Let’s Talk… NextGen’s Executive Director Arnold Sowell Jr.

Special Edition

June 14, 2024


Many in the Capitol community know me as the Executive Director of the nonprofit NextGen Policy, or from my years in the Legislature as the Policy Director for five Assembly Speakers. But with Father’s Day now behind us and the Olympic Games a few months away, I wanted to share something that many of you might not know: my Dad, Arnold Sowell Sr., during the mid-1950’s, was one of the most dominant middle distance runners in the world – a Pan Am Games gold medalist, a world record holder, an NCAA champion, and six tenths of a second away from an Olympic gold medal. Three Americans made the 1956 Olympic 800 meter final and my Dad, who led much of the way, finished 4th in a truly epic race that saw Tom Courtney, his archrival, win gold with a courageous effort down the backstretch and lean at the tape.

Image 1: Arnie Sowell (No. 154) at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, racing alongside Tom Courtney (No. 153) and Derek Johnson (No. 137). Image courtesy of Getty Images. Image 2: Arnie Sowell. Claimed 4 NCAA titles as a middle distance runner and anchored all key relays for the Panthers. Sowell competed in the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne. Black History Month. Logo for Pittsburgh Panthers. Image courtesy of Pittsburgh Panthers.


For years, I have wanted to write an article describing how my Dad’s athletic achievements frequently and unexpectedly intersected with my career in public policy. I have always stopped short because my Dad is a very humble man and really does not like the attention, often wondering out loud what the fuss is all about. However, we recently celebrated my Dad’s 89th birthday and that milestone, coupled with an event I will share more about in a moment, finally compelled me to put pen to paper or, better yet, fingers to keyboard.

Since I was a kid, I have known about my Dad’s athletic successes. Not because he talked about them much but from the many trophies and plaques around our house; the old newspaper clippings and Sports Illustrated articles my Mom kept in scrapbooks; the stories told by family friends and relatives; and, most frequently, totally random strangers hearing my name (I am a Jr) and asking if I was related to Arnie Sowell, the great track runner from the University of Pittsburgh.

Arnold Sowell Sr. pictured at the University of Pittsburgh’s Athletic Hall of Fame Ceremony in 2021 with his granddaughter Sophia Fox-Sowell, daughter Jamaica Sowell, and son Arnie Sowell Jr.


Honestly, there is not enough space in this blog to share the countless times my siblings and I were asked if we were related to Arnie Sowell the Pitt track star. I could tell you about meeting Jesse Owens at a Junior Olympics track meet when I was about ten years old. As I stood proudly on the podium, waiting for him to shake my hand and put my bronze medal around my neck, he casually started talking about my Dad and told me to tell him hello.

I could tell you about meeting former Congressman Harold Washington, the first African-American Mayor of Chicago, in his DC office while participating in a public policy program in the early 1980s. We had dropped by his office to meet the uncle of one of my college classmates who worked for him. Congressman Washington was hurriedly walking through the office and then stopped, allowing us the time to quickly introduce ourselves. After I said my name, his staffer immediately interjected that I was not related to the conservative, African-American economist, Thomas Sowell, who was very prominent at that time. Congressman Washington looked directly at me and said he was not thinking about Thomas Sowell but instead Arnie Sowell the great track runner from Pitt. I said, that’s my Dad and then Congressman Washington sat down, pointed at me, and said let me tell you a story.

He had seen my Dad run at an indoor track meet in Chicago, anchoring Pitt’s two-mile relay team. My Dad got the baton way behind and began closing the gap, picking off runners with each successive lap. The Congressman said the crowd’s cheers grew louder and louder with anticipation, wondering whether he could actually come from that far behind to win. And he did come from that far behind to win the race. He told us it was one of the greatest feats he had ever seen on a track and rushed off to wherever he was originally headed. It was a mic drop moment, as I knew nothing about this race and could feel everyone staring at me as I stood there silent not knowing what to say. Later, I did some research on Congressman Washington and learned he had been a high school track star and got his start in politics working for Chicago Alderman Ralph Metcalfe, who finished second in the 100-yard dash to Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympic Games.

I could tell you about my first day on the job working for Speaker Willie Brown and finding myself in a meeting with John Lovell, the long-time lobbyist for the California Police Chiefs Association. After I introduced myself, John looked over at me and said that his uncle took him to the 1956 Olympic Trials at the LA Coliseum and he remembered watching my Dad run in the 800 meter final. We chatted a little more about my Dad and then got to the business at hand. The next day, in what I can only characterize as one of the most small world experiences of my life, a colleague in Speaker Brown’s office came by my desk to introduce herself. Her name – Dana Spurrier, her Dad – Lon Spurrier, a Cal track star and contemporary of my father. More precisely, Lon Spurrier also qualified for the 1956 Olympic 800 final, finishing 6th. Somehow, Dana and I found ourselves working together in the Speaker’s office: she was on the Communications team and I was on the Policy team. We got our parents together a few times after that and Dana got Steve Wiegand from the Sacramento Bee to include this small world experience in his February 8, 1995 column – he takes credit for uncovering our father’s connection, but we already knew.

These are just a few of the numerous times encounters like these have happened over the years – though fewer and further between these days. Now, fast forward to February of this year and an email from Colin Everest, a self-described track enthusiast and art lover. Colin reached out to let us know that a painting by acclaimed artist Robert Rauschenberg, which hangs in the New York Museum of Modern Art and is entitled “Rebus”, incorporates two photographs of my Dad and Tom Courtney in one of their epic duels on the track. Rauschenberg is considered a leader in the modern art movement and Colin wanted me to pass along this important information to my family and my Dad, given that he had learned that Tom Courtney, my Dad’s archrival and double gold medalist, had passed away in 2023. We knew nothing about the painting until he brought it to our attention and my family is eternally grateful for his thoughtfulness in reaching out to us.

Image courtesy of New York Museum of Modern Art. © 2024 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation


I showed my Dad the painting online and asked him what he thought. His response, delivered with his usual trademark humility, was something like: “Who would have ever thought that a poor kid from the Hill District of Pittsburgh would have his picture in a museum for all the world to see?” While I have grown accustomed to my Dad’s understated reactions to his track achievements, his response got me thinking about two questions: (1) What meaning did I see by incorporating these photos in the Rauschenberg painting and (2) How have these unexpected encounters involving my Dad’s athletic accomplishments influenced my career and viewpoints?

I don’t know much about art history but I googled Robert Rauschenberg and learned that he often used everyday objects – fabric, sculpture, newspaper clippings, photographs – in his paintings. He famously said that “painting relates to both life and art“ and that he “wanted to work in the gap between the two.” Rebus was painted in 1955 and Rauschenberg described it as “a record of the immediate environment and time.”

On the surface, the pictures of my Dad and Tom Courtney, simply depict two track athletes engaged in a fierce battle to see who would cross the finish line first. But if you look beyond the surface, the symbolism is evident: one athlete is Black, one athlete is white; stress and strain is etched on each of their faces, a competitive fire set against the tense backdrop of a growing civil rights movement – a record of the immediate environment and time. Having worked on justice-related public policy issues for many years, I also see a deeper meaning reflected in my Dad’s response upon hearing about the Rauschenberg painting – how opportunity combined with support manifests the confidence to hope and dream beyond your circumstances. That combination is foundational to overcoming inequity, injustice and adversity. To me, this is what equity is all about – a fair chance.

To the second question, I am reminded of one of our family sayings – “When you leave this house, don’t forget where you come from.” The saying means different things at different times in different situations but, at its core, it embodies my parents’ sense of family, our connection to the larger community, and the value placed on the opportunity that each day brings. If I really think about it, the answers to each of these two questions drove my desire to work in public policy and frankly underpin the mission and work of NextGen Policy – to engage the larger community in advancing equitable opportunity for all.

I spent weeks searching for a Rebus print to give my Dad as a gift and want to sincerely thank the many people in the Capitol community who helped me. It took some digging but I finally found a framed print that arrived just in time for Father’s Day! During my search, I discovered there is a Rauschenberg Foundation and, ironically, their work encompasses equity and justice issues just like NextGen Policy. My next tasks: reaching out to the Rauschenberg Foundation and letting them know about my Dad; taking my Dad back to New York City to see the Rebus painting in person; and, most importantly, when he reads this article, trying to keep my Dad from throwing a fit wondering what the fuss is all about.

Thanks for reading,
Arnold Sowell Jr.

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