It was a long way to Olympic gold but Melvin “Mel” Pender Jr. made it literally every step along the way. Born in 1937, Pender grew up in rural Lynwood Park, the historically black community off Windsor Parkway near Oglethorpe University. Gentrified in the early 2000s, the neighborhood now does not resemble Pender’s Lynwood, which had its own local institutions, segregated schools and sports teams, where Mel was a star base-ball and football player.
Leaving home at 17, Pender joined the U.S. Army and served two tours in Vietnam. Officers at camp football games on leave in Okinawa noted Pender’s incredible speed and encouraged him, at age 25, to compete against top athletes from Japan in his first international race. It was not long before the Army was supporting Pender to train for the U.S. Olympic team.
Pender competed in the 1964 Olympics, and in 1968 at Mexico City he won a gold medal, racing the 2nd leg of the 4 x 100 meter relay (“I felt like I was flying,” he said) in a new world record. Returning to the U.S. Army, he earned a Bronze Star in Vietnam and later became the first black track coach at West Point. Now retired in Smyrna at age 77, Mel Pender is with his wife writing a book about his life—what a journey it’s been for a self-described “boy from the country.”
Dr. Paul Hudson, longtime resident of the Brookhaven area, is an historian at Georgia Perimeter College.