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Original Issue


Swimming's Hall of Fame was floundering until Buck Dawson, who can barely stay afloat himself, turned on the ballyhoo with gimmicks like his seal and a Spitz named Mark

The camera-packing family of live consulted urgently outside the International Swimming Hall of Fame, uncertain about entering. Suddenly the door flew open, and into the sunlight of the balmy Fort Lauderdale day stepped a piratical figure in a black eye patch. It was Buck Dawson, the hall's executive director. "I'll let you all in for three bucks and I'll throw in free skin-diving books for the kids," Dawson said. And he ushered the visitors inside, grinning unashamedly as the father reached for his wallet.

The family admission rate at the hall is always $3 and Dawson's proffered skin-diving books were moldering with age, but he honestly believes that everybody should visit swimming's sacred shrine—and he is not above a bit of oversell in that cause. And who can blame him? Cooperstown and Canton may bask in the reflected glory of big-league professional sport, but the pilgrim will also find inspiration at the Swimming Hall of Fame, a $1.5-million complex consisting of a handsome whitewashed museum next door to an Olympic-size municipal pool, all of it splendidly situated beside the wide Intracoastal Waterway.

Unfortunately, the Fort Lauderdale shrine is forced to compete with horse racing, jai alai and all the other giddy enticements of Florida's Gold Coast, not the least being the beach barely a block away. In a place so hedonistically caught up in the present, a tourist attraction devoted to the past can be easily overlooked. Besides hustling customers at the front door, Dawson combats this situation by valiantly promoting the hall with productions so lavish they all but collapse under their own weight. Indeed, no sooner had he settled into his job in 1964 than he was nearly fired by the shrine's board of directors, whose sensibilities were offended by a couple of his more ambitious water shows.

One early extravaganza was the dedication of the hall's pool, a year after Dawson became executive director. It was his idea to empty into the new pool bottles of water drawn from the English Channel, the several oceans and Olympic pools the world over. Dawson also included a bottle of rainwater, which he insisted on calling "water from heaven," whereupon it was solemnly poured by a pro wrestler billed as the French Angel. Then Dawson trotted out Ted Williams, that noted sport fisherman, who reeled in three harnessed and struggling swimmers. As the festivities reached the four-hour mark, the restless audience hooted and whistled. A befuddled Dawson neglected to introduce Sam Snead and Julius Boros, two of the many celebrities he had indiscriminately invited.

At that, Snead and Boros may have fared better than Johnny Weissmuller, whom Dawson persuaded to settle in Fort Lauderdale at one point to help promote the Hall of Fame. Dawson often seemed less interested in Weissmuller's swimming career than in his subsequent role as filmdom's Tarzan. Another water show featured a monkey that Dawson passed off as Cheetah, a ruse exposed when the animal rudely relieved himself on Tarzan's shoulder. Weissmuller suffered the further indignity of sharing top billing with the horse that the White Knight had ridden in TV commercials for Ajax.

Having somehow survived these excesses, Dawson now admits, "My trouble when I first arrived in Florida was that I didn't know when to stop. There usually wasn't enough, well, economy to what I did. For a while there I guess I thought I was Flo Ziegfeld."

Despite this chastened air, it is with undiminished zeal that Dawson rents out the hall's auditorium for sock hops, weddings and meetings of a local seashell club. He briefly let an evangelist use the palm-fringed lawn for revival meetings, and enlivens the annual induction of immortals with a footprint-in-cement ceremony à la Grauman's Chinese Theatre. Dawson has also shamelessly exploited the shrine's 12-ton abstract statue inspired by Mark Spitz, which he unveiled last summer, dedicated a few months later and now talks of christening. Then there is Spitz' inevitable induction into the Hall of Faint when the mandatory five-year waiting period ends in 1977. All this is in addition to the dog that Dawson has adopted as the shrine's official mascot, a 2-year-old Spitz named, naturally, Mark.

Because of his flair for ballyhoo, it is tempting to mistake Dawson for just another of Fort Lauderdale's wheeler-dealer promoters. There is the fact that Dawson, who swims none too well himself, got into the sport only through marriage, after working in such disparate capacities as publicist and hosiery salesman. There also is that sinister eye patch He injured his left eye in an auto accident two decades ago and now makes the condition his trademark by sketching an eye patch when signing his name. He delights in being taken for Israel's Moshe Dayan, the resemblance owing as much to a receding hairline and snaggletoothed grin as to the patch. Visiting Expo 67 in Montreal, Dawson stopped at the Israeli pavilion, where he caused the desired sensation. More recently, passing through a Fort Lauderdale hotel lobby he overheard a woman whisper, "Isn't that Moshe Dayan?" Dawson waved and said, "Shalom."

With equal audacity Dawson has labeled Hall of Fame parking places with the names of Weissmuller and such other celebrated ex-swimmers as Eleanor Holm and Buster Crabbe, leaving the impression that all might be arriving in then cars at any moment. Weissmuller became a greeter at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, but his name still graces the door to what is ostensibly his old Hall of Fame office. The door, in fact, opens onto a storage closet.

For all that, Dawson has an ingenuous air about him that makes him seem less huckster than prankster. Despite a cornball sense of humor and occasional lapses of taste, he comes across as nothing so much as a 53-year-old fraternity boy. "I'm not hung up on that dignity stuff the way some people are," he says. "I like to have fun. But I'm trying to entertain people, not fool them." Significantly, it is usually Dawson himself who reveals to visitors the truth about Weissmuller's "office."

Certainly nobody can suggest that Dawson took his job for the money. The swimming hall languished during its early years, and annual paid attendance has not yet exceeded 6,000. As recently as 1971 Dawson earned less than $9,000 and could truthfully say of his periodic difficulties with the hall's directors, "The only reason they didn't fire me is that nobody else would take the job for the salary they offered."

Determined to brighten the financial picture, Dawson tried an endless succession of fund-raising gimmicks, most of which failed miserably. Then, borrowing a scheme that had been used by clubs in Canada, he came up with Swim-A-Thons, in which swimmers elicit pledges from parents and neighbors to contribute a penny for every practice lap completed. The youngster's club was to keep 70%, with 5% going to charity, another 5% to the International Travel Fund for U.S. swim teams and—ah!—20% to the Hall of Fame. Astonishingly, $120,000 poured into Dawson's office in 1972 and $212,000 more last year. Suddenly, the swim shrine was solvent, a status achieved by very few sports halls of fame.

Reveling in sudden prosperity, the board of directors recently raised Dawson's salary to $18,000. Instead of cries for his scalp, suggestions are now heard that he is some sort of madcap genius. "Nobody could have ridden out the tough years the way Buck did," exults Board Chairman Charles Silvia, the swim coach at Springfield College.

Buoyed by such unaccustomed flattery, it is in an upbeat mood that Dawson, shirtless in hopes of improving his tan, drives his battered Mustang convertible these days to the Hall of Fame. Slipping into his shirt as he enters, he banters with employees and visitors. Spying Sharon Morgan, the tall, slender manager of the hall's bookstore, he whispers in an aside, "We stole her from the Basketball Hall of Fame." If a group of schoolchildren is on hand, he will lead the youngsters on a guided tour, another of his many functions.

A typical Dawson tour yields a trove of oddball information, some of it possibly true. Whisking the visitors past ubiquitous swimsuits and trophies, he breathlessly assures them that Ethelda Bleibtrey was the first champion swimmer to bob her hair. He confides that Betty Becker Pinkston was the only diver to win a national championship while pregnant with twins. He reveals that Canada's Pierre Trudeau was "the first chief of state to swim the butterfly stroke." Other sports shrines may treat their immortals as godlike, but Dawson also advises the kiddies which famous woman swimmer died of alcoholism, having made the mistake of giving up water for Scotch.

Suddenly, in mid-tour, Dawson points to a large photo above a drinking fountain. It shows a bare-chested Weissmuller swooping through the trees. "Know how Tarzan got his famous cry?" he asks. He turns on the fountain and the water arcs upward, seemingly into Weissmuller's loincloth. Everybody laughs, nobody more delightedly than Dawson himself.

His enthusiasm for his work has enabled Dawson to overcome his late start and become one of swimming's leading authorities. Still, he remains above all a promoter. It has been said about Dawson, as about other successful tub-thumpers, that of every hundred ideas he dreams up, only one is worthwhile. Yet Richard (Moon) Mullins, a Fort Lauderdale public-relations man, marvels that "in Buck's case even the bad ideas seem to work." Mullins is an old friend who lends a hand at promoting the hall, all the while insisting that Dawson scarcely needs such help.

"Buck has an innate instinct for attracting attention," Mullins says. "I don't know how he gets away with some of the things he does. My only contribution is to tone him down a little."

One of Dawson's more outlandish ideas was a proposed canine swimming race called the Dog-Paddle Derby. A compulsive punster (of a woman vocalist who performs at hall functions, he says, "She's a diva, not a swimmer"), he decreed that lapdogs would be ineligible for what, after all, would be a one-lap race. Dawson was finally muzzled by city officials, who protested that the event would violate health ordinances. The idea nevertheless reaped a bonanza of publicity, including a headline in the Miami Herald: DERBY CANCELED, IT'S A DOGGONE SHAME.

Considering his naughty-boy air, it is not really surprising to learn that Dawson was born on Halloween, the year being 1920. He grew up in Easton, Pa., where his father, Cecil, was president of the Dixie Cup Company. Dawson tells of having been a shrinking violet as a boy. He gained confidence as a track star and football scatback at New Jersey's Blair Academy, and after enrolling at the University of Michigan in 1939 frenetically signed up for what he remembers with unblinking precision to be 17 extracurricular activities. But being a BMOC took its toll in grades and soon he ended up in just one activity: World War II.

Lieut. William Dawson was a much-decorated glider trooper who landed in Holland and marched into Berlin with the famed 82nd Airborne. Today, however, he prefers talking about publicity work he performed at division headquarters. He recounts the time he secured Marlene Dietrich's autograph on a pair of pink satin garters for a GI war-bond rally, and of escorting Ingrid Bergman on a tour of ravaged Berlin after the war. "For some reason I've always been a hero-worshiper," he says. This may explain why, anxious to impress Bergman, he jumped off Hitler's balcony during a visit to the Reich Chancellery.

"I really racked myself up," he says. "My legs were up in my chest, and I was sore for weeks. The next year, 1947, I was back in the States and I saw Bergman on Broadway. I went backstage and she said, 'Oh, you're the damn fool who jumped off Hitler's balcony.' Then I knew it had been worth it."

Returning to Michigan, Dawson finally graduated in 1948, but not before scouring the campus as a talent scout for a West Coast modeling agency (or so he represented himself to impressionable coeds). He also arranged a tryout with the Detroit Tigers for a young prospect who promptly disappeared after purging the team's Florida training camp of wallets and jewelry. An ill-fated scheme to sell nylons in vending machines followed, after which Dawson was hired by Vick's with the grand title of assistant product manager for cough drops and inhalers. After the outbreak of the Korean War, Dawson wound up in the Army in Europe again, and it was during this hitch hat he suffered his eye injury. The head-on collision came in 1953 on a winding road in Germany while Dawson was driving, he says mysteriously, to meet a countess.

Dawson has written books on subjects ranging from the Civil War to volcanoes, and his most productive output came during his convalescence from the auto accident. Back in Ann Arbor in 1955, he met Rose Mary Mann Corson, a recently widowed mother of three. Rose Mary was the daughter of Matt Mann, Michigan's illustrious swimming coach, and had gone out with Buck once as a Michigan freshman. "We took a bus to a fraternity party," she recalls. "Buck sang and showed off the whole trip. He was obnoxious."

After the '55 meeting, they were married. Plunging into his father-in-law's sport, Dawson organized the Ann Arbor Swim Club, which under Rose Mary's coaching became a power in the late '50s. Rose Mary is a bright, lively woman who now says, "Buck didn't work, but he made sure that I did."

Dawson kept busy enough. He joined his wife as co-director of the girls' camp that Matt Mann had founded in northern Ontario in the 1920s. There he began training marathon swimmers (he modestly declines to call himself a coach), eventually developing two campers, Marty Sinn and Diana Nyad, into world-record holders. Camp Ak-O-Mak's emphasis on sports rather than handicrafts is reflected in its motto: "We don't sew beads on belts." The words were Matt Mann's, spoken before his death in 1962, but the inspiration to make like Madison Avenue with them was, naturally, Buck Dawson's.

Dawson was also chairman of the AAU committee to select a Hall of Fame site, a role that led to his own selection as the new shrine's executive director. The choice of Fort Lauderdale was as logical as any: the city is the Venice of America, so called because it is honeycombed with canals, and it has long been a Christmas training center for college swim teams. Visiting swimmers, in fact, are credited with spreading the word up north that resulted in Fort Lauderdale's annual Easter invasion of beer-guzzling undergraduates.

As for Buck Dawson, his was more like a one-man invasion. Operating temporarily out of Fort Lauderdale's Buckeye Building, an aptly named headquarters for a one-eyed fellow named Buck, he soon was making news with widely trumpeted revelations that Ben Franklin had been a swimming coach and oceanographer. Dawson later engineered Franklin's induction into the hall, lauding him, incontrovertibly, as "the only honoree with his picture on legal tender." The 135 honorees inducted so far also include Esther Williams, who was immortalized over protests that her competitive record was actually quite mortal.

Confessed hero-worshiper that he is, Dawson says, "Esther Williams' movies did more to promote swimming than anything I can think of. Besides, I like to create an aura about our honorees."

Besides swim meets, weddings and the rest, the irrepressible Dawson has made the shrine headquarters for both the Swim Facility Operators Association of America and the American Swimming Coaches Association. Referring to swimming as "the mother activity," he decks the hall with exhibits on almost anything remotely related to water: canoeing, ocean currents, irrigation, driftwood.

It has been suggested that Dawson spreads himself too thin. "Buck doesn't know how to delegate authority," says G. Harold Martin, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer and Hall of Fame booster. Martin notes that Dawson writes and edits the hall's yearbook, which is invariably filled with misspellings. He also complains that Dawson leaves in the summer to run Camp Ak-O-Mak and is frequently away at other times collecting memorabilia and money.

But nobody questions Dawson's dedication to his work. "Buck used to come before our conventions and say, 'Let me talk about the hall for five minutes—I promise not to mention money,' " recalls John Spannuth, a former AAU national aquatics administrator and now head of the Kennedy Foundation's Special Olympics. "Then he'd beg for money for 40 minutes. Now everybody is careful to schedule him last on the agenda." Though few in swimming have failed to hear his pitch a dozen times, Dawson complains, "Half the audience has left by the time I speak. How can I get my message across?"

There is an urgency about Dawson that becomes particularly pronounced during the hall's annual induction festivities in December. At the most recent ceremony he seemed to be everywhere at once. It was a sharp-eyed Dawson, for example, who caught the Pepsi man delivering 100 cases to the hall instead of the 100 cans that had been ordered. It was Dawson, too, who arrived the morning of the induction dinner to oversee installation of loudspeakers for a planned phone call from a Las Vegas hospital where Johnny Weissmuller was recovering from a broken hip.

"Are you the telephone man?" Dawson demanded, rushing up to a bewildered tourist visiting the hall with his wife.

At another moment, Dawson misplaced his speech. "Buck even loses his eye patch," sighed Rose Mary Dawson, marshaling her children (besides the three by her first marriage, she and Buck have a 14-year-old daughter) to look for it. The speech was found, Weissmuller phoned that night as planned ("Give my best to the whole bunch"), and 10 honorees were solemnly inducted to musical fanfare provided by Pele Tiki and her Hawaiians. The ladies in long dresses and gents in jackets and ties seemed only mildly surprised when Dawson, not content with Mark the Spitz, led out a trained seal named Salty and formally designated him "the official seal of the Hall of Fame Corporation."

Next morning the hall sponsored a mile-long ocean swim off Fort Lauderdale's shore. Dawson offered a lift to the event to Jim Havender, a retired lawyer who at 82 bills himself as the World's Oldest Lifeguard (SI, June 18, 1973). Afterward. Dawson blithely drove off alone, leaving Havender, whose shirt and shoes were in the car, to hitch a ride home by himself.

Dawson also seemed distracted as he journeyed a few days later to a more distant destination, Everglades City on Florida's Gulf Coast. Though he had made the 100-mile trip many times, he got to talking and somehow drove 40 miles out of his way. Discovering the error, he stopped at a rest area, where he absently walked into the ladies' room.

At length Dawson reached Everglades City, a drowsy fishing hamlet where he had recently sunk most of his savings, buying up a bank and an inn, both abandoned. Once a lively place where three Presidents—Hoover, Truman and Eisenhower—went deep-sea fishing, Everglades City was devastated by Hurricane Donna in 1960, a blow compounded when the county seat moved to Naples two years later. Buck Dawson hopes to rejuvenate the town, a dream he spun beneath a slowly revolving fan in the Everglades cafe.

"This is where I'd live if I had my druthers," Dawson told some locals in the cafe. "In the meantime, I'm going to make that bank into a tourist attraction. It'll include a Presidential Fishing Hall of Fame and the world's largest collection of stuffed fish. And you know that banyan tree outside?" The locals nodded blankly. "We'll run a ramp up it and turn it into Johnny Weissmuller's Treehouse Art Gallery."

An hour later Dawson was conferring with Mayor Mildred Cooke, a chainsmoking woman whose backcountry manner was belied by white patent boots and tight slacks. "This is where I'd live if I had my druthers," Dawson said.

"We hope to encourage you in your plans here, Mr. Dawson," replied the mayor.

Suddenly Dawson drew back. "I really mean to do some of these things," he hedged. "The only question is when."

On the drive back to Fort Lauderdale, Dawson elaborated, "There's something about Everglades City that I love, but I don't want those people to think I'm just another big talker. I'm just so pressed for time. My life is like a delicatessen. I need a lot on the shelves."

It may be that Dawson is simply unable to spread himself any thicker. Besides his plans for Everglades City, he has talked lately of enlisting clergymen for a "blessing" of Fort Lauderdale's fleet of pleasure boats and of finally doing something about the Hall of Fame's attendance, perhaps by putting up directional signs on highways. Also awaiting action is a suggestion that Moon Mullins passed along to Dawson one afternoon in the Hall of Fame lobby. Concerned lest Mark the Spitz and Salty the Seal get lonely, Mullins inquired, "Hey, how about a mascot named Buster the Crab?"

"Great!" cried Dawson. "Let's do it!" Moving to a spot near the front door, he said, "We'll put the crab in a tank right here." Then he howled. As the laughter rattled through the lobby, a couple of pilgrims poked their heads around a corner to see who in swimming's sacred shrine was causing the unholy commotion.