Helen Quinn, 89, points out some of her favorite pins she received while driving in the Olympic Torch Relay caravan from Portland, Oregon to Sacramento, California in 1984.
Helen Quinn, 89, points out some of her favorite pins she received while driving in the Olympic Torch Relay caravan from Portland, Oregon to Sacramento, California in 1984.

February 16, 2018

Helen Quinn settled herself in front of the TV — it was time, once again, for the Olympic Games.

Gradually, the dim flame brightened as it came closer to the main stage on the television screen.

Quinn closed her eyes.

Suddenly, the flame was right in front of her again. She felt the adrenaline rushing through her veins as she followed the glowing light down the road to the Olympics.

Carroll native Quinn, 89, daughter of Anna and George Busche, graduated from St. Angela Academy and then went on to work at Northwestern Bell Telephone Co. in Carroll.

Quinn stayed in Carroll for three years and then was transferred to the company’s Des Moines office.

In 1984, the year of the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, the president of the telecommunications company, AT&T, which formerly owned Northwestern Bell, came to Quinn’s office.

He asked, “Who here doesn’t smoke?”

“I said, ‘I’ve never had a cigarette in my mouth,’” Quinn said.

Northwestern Bell did not want anyone who smoked to be a caravan driver for the Olympic Torch Relay.

And so it began.

Quinn packed up her belongings for the week-long journey and flew from Des Moines to Minneapolis and then on to Portland, Oregon.

For 12 weeks, the flame traveled across the United States. Quinn was the only Iowan to be part of the torch relay during the 10th week.

When she arrived in Portland, there was a Winnebago waiting. The caravan became her new home for next week.

Quinn was handed an Olympic-like uniform made by Levi Strauss & Co., along with a white Olympic cap.

“We would come out of our Winnebago with our outfits on, and people would come up thinking we were the movie stars,” Quinn said. “They would come out and shake our hands.”

She was then given the keys to a white Buick that had just rolled out of a trailer from Detroit. Quinn was the first one to ever sit in the car, she said.

Every morning, Quinn was on the road by 5 a.m., following closely behind a runner holding the Olympic torch.

The torch had been flown from Athens, Greece, to New York.

Runners carried the torch from New York all the way to Portland, where it was Quinn’s turn to follow the torch to Sacramento, California.

“Every day was a new challenge,” Quinn said. “The one thing they stipulated was every night I took that car through a car wash. It was a new car, and they wanted it to look perfect for their advertising.”

Quinn was on the road every morning at 5 a.m.. Before that, she was studying maps to make sure she could navigate to the next destination.

Every few miles, a new runner stepped in to carry the torch. When they stopped for lunch or for the evening, the caravans following the torch were surrounded by fans, Quinn said.

“We stopped at park somewhere, and people would come,” Quinn said. “They would have bikes, and they would be so excited. They thought we were some kind of a celebrity because they would rush over and shake our hands and have our picture taken with their family. It was really kind of weird, but it was wonderful.”

Throughout her journey, Quinn met people from all over the world, and she could not believe how appreciative everyone was, she said.

Although she could not stay in contact with everyone she met along the route, she promised them she would remember them — in her dreams, she said with a smile.

“Some of these people were immigrants,” Quinn said. “They just cried because they passed out little American flags for everybody. They said it was such a privilege to see people from America there and welcome them. I think about that now when they are trying to come in because those people were so gracious. It was wonderful to see them.”

Today, Quinn settles at her TV to watch the 2018 Winter Olympics at Pyeongchang, South Korea.

No matter how much has changed in the world, she wouldn’t miss the Olympic Games, she said.

She gets nervous watching the luge racers as they wind down around the curves and sharp turns.

But her favorite part — watching the torch come in, she said.

“I just remember what it was like,” Quinn said. “It’s an exciting thing. I never realized how privileged I was until I got back to Des Moines. I can’t tell you how many people would come up and ask me, ‘Well, did you enjoy it or was it a letdown?’

I would say, ‘Every minute was just wonderful.’”