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Friends remember Olympic torch relay in 1964
Bob Steves, left, and Tom Osborn are shown with the photographs taken when they ran the Jaycees-sponsored Olympic torch relay in 1964. - photo by ROSE ALBANO RISSO/The Bulletin

It’s Winter Olympics time. And while the world’s eyes may be focused on Sochi, Bob Steves and Tom Osborn’s memories are flying back to the 1964 summer Tokyo Olympics.

Half a century ago today, the two longtime friends played a surprise role in the addition of a local flavor to the international competitions taking place half-way around the globe. In an Olympic torch relay under the auspices of the California Jaycees, the young Mantecans carried a facsimile of the real Olympic torch along a stretch of Highway 120 in Manteca from Highway 99 to Jack Tone Road. There, another group of Ripon Jaycees runners picked up the torch and continued the relay through the streets of the Almond Capital of the World.

Hart Laurence, now a resident of Ripon, was the president of the Manteca Jaycees at that time. Given the passage of five decades, he vaguely remembers many of the details surrounding that Olympic torch relay but retained enough memories as to the why’s and wherefores of the local happening in 1964. The old photographs help fill in some of the missing memory connections though. He remembers that the Jaycees torch relay was meant to drum up public interest in the international games and raise money for the United States Olympic effort at the same time. He can’t recall whether it was the California Jaycees or the U.S. Jaycees that got it started.

Nonetheless, it was an ambitious project that took the facsimile Olympics torch up and down the State of California with the help of the Jaycees organization.

That serendipitous experience is documented and captured for posterity in the half-dozen or so black-and-white photographs that the Osborns dug out and dusted off after being buried in oblivion for 50 years. Watching the Sochi Olympics in Russia prompted the longtime Mantecans to dig the prints out of their collection hibernation.

“They were just kids then,” Carolie Osborn said, her voice laced thickly with mirth at the memory of her husband’s once-in-a-lifetime experience as a young man, as she scanned the scallop-edged photographic prints strewn on top of their dining table.

How that happened was totally unexpected to Osborn and Steves plus a half-dozen of their friends. The common denominator that qualified them for the torch run was the fact they were Manteca High School graduates.

The Manteca High track team was the group that was originally tapped to do the honors, the friends recalled. As luck would have it, the Buffalo team which had an out-of-town meet that evening did not make it back home on time. They were stuck outside Sacramento when their bus broke down.

At the last minute, Laurence had to find a group that would sub for the track team members.

Laurence, who also served as the official photographer for the torch relay running through Manteca, knew just where to go to get the men he needed. On a Friday evening, the place to be for many young men in town to share a drink, shoot the breeze and be merry was the Swiss American Tavern – located where Ace Hardware used to be and now a furniture store downtown. That’s where Laurence plucked out Steves, Osborn and six other young men to do the Olympic torch relay honors. The square black-and-white Instamatic camera prints show a group of grinning young men dressed in their Friday-evening casual best.

“We went out there in our tennis shoes and Levis and T-shirts,” recalled a chuckling Osborn.

One of the photographs is a group shot of the men who took part in the fun run. They recognized Dan Clayburger, Jim Cunningham, and Tom Founts who has since passed away but could not remember the names of the remaining three.

The Manteca relay started at Hwy 99 on East Yosemite Avenue.

“The Stockton Jaycees ran (the torch) down to us. They came on down 99 to East Yosemite. So we just picked up the torch from Yosemite at 99 and ran it down to Jack Tone Road,” said Laurence.

From Ripon, the relay continued on to Modesto. “What happened (to the relay run) after that I don’t remember,” he said.

But he vividly remembers that by the time the torch runners from Stockton arrived at the appointed meeting spot on East Yosemite Avenue at Highway 99, it was already around midnight or past that time. As to whether the Olympic torch used for the Jaycees-sponsored relay was provided by the Olympic committee is also lost in oblivion as far as Laurence is concerned.

“I’m guessing it was given to us by the Olympics (committee),” he said.

“I do know that when we ran it down to the Ripon Jaycees (waiting at Jack Tone Road), we turned around and went back to Manteca into the Moose Lodge and played poker. And I do know that when we left the Moose place, the sun was shining brightly, which leads me to believe it was summer (time).”

The torch relay also “could have been set up particularly for the district,” Laurence surmised. The Manteca Jaycees was part of District 14 which included Stockton, Galt, Tracy, Manteca and Ripon, he said.

Small as it was, the torch was surprisingly heavy, recalled Steves, owner of Steves Construction, and Osborn who worked for 37 years at Spreckels before he retired. The weight was mainly due to the canister of oil inside the torch which kept the flame burning, they said.

“The flame kept going out, and it was cold. But we were tough!” chuckled Steves whose ranch, which included several buffaloes that roamed inside a cyclone-fenced area on his property, is now part of the Promenade Shops at Orchard Valley at the intersection of South Union Road and Atherton Drive.

 “It was just fun!” rejoined Osborn with a hearty laugh.

“We’d do anything!” added Steves laughing just as heartily.

“It was something to do,” they said in unison, as they laughed even harder, especially considering Manteca at that time “was in the middle of nowhere.”

Manteca was indeed a small town of just 7,000 residents at the time, said Carolie Osborn, who, like her husband, is a 1959 Manteca High graduate. In 1964, Manteca was the real Family City and did not need the moniker to prove its small-town character.

“Everybody knew everybody in town. And remember, there was only one high school at the time – Manteca High,” she pointed out.

The official Olympic torch relay during the Tokyo 1964 Olympics lasted 51 days with 870 runners and covered a total of 20,065 kilometers worldwide. The routes went through Athens (Greece) by plane, Istanbul in Turkey, Beirut in Lebanon, Teheran in Iran, Lahore in Pakistan, New Delhi in India, Rangoon in Burma, Bangkok in Thailand, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, Manila in the Philippines, Hong Kong, Taipei in the Republic of China, Okinawa in Tokyo.

The 1964 Summer Olympics was officially known as the Games of the XVIII Olympiad and was held in Tokyo, Japan, from Oct. 10 to 24.