steel beam and there was blood everywhere. The doctors wouldn’t clear him to fight because of the head injury, which was probably an excuse to keep him out of the ring. Leis argued, but the doc held firm.
“I could have won,” he says.
I hear him chuckling on the other end of the phone. “I don’t know how I made it this long,” he said.
I do. Leis has a crude optimism. It is not him being unrealistic. It is him being unshakeable and unstoppable. We should all wish for that.
The High Jump is just one of nine events Don Leis, 89, wants to enter at The National Senior Games.
The High Jump is just one of nine events Don Leis, 89, wants to enter at The National Senior Games.
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Geezer Jock
Geezer Jock @geezerjocknews

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