Related Biography: Coach Charles Riley
Charles Riley was born in 1878 and grew up in Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania, where he labored as a miner and mill worker. Although he dropped out of high school to work, Riley later attended Temple University in Philadelphia and eventually secured a job as a teacher and coach at Fairmount Junior High School in Cleveland, Ohio. The job paid so little that Riley had to work as a playground superintendent during the summer to support his family, including one son who was born crippled.
Immediately realizing Jesse Owens's potential, Riley took the junior high schooler under his wing with extra practice sessions held in the morning so as not to interfere with the youngster's after-school work obligations. He also invited Owens to his home and treated him like a member of his own family, rare in a time of both informal and legal racial segregation. Owens considered Riley as his second father, and Riley held Owens in equal regard.
Riley's contributions to his student's development occurred both on and off the field. Riley helped to refine Owens's running style; after taking him to see race horses in training to inspire his student, Owens's performance improved markedly. Owens also credited Riley with telling him to run as though the track were on fire, with quick fluid steps and an upright carriage. The advice was a departure from the standard running style of the time and gave Owens an edge against his competition. Off the track, Riley's relationship with Owens gave the young man the confidence he needed to break the racial barriers that then frequently denied equal opportunities to African Americans.
Riley retired and moved to Florida in 1943. Between 1946 and 1960 he had no contact with his acclaimed former pupil, an experience that left him disillusioned. Despite the disappointment, he accepted an invitation to honor Owens at a 1960 television broadcast of This Is Your Life. It was the last time that the coach and his former pupil would meet, as Riley died later that year.