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    The final ovation for a hero

    Revered on the track and in life, Tulare-born Bob Mathias is laid to rest.

    By Doug Hoagland and Lewis Griswold / The Fresno Bee

    (Updated Thursday, September 7, 2006, 4:37 AM)

    Advertisements TULARE — An Olympic champion was buried Wednesday in this Valley town where his grace and gifts first blossomed.

    Bob Mathias — two-time gold medalist in the decathlon and a four-term congressman — truly was Tulare's golden boy. Family and friends spoke of his stunning sporting accomplishments and his years of public service at an hour-long funeral service in the church where he grew up.

    However, it was Bob Mathias the human being, remembered for his warm, bright eyes and a playful chuckle, who shone through in stories that prompted tears and laughter from the several hundred mourners.

    "I knew Robert before he was famous," said childhood friend Pat Hillman. "Even when he had many reasons to be proud of his accomplishments, he never acted as if he were famous. He was always the same shy, delightful, appreciative person who had an endearing way of reaching out to people, especially youngsters, and making them feel special."

    Mr. Mathias, 75, died Saturday at his home in Fresno. He had been suffering from cancer.

    Even as he aged, Mr. Mathias maintained a vigor and became simply a more mature version of the fresh-faced 17-year-old from the central San Joaquin Valley who won gold in the London Olympics of 1948.

    Befitting Mr. Mathias' Olympic pedigree, numerous Olympians came to Wednesday's services at Tulare United Methodist Church and Tulare District Cemetery.

    Dick Fosbury of "Fosbury Flop" fame and a gold medalist in the high jump at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics traveled from Ketchum, Idaho.

    "He was a childhood hero of mine, as he was to anyone in the '60s doing track and field," Fosbury said. "He made it seem like it was possible. He was a prince of a guy."

    Fosbury told this story: He was part of a group canoeing in the swamps of Florida with Mr. Mathias and his wife, Gwen, several years ago. Mr. Mathias began to serenade Gwen. "He was incredible," Fosbury said. "We're going through the groves and the clearings in the swamp. It was magical. It was one of those moments. There's not a bad note in the guy."

    Rafer Johnson, who won the gold medal in the decathlon at the 1960 Rome Olympics, grew up in Kingsburg and was inspired to compete after seeing Mr. Mathias compete.

    Carnations are laid on the casket of Bob Mathias.
    Christian Parley / The Bee
    "This community has produced one of the greats of all time," Johnson said. "I don't use the word 'genuine' often, but it goes with him. That's his legacy. A genuine guy."

    At United Methodist Church on Kern Street, Mr. Mathias' casket, draped with an American flag, rested at the front of the sanctuary beneath stained-glass windows.

    An Olympic flag, distinctive with five interlocking rings of different colors, stood to one side of the casket. Nearby was a wreath of flowers with a banner that read, "The Kid. The Greatest."

    Hillman told the mourners that as a kindergartner, Mr. Mathias put his baby sister, Patricia, in his red wagon and set off with her to Wilson School. She was going to be his show-and-tell item until their mother hurriedly retrieved the infant.

    A few years later, Mr. Mathias tagged along with his big brother, Eugene, and some older boys who were high jumping. After bugging his older brother to let him try, Mr. Mathias soared over the bar at a height that stymied the other boys.

    "We knew then that he must have something going for him that none of us would ever have," said Eugene Mathias, according to Hillman.

    Robert — as he was always known to his family — was born and reared in Tulare, and he was a standout athlete in high school.

    Isaac H. Cota of Tulare went to high school with Mr. Mathias. "We were in the band," Cota said. "He played the clarinet, I played the trombone. He was a decent, Christian man, a true gentleman."

    Then he stunned the world in London by defeating more experienced athletes, and got his picture on the cover of Life magazine.

    Pat Hillman said Mr. Mathias returned to Tulare, was feted by a joyous parade and got stopped that day by a Tulare policeman for running a stop sign while driving Eugene Mathias' Model A.

    The officer asked to see Mr. Mathias' driver's license.

    Mr. Mathias admitted he didn't have it.

    "So what's your name?" the officer asked.

    "Bob Mathias, sir."

    The officer let him off with a warning, Hillman said, as the crowd chuckled.

    Mr. Mathias displayed that winning way with people in a life filled with many victories.

    He attended Stanford University and returned a 96-yard touchdown against the University of Southern California that helped Stanford reach the Rose Bowl.

    Win Wedge of Modesto was on the Stanford football team with Mr. Mathias in 1952.

    One day while on the team bus, Wedge asked Mr. Mathias the secret to excelling in athletics. His reply: Eat well, get your rest and practice your game every day without fail.

    Said Wedge: "He was truly an inspiration. Bob was also a very kind and simple soul."

    Mr. Mathias repeated as decathlon champion at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland.

    Bruce Mathias said the world knew his uncle for his accomplishments. However, Bruce Mathias remembered Mr. Mathias as a patient man of good humor who taught him to drive an old Army jeep. In remarks at the church, Bruce Mathias said people felt they knew his uncle even if their encounter was brief: "That is exactly how genuine and unpretentious my uncle was."

    As a Republican congressional candidate in 1966, Mr. Mathias was elected in a Valley district dominated by Democratic voters. He was defeated in 1974.

    Bob Jennings, who worked for Mr. Mathias when he was a congressman, also spoke at the church. He recalled a graceful man who instinctively knew how to connect with people. One day, Jennings said, Mr. Mathias took a delayed Social Security check to a Wasco woman named Hattie Crawford who was a Democrat.

    Crawford stood at her front door when the congressman arrived and declared, "Lord, have mercy. You're Bob Mathias," Jennings said. A hug followed and the two became friends.

    With emotion in his voice, and pausing between sentences, Jennings said, "Bob Mathias was a man for all seasons. He was my hero. He was my friend."

    After the church service, a hearse took Mr. Mathias' casket to the cemetery. As the entourage passed Tulare Union High School, where the high school district's stadium is named for Mr. Mathias, the school band played the alma mater.

    At the cemetery, a Marine honor guard stood ready to fire their guns in salute to one of their own: Mr. Mathias served in the Marines and Marine Corps Reserves from 1954 to 1965, according to his congressional biography.

    Billy Mills, a gold medalist in the 10,000-meter race at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, spoke to the Mathias family before he and other Olympians presented an Olympic flag to them.

    Mills said he was a child when he read about Mr. Mathias' victories, and the story changed him.

    "I was touched. I was inspired. I was challenged. I wanted to be an Olympian," said Mills, who spoke warmly of his relationship with Mr. Mathias.

    Said Mills: "To know him was to love him."