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BUCK DAWSON - “MR. SWIMMING HALL OF FAME”  DIES AT 87

William Forrest “Buck” Dawson of Fort Lauderdale died of heart failure and complications due to Parkinson’s disease on April 4, 2008, in Fort Lauderdale.  Known as “Mr. Swimming Hall of Fame,” it was Buck’s tireless efforts that established the International Swimming Hall of Fame’s presence in Fort Lauderdale, helping give rise to what many view as Fort Lauderdale—Swimming Capital of the World.  For a person who could not swim, Buck did more for swimming than any non-swimmer in the world.  He was a promoter, author, historian, fundraiser and prankster.

Dawson first got involved in swimming after his marriage to the late RoseMary Mann Dawson, daughter of University of Michigan’s Matt Mann, 1952 U.S. Olympic Swimming Coach.  RoseMary coached swimming at Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale for over 15 years. 

He was chosen as the International Swimming Hall of Fame’s first executive director in 1963 after helping Fort Lauderdale win the host city bid at the National AAU Convention in Detroit.  With the help of Fort Lauderdale pioneer G. Harold Martin, who wrote the Hall’s Charter, Dawson made the Hall grow from an idea to a shoebox collection and ultimately a million dollar operation as the showcase and archives of swimming.  A tireless, smiling, globetrotting ambassador of swimming, he can be credited with helping attract thousands of athletes, fans and press alike who flocked to Fort Lauderdale for sun, fun and swimming.  Visiting college swim teams training at the Hall of Fame spread the word up North that resulted in Fort Lauderdale’s annual Spring Break.

 It was Dawson who urged the YMCA in 1972 to bring their National Championships to Fort Lauderdale which is now is the largest annual National swimming event in numbers of athletes and spectators in the country.  The FINA International Diving Grand Prix, nationally televised for most of the past 28 years, is a Dawson creation as is the 38th Annual Fort Lauderdale Rough Water Swim, formerly International Swimming Hall of Fame Ocean Mile and Galt Ocean Mile Swims, and now the longest-running ocean mile swim on the eastern coast of the United States. At one time or another, he brought the U.S. National Championships of swimming, diving, synchronized swimming and water polo to Fort Lauderdale.  It was Dawson who gave the now Fort Lauderdale-based American Swimming Coaches Association roots in 1971 when he and Hall of Fame staff assumed administrative duties for ASCA.

Dawson was the first president of the International Sports Heritage Association, now a 136 member organization of Sports Halls of Fame which he founded under the name of International Association of Sports Museums and Halls of Fame.  His first meeting in Fort Lauderdale in 1971 had only two other organizations in attendance—the Hockey Hall of Fame of Canada and the Canadian Aquatic Hall of Fame.  Under Dawson’s leadership, ISHOF became the world’s first “International” Hall of Fame when it was recognized by the 96 member FINA Congress (the world’s governing body of swimming) in 1968.  ISHOF was also the first Hall of Fame to have the “field of play,” the swimming pool, on site.

Dawson traveled throughout the year from meet to meet armed with Fort Lauderdale and Hall of Fame brochures, books and bumper stickers, always spreading the word, always willing to talk and teach swimming to anyone who would listen.  As swimming’s walking encyclopedia, he was respected in his field not only for his knowledge, but his zest for life, his search for new facts, memorabilia, new ways to teach children to swim and keep the sport alive and growing.  Dawson was the link between the age group swimmers and swimming’s legends.  He brought Tarzan Johnny Weissmuller to Fort Lauderdale for six years as ISHOF’s Chairman of the Board.  Buster Crabbe, Eleanor Holm and Esther Williams were regulars.  Dawson was the common denominator that tied the past to the present.

Born on Halloween in 1920, in the same hospital room that produced swimming greats Bill Simon (USOC and ISHOF President), Ginny Duenkel (Olympic Swimming Champion), and Fort Lauderdale’s Alice and Dick Kempthorne of ISHOF and US Swimming Fame,  Buck was the son of Mr. and Mrs. Cecil Dawson of Easton, PA.  His father was President of Dixie Cup Company (and later went on to head the “Keep America Beautiful” Campaign) while Buck attended prep school at Blair Academy (NJ) where he was an all-state track captain and a state champion halfback on Blair’s undefeated football team.  His sports talent continued at the University of Michigan and included freshman football and running on the track team where his 880 yard relay team set an indoor world best time.  He was a member of Phi Gamma Delta.  He was elected to Michigauma, the senior honor society, and was managing editor of the Michigan Ensian Yearbook in 1948, his senior year. He completely re-organized the book from cover to cover and his writing career took off where in the next 55 years he wrote hundreds of short stories and authored or co-authored over 18 books on a full range of subjects from swimming, volcanoes and the environment, the American Civil War and World War II.  He received Michigan’s prestigious Hopwood Prize for Writing. Some of his books include A Civil War Artist From the Front (the work of Edwin Forbes, combat artist), When the Earth Explodes, Michigan Ensian (50 year history of Michigan Athletics), All About Dryland Exercises For Swimmers, Weissmuller to Spitz—An Era to Remember (Swimming Hall of Famers from 1965-1987), Age Group Swimming and Diving For Teacher and Pupil (with wife RoseMary), Million Dollar Mermaids—America’s Love Affair With Its First Women Swimmers, Gold Medal Pools (features the worlds most beautiful pools), We Don’t Sew Beads on Belts (a 500 page scrapbook of memories of Camps Chikopi and Ak-O-Mak) and Stand Up and Hook Up (his diary as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne).

Dawson was a combat platoon leader and glider trooper with Co. E, 235 GIR, Division Reconnaissance and Division Headquarters. He is a recipient of 17 decorations including the Bronze Star and French Medal of Honor. He landed at Nijmegen, Holland, on September 17, 1944, in Operations Market Garden, participated in the Battle of the Bulge and the crossing of the Siegfried Line, crossing the Elbe River and meeting the Russians at Grabow, Northern Germany. He also occupied Berlin, in charge of press relations for General James Gavin and the 82nd Division. Among his duties were to escort Marlene Dietrich and Ingrid Bergman through the city, to report the progress of the troops. In the process, he befriended Dietrich, serving as the liaison between her and her mother in occupied Berlin. He tried to impress Bergman by jumping off Hitler’s balcony when asked how Hitler may have escaped the raids.

 After the New York Victory Parade down Broadway, he wrote the Saga of the All American, the official history of the 82nd Airborne, a task assigned to him in England by General Matthew Ridgeway. His previous service with the 10th Mountain Division Ski Troops had given experience to handle deep snow in Ardennes Patrol. He returned to service during the Korean War as the public information officer for Army Air Support Center, publicity officer for National Army and Air Force Recruiting. He was a writer for Admiral Carney’s NATO command of southern Europe and editor of the Jayhawk (newspaper) for General Gavin’s V Corps, Germany. He spent his last Army year in Walter Reed Hospital recovering from multiple injuries suffered in a jeep accident. He was discharged from the hospital wearing a black eye patch over his left eye, a patch which became his identification mark for the rest of his life. He was a special assistant to the Director of the Peace Corp in the early 1970’s.

After the war, Dawson returned to Ann Arbor to complete his BA under the GI Bill, focusing his energy on Michigan’s Ensign Yearbook. As yearbook editor in 1948, Dawson traveled with Michigan’s first football team since 1902 to compete in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.  Marlene Dietrich and director Billy Wilder were there to greet Dawson as he was hoping for a break into the movies, which because of the rise of television, never materialized.  A $100 bet with Humphrey Bogart on a Dawson declared score of 50-0 horrified Dawson when Michigan only won by a 49-0 score.  He wondered how he would come up with the money to pay movies’ toughest guy.  On the set of Foreign Affair, Wilder was the one to say, “Don’t worry about it with only a one point difference.”

His 1955 marriage to RoseMary Mann Corson, a widow with three children, was his invitation to join the Mann family camps Ak-o-Mak (for girls) and Chikopi (for boys), the world’s first competitive swimming camps and located in Ontario, Canada, founded by RoseMary’s father, Michigan and Olympic swimming coach Matt Mann in 1920. Dawson was the campfire entertainment, sports teacher and instigator while RoseMary was the swimming coach, disciplinarian and philosopher—a perfect combination of talent.  Dawson was all outdoorsman, a sportsman, the kind of guy you can get lost in the woods with and laugh your head off before he finds your way back.  Campers still tell “Buck the Hero” stories.

Dawson’s interest in lake swimming led to his training swimmers for marathon swimming races and included Fort Lauderdale’s Diana Nyad as well as Marty Sinn, Susie Thrasher, Jocelyn Muir and more, taking them on crossings of the English Channel, Lake Ontario and other bodies of water.  The camp girls (and boys) competed in the U.S. Long Distance Championship Three and Four Mile Swims, each summer usually held in Huntington, Indiana.  His competitive spirit flowed into all that Dawson did at Ak-O-Mak and Chikopi including the inter-camp softball and soccer competitions—boys against girls.  In his later camp years, Dawson was a story teller, a cheerleader and biggest booster.  With his PR mind, he took Matt Mann’s words and put them to work—“We Don’t Sew Beads on Belts,” meaning camp is all action, all activity.

With Rosemary, he helped organize the Ann Arbor, Michigan, Swim Club in the late 1950’s, one of the country’s first swimming clubs for women. He was Chair of Michigan Women’s AAU Swimming for eight years and served three terms on the United States Olympic Swimming Committee.  He shared responsibility with RoseMary in starting National Collegiate Swimming for women and reviving National Women’s Water Polo in the early 1960’s.

Dawson followed RoseMary from Ann Arbor to London, Ontario in 1963, when she became the first women’s coach of any sport at the University of Western Ontario.  Then it was RoseMary’s turn to follow Buck the next year to Fort Lauderdale when Buck opened the International Swimming Hall of Fame.  By now they had four children, three daughters and one son.  Connie was an outstanding women’s swim coach. Marilyn made two Canadian Olympic swim teams winning a bronze medal in 1968 (4x100m freestyle) and serving as team captain in 1972. She won four Pan American and two Commonwealth Games medals.  Marci and Bruce were outstanding high school swimmers.  Marci pre-deceased her parents.

Dawson is hype, show business, a collector, historian, dog trainer, fund raiser and ladies man.  But most of all, he always got his kicks out of promoting somebody or something he believed in:  General Ridgeway, General Gavin, the 82nd Airborne, Camps Ak-O-Mak and Chikopi, the University of Michigan, his wife, children, father-in-law, and ultimately the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

A 45 year resident of Fort Lauderdale, Dawson was honored as Fort Lauderdale Distinguished Citizen of the Year in 1987, for his many contributions to the City.  Under his leadership, the ISHOF became the center of activity on the beach and the anchor for beach revitalization in the 1990’s. He received many honorary awards including the Wilbert E. Longfellow Commodore and Golden Whale for the promotion of water safety; the R. Max Ritter Award, the highest honor bestowed by U.S.A swimming; the W.R. “Bill” Schroeder Award, the most prestigious award from the International Sports Heritage Association; the Joseph G. Rogers Award, the National YMCA’s Grand Award; and the Davids/Wheeler Award for Meritorious Service to Long Distance Swimming.  He was inducted into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame as a coach/contributor and into his own International Swimming Hall of Fame as a contributor following retirement in 1986.  The International Swimming Hall of Fame recently announced the Buck Dawson Annual Author’s Award presented to the author of an inspiring book related to swimming.

A memorial gathering will be held on May 11 at the International Swimming Hall of Fame and in July at Camp Ak-o-Mak.  In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to the International Swimming Hall of Fame and Camp Ak-o-Mak. After 44 years of raising funds for ISHOF, this is Buck’s final fund raising project for his two favorite causes.

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Greg LouganisEraldo

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