NGA’s Olympian: Librarian was two-time gold medalist, world-record holder
Except for the horn-rimmed glasses, Helen Stephens was not a typical librarian.
Stephens was a technical librarian at NGA predecessor agencies from 1950–1976 and stood a full six feet tall amid stacks of charts and papers in the Second Street Library in St. Louis, Missouri. Her broad shoulders supported a head of short, curly dark hair, and her size 12 feet confidently paced the spaces between bookshelves.
A natural athlete, Stephens won two Olympic gold medals as a sprinter in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. She set world records in track. She was the first woman to create, own and manage a professional basketball team. She was an advocate for the expansion of athletic opportunities for young women.
She was a confidante to Jesse Owens, resisted the romantic advances of Adolf Hitler and was an adviser to President Jimmy Carter.
And, during her intelligence career, she helped the U.S. Air Force’s Aeronautical Chart and Information Center and Defense Mapping Agency Aerospace Center cartographers find the resources they needed to create their maps.
Stephens was born in 1918. For farm girls growing up in the 1920s and ’30s in rural Missouri, athletic opportunities were scarce. In her hometown of Fulton, Missouri, there were no school teams for girls in track or basketball, according to her biography, The Fulton Flash: The Life of Helen Stephens.
In 1934, Fulton High boys track coach Burton Moore noticed Stephens’ speed watching a pickup basketball game Stephens played with church friends.
He asked the 15-year-old to run a 50-yard dash on the high school’s driveway. He clocked her at a mind-blowing 5.8 seconds — then the world record.
“I just ran, and when I finished, Coach kinda looked at his watch, puzzled-like, and asked would I mind runnin’ it again,” Stephens said in her biography. “He said he didn’t quite get my time.”
She re-ran the 50-yard dash, and again set a world-record-tying time — in beaten-up sneakers, with no training on technique or form. Moore asked her to start running with his boys’ track team and tried to figure out what to do with this raw, homegrown phenom.
After about a year of training with Moore, Helen borrowed track shoes and sweats from one of her male teammates and drove nearly four hours in Moore’s Ford to the girls National Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Championships in the St. Louis Arena.
There, Stephens stunned the crowd by beating Olympic gold medalist Stella Walsh, one of the most well-known female athletes of the time, in the 50-meter dash.
Her performance earned her a scholarship to her hometown, all-women William Woods College and a spot on the U.S. Olympic team for the 1936 games in Nazi Berlin.
During the trip to Berlin, Stephens formed a lifelong friendship with Jesse Owens, an African-American runner who would win four gold medals for the United States at the games and disprove Adolf Hitler’s myth of “Aryan” superiority, much to the Fuhrer’s chagrin.
Stephens had a good performance herself at the Olympic Games, defeating Walsh yet again with a time of 11.5 seconds in the 100-meter event. The 11.5 earned her an Olympic gold medal and set an Olympic record that would stand until 1960. Her second gold medal came in the 400-meter relay.
Olympics: Reported by Alan Howland
Video from the Associated Press Archive with highlights from the World Games in Berlin on August 13, 1936.
After Stephens’ victory in the 100 meters, she received an invitation from the Fuhrer to visit him in his private box. According to Stephens’ biography, Hitler referred to Stephens as a “true Aryan woman” and invited Stephens and her trainer, Dee Boeckmann, to spend the weekend with him in his country villa.
Stephens and Boeckmann politely declined. After that, Stephens said, Hitler got a little grabby:
“He reached behind me, pinched, and saluted us both, and marched out,” she said.
After the Olympics, Stephens remained in the media limelight when rivals accused Stephens of being a man masquerading as a woman to win races. Look magazine ran a story with Stephens’ photo on the cover with the headline “Is this a man or a woman?” Another article reported that Stephens planned to quit college and move to New York City to work as cocktail waitress.
When all the press made its way to William Woods College, the conservative all-girls school rescinded Stephens’ scholarship for the “distasteful publicity” and accused Stephens of embarrassing the college, according to Stephens’ biographer, Sharon Kinney Hanson.
Stephens remained enrolled at William Woods and instead earned her tuition by working in the library and cafeteria. Stephens eventually sued Look magazine for libel and won $5,500. She graduated with her class in 1937.
Later that year, Stephens signed a contract with a women’s professional basketball team, the All-American Red Heads, with the stipulation that she dye her hair red to match the rest of her teammates. In 1938, Stephens used part of her lawsuit winnings to found her own professional basketball team, the Helen Stephens Olympic Co-Eds, giving Stephens another title: the first female to create, own and manage a pro basketball team.
After the United States entered World War II in 1941, Stephens enlisted in the Women’s Reserve of the U.S. Marine Corps. The war ended before she was sent out on foreign assignment.
In 1946, she landed a spot as a typist at the Aeronautical Chart plant, an NGA predecessor, while also managing her basketball team. That year, the Co-Eds played a game in Fulton, where Stephens was introduced to President Harry S. Truman and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in town for Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech at Westminster College.
In 1950, she was promoted to reference librarian at the ACIC’s technical library and again in 1955 to chief librarian.
Stephens injected levity into her work in a quiet library by drawing caricatures of her office mates and supervisors. She referred to Charles Guenther, her boss, as “Chicken Charlie” and drew cartoons lampooning the antics of “C.C.”, her officemates and the hardworking, curly-haired bespectacled librarian Helen, according to her biography.
Her nearly daily cartoons of office squabbles, obscure military procedure and civil servant protocol drew a variety of ACIC and DMAAC employees to her desk. One of her biggest fans was the then-colonel in charge, who would borrow his favorites to photocopy for himself, Hanson reported in Stephens’ biography.
From 1974–79, Stephens also served as DMAAC’s official timekeeper during the 1.5-mile run required for military personnel’s annual physical fitness tests. She gave a pep talk before the run and shouted encouragement as runners passed her during the first lap of a two-lap race, remembered James St. Clair, director of DMAAC from 1975–79.
“Having an Olympic gold medal winner show interest in our annual run encouraged our military members to get in shape each year,” St. Clair said.
Upon Stephens’ retirement from DMAAC in 1976 at 58, she was still active in sports, dominating bowling leagues and coaching potential Olympic athletes in track.
She also was a vocal advocate for opportunities for women in athletics. While being inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame and U.S. National Track Hall of Fame, she called for the inclusion of other worthy female athletes. She gave speeches and talked to the media about the value of women athletics. She responded to piles of letters from young female athletes, encouraging them to pursue their dreams.
Stephens also made peace with her alma mater, William Woods. Stephens established a scholarship for athletic excellence and helped establish the school’s official women’s track program, serving as an assistant track coach.
She remained a prominent sports figure even during her golden years. After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, she wrote to President Jimmy Carter to support his call for the United States to boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. And she wasn’t finished setting records yet: In 1986, she set the Senior Olympic record between the ages of 65–69 for the 100-meters at 16.4.
Stephens suffered a stroke in December 1993 and passed away in January 1994.
Over the years, Stephens garnered a pile of athletic achievements: two Olympic gold medals; 14 national AAU titles, and 10 world, Olympic, U.S. and Canadian records.
David Black, who worked at ACIC and DMAAC from 1968–1988, tells the story of watching Stephens work as a referee at a charity men’s basketball game in the 1970s:
“During the first half, a male spectator issued a constant barrage of verbal abuse aimed at the referee [Helen], getting increasingly louder as the game went on.
“Just before the half, Helen stopped the game and climbed into the stands next to the verbal spectator. He had no idea who she was, other than a female referee.
“Speaking so that everyone in the field house could hear, Helen said, ‘Mister, at halftime, I’ll run you a race from one end of the court and back. If you beat me, I’ll stop being the referee. If I beat you, you’ll leave this place.’ The man was in his 20s and Helen in her 60s, so he said, ‘You’re on!’
“Two minutes later came the half, and the man came down out of the stands to the cheers of a packed house. Thirty seconds later he walked out the door, never to be heard from again. Helen had dashed the length of the court and back, while the young man got half way down the court. She returned to refereeing the second half to a standing ovation.
“It was at that time the court announcer introduced her as the Olympian that she was. She bowed, blew her whistle and went about doing her job in the second half.
“That was the Helen Stephens I remember — a big smile, a matter-of-fact attitude and confident that she could do whatever life asked of her,” Black said. “It asked much, and she was always a winner.”