When the United States Olympic athletes appear in the opening ceremonies of the 2016 games in Rio, they’ll be wearing shoes made in Auburn by Rancourt & Co., a Franco-American family company with deep roots in the city’s shoemaking history. But they won’t be the first Franco-American contribution of Maine’s Twin Cities to the Games. Back in the early 20th century, Lewiston produced “one of the best all-round athletes” in the country – Bob Legendre, who, from humble beginnings in Lewiston’s Little Canada, went on to successfully competed as a pentathlete in the 1920 and 1924 games, bringing home a bronze medal in the latter, and setting a world record in the process.
Pierre-Robert Lucien Legendre, more commonly known as Bob, was born into a modest family living on Lewiston’s River Street in 1898. His father, Gustave, a policeman, died just a year later, of stomach cancer,[i] leaving his mother, Philomène, to care for Robert and his nine brothers and sisters.[ii] Gustave and Philomène (né Collette) had been among the first French Canadians to settle in Lewiston’s Little Canada in the 1870s, back when it was still known as The Island; both seeking to earn a living in the booming cotton industry. Thirty years later, their children’s future looked set to be the same. Robert’s oldest brother, Arthur, 22 years his senior, folded clothes at the Lewiston Bleachery; another brother, Eugène, 16 years older than Robert, worked in a shoe shop, while his many sisters all worked in the cotton mills as their mother had before her marriage. Even Floride, only 14 years old in 1900, was a doffer in the mill, perhaps necessitated by the early death of their father.[iii]
Robert’s trajectory, however, was different. Unlike his sisters (and probably his brothers), he graduated from Lewiston’s Jordan High School and was almost certainly the first member of his family to go to college. His high school graduation in 1917, must have been tainted with sadness, since it was also the year of his mother’s death. After a year at Hebron Academy, he enrolled in Georgetown University (it was common for Franco-American student to choose Catholic seminaries and universities for their higher education). The fact that Bob completed high school likely shows that he had real academic ability, but it’s also possible that he received some form of athletic scholarship. His talents, which had already been in evidence at Hebron,[iv] would blossom at Georgetown, and take him all the way to the Olympics.
Fr. McDonough of Georgetown would later call Legendre “the greatest all-round athlete Georgetown or any college ever had.”[v] A track and field star, Bob also performed well in basketball, played football as half-back and baseball as a pitcher. Eventually convinced to concentrate on track and field, Legendre developed his talents in the pentathlon. The “classic pentathlon,” which was practiced then, was considered the greatest test of all-round athletic prowess. Combining a 200-meter sprint, javelin-throw, discuss-hurl, long-jump and 1500-meter run, it required competitors to excel in a number of different disciplines. The sport was removed from the Olympics in favor of the “modern pentathlon” in the 1932 games, but it was extremely well-regarded in the early 20th-century, and made a hero of the legendary Jim Thorpe. In 1918, his freshman year, the “unknown” Legendre lead Georgetown to take the collegiate pentathlon crown from UPenn for the first time in several years, and was proclaimed “the greatest athlete” of his division.
The entry of the United States into the World War briefly interrupted Bob’s studies, but also provided the launching point for his international career. Enlisting in the Student Army Training Corps at Georgetown, Legendre didn’t see oversees service, but his status made him eligible to compete in the “Inter-Allied Games” – a sort of mini-Olympics (the 1916 games had been cancelled due to the war) held between soldiers, sailors and airmen of the various allied nations in France in the summer of 1919, in the aftermath of the war. Legendre, still only 21, shone, and won first place in the pentathlon.
Legendre returned home to a hero’s welcome – at least in his hometown. Lewiston, and its Franco-American community went all-out to recognize their home-grown talent. in forgivable hyperbole described the young athlete thus:
Legendre returned home to a hero’s welcome – at least in his hometown. Lewiston, and its Franco-American community went all-out to recognize their home-grown talent. Le Messager, in forgivable hyperbole described the young athlete thus:
Bob Legendre…returns to us bathed in glory, and proud to share with his home town and his compatriots, the honors and praises that his success and victories have drawn to him from all parts of the civilized world. Bob Legendre beat all his competitors in the sphere of general athletics, and is now a global celebrity.[vi]
The celebration, predicted to “go down in the history books of this town,” included a parade led by members of local Franco-American societies, the Cercle Canadien and Association Saint-Dominique with its band, also featured the novel spectacle of “a host of automobiles together with a dozen jeeps used by the Army Recruitment Office in Lewiston.” A reception at the town hall heaped praise upon the young man. Among the most vocal speakers were the city’s Franco-American leaders, including Dr. Robert Wiseman, former mayor, and the family physician who had delivered Bob as a newborn. Prof. Mariner, a former teacher of Legendre’s at Hebron academy, praised “the blood of the noble and valiant [French] people” in the athlete’s veins; lawyer F.X. Belleau, speaking in French, noted that Legendre spoke the same language during the competition in France, and placed Legendre’s sporting victories in a list of accomplishments for all Franco-Americans.
Success continued to follow Legendre; he participated in the 1920 Olympic Games, which were held in Belgium. Although he tied for third place with Finn Hugo Lahtinen in the Pentathlon, he lost out on the bronze medal by a hair. In the 1922 collegiate championship, he won his event for the third year running, and broke records for the 200-meter run (22.2 seconds) and javelin toss (168 feet, 11 ¾ in.). Legendre seemed a shoo-in for the 1924 Olympics.
However, in the first post-college Games of his career, a recent injury damaged his form, and he failed to qualify for the US long jump team. Despite that, he took part in, and won a bronze medal for, the pentathlon, in the process setting a world record for the long jump (25 feet, 5 ¾ inches).
1924 Record-setting long jump. The caption (in French) reads “1924 Olympic Games: Legendre breaks the record for the long jump with 7 metres 765
This was to be the highlight of Legendre’s athletic career. The chiseled six-foot-two sportsman signed a movie contract, perhaps inspired by family friend Dr. Wiseman, who was a big fan of the new entertainment, but never performed (he did star in a “re-enactment” of his 1919 victories staged and filmed in Lewiston by Wiseman). It’s also tempting to attribute Legendre’s final career choice (it’s worth remembering that Olympic athletics were strictly amateur events in this era) to Wiseman’s influence; he entered the Navy and trained as a dentist, a career he was pursuing when he suddenly died of pneumonia in 1931. He was just 33 years old.
An obituary written by former Georgetown principal Fr. McDonough, noted that even when he had achieved celebrity, and was “tremendously popular in the athletic, collegiate, official and social circles in Washington,” Bob Legendre remained a down-to-earth and modest young man. “Despite all the honors heaped upon him, he was never happier than when he chanced to meet…anybody from Lewiston…I heard him say that the tribute he most enjoyed and appreciated was the banquet given in his home city.”[vii]
[i]Gustave Legendre, death record, Jan. 4, 1899, Maine State Archives; Cultural Building, 84 State House Station, Augusta, ME 04333-0084; 1892-1907 Vital Records; Roll #: 33. Via ancestry.com
[ii]Legendre family, United States Census, 1900; Census Place: Lewiston, Androscoggin, Maine; Roll: 587; Page: 8A;Enumeration District: 0024; FHL microfilm: 1240587. Via ancestry.com
[iii] 1900 US Census.
[iv]Gediman, Herbert, “Bob Legendre’s Death Was Blow to Georgetown,” Lewiston Evening Journal Jan 28, 1931
[vi] Robert Legendre”, Le Messager, Lewiston, 20 Aug. 1919. Author’s translation from the French.
[vii]Gediman, Herbert, “Bob Legendre’s Death Was Blow to Georgetown,” Lewiston Evening Journal Jan 28, 1931