Our First Olympian: Knoxville's Contribution to an International Phenomenon Was a Middle-Aged Classics Professor

Professor Ebenezer Alexander, 59, erstwhile dean of faculty at the University of North Carolina, had been a quiet fellow who wore a gray mustache and smoked a pipe and was handy with a quotation from a Greek sage. One Friday evening in 1910, he stepped out of his carriage on Church Street, and died. Roundly eulogized as a splendid fellow, he was a learned, well-traveled gentleman with famous friends from the Ivy League universities to the palaces of Europe—but also "one of the gentlest, most retiring and modest of men."

The fact that, 14 years earlier, he had helped launch the first modern Olympic Games was perhaps not a big enough deal to mention.

Alexander had been born in 1851 on Summit Hill—not the street, but downtown's northern knoll, son of a judge of the same name and an old-family mother. He attended the local university's prep school before matriculating at Yale, where he'd been a member of the Skull and Bones society. A kid named Alexander may be more likely to love the myths and history of ancient Greece, and he went into classical scholarship. He taught classics at the University of Tennessee until a vocational reorganization in 1886 suggested UT would have less use for ancient Greece. Frustrated, Alexander quit UT in favor of UNC. He was no athlete, and struck some as frail, but he liked to walk. Sometimes he walked from Knoxville to Chapel Hill.

In 1893, President Grover Cleveland picked him to be U.S. minister to Serbia, Rumania, and Greece. He knew the language and seemed a born peacemaker. In 1893, Professor Alexander moved to Athens. There he befriended some big shots, including King George, of course, and Crown Prince Constantine. He became close with a young American foreign correspondent, novelist Stephen Crane, and an unusual French nobleman, the Baron de Coubertin.

They shared a dream: reviving the ancient Olympic Games. Coubertin's movement had been afoot a few months before Alexander landed in Athens, but Alexander was excited about the prospect, and wanted to help.

If you look at histories of the Olympics, you probably won't find his name in the index. Sports authors aren't always keen on politics, happy to race through the paperwork preliminaries to get to the action. Only 13 nations participated in those first Games. You'd think, since U.S. participation was such a key to that original event's credibility as a global phenomenon, any history of the Athens games would mention the U.S. ambassador in Athens, even if he'd been a stick in the mud about it. And Alexander was a true believer.

A few years ago, an Associated Press article by North Carolina historian Dr. H.G. Jones was sometimes headlined, "Tar Heel Re-Invented Olympics." That may overstate the case. But Alexander is listed in an 1895 Harper's article as the world's very first financial donor to the Olympics. According to that article, Alexander was "looked upon and claimed in Athens as a true Hellene, both by his wide acquaintance with the Greek language and literature and his whole-hearted sympathy with the country and its people."

The ambassador's on-the-ground enthusiasm helped assure American participation in those very first international Olympics. In the 1890s, America's most sophisticated athletic programs were in the Ivy League, and it was assumed that the men of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were the nation's finest athletes. By some accounts, Alexander's Ivy League connections helped assure that the first modern Olympians included some of America's best. I haven't been through his correspondence, which is in special collections at UNC, but according to summaries, some of it concerns those first American Olympic athletes.

There's one story I can't prove but hope is true. I heard it years ago from Professor Alexander's grandson. Alexander so impressed the American athletes with the authenticity of this revival of the ancient games that when they arrived in Athens, they immediately began practicing naked. Someone, perhaps from the Olympic committee, informed the lads that in this modern, compromised version of the Olympics, most competitions would indeed require clothing.

Despite being outnumbered by Greeks, the Americans earned the most gold, dominating the track and field events.

Ambassador Alexander's tenure ended with Cleveland's Democratic administration in 1897, and he came back to his professorship at Chapel Hill, visiting his Knoxville home frequently, where his son was starting a long career as a physician. The professor forgave UT enough to come speak at a commencement. At UNC, popular Professor Alexander rose to the office of Dean in 1900, the year of the Paris Games. Taken over by the French government and barely organized, it rendered some events a near-fiasco.

The 1904 and 1908 games were chaotic, too, riddled with scandal, financial problems, and poor organization. Professor Alexander may have wondered whether the Herculean efforts of 1896 had been worth the trouble.

In his 50s, he began to encounter heart problems. In 1909, he got a leave of absence from Chapel Hill to come to Knoxville to relax and recuperate. He liked to take carriage rides around the growing city, already almost unrecognizable from the rough-edged, war-ravaged town of his youth. By 1909 Knoxville had multiple electric streetcar lines, multiple department stores, a couple of steel-frame "skyscrapers," the new Bijou Theatre, electric lights all over Market Square, and plans for a big regional exposition. The waves of European immigration that had kept Knoxville culturally lively for the last 60 years was drying up. The one exception, Professor Alexander must have observed, was a growing population of Greek immigrants.

That day in 1910, the world traveler took his last tour of his hometown. As he alighted from his carriage at the livery stable, his heart stopped. He was buried at Old Gray with a stone inscribed "Teacher, Administrator, Diplomat."

That livery stable, by the way, was run by a guy named Pryor Brown. Today, the parking garage on the same site, perhaps a modern equivalent to his livery stable, bears his name.