"We're finding as many uses for the Hall of Fame as we can," Dawson says. "We want people to know we're here." During my visit, the Swimming Hall of Fame was put to one use that seemed to carry the idea of a shrine to its logical conclusion: a Sunday-afternoon prayer meeting that Dawson allowed to be held on the Hall of Fame's lawn. On the Sunday before, similar religious services had to compete with preliminaries of the Miss Fort Lauderdale pageant, which were also being held on the lawn. Today, however, there were no such distractions, only the sight of yachts silently plying the Intracoastal Waterway in the distance.
There were six worshippers in all, gathered in fellowship to sing the praises of the Lord and to listen as a preacher, appropriately dressed in an aqua-colored suit, inveighed against the waywardness of "a lost and dying generation." They also heard the testimony of a slender blond youth with a guitar. "I used to be a worldly entertainer," he said in a faraway voice. "I thought all there was to life was making a bundle of money and having me a big car. But not too long ago, the Lord spoke to me. Now I know that's not where it's at." He paused and added softly: "Jesus is where it's at." Then he took up his guitar and led everybody in a hymn:
What a friend we have in Jesus, All our sins and griefs to bear....
As the worshippers let their spirits soar in song, one could only wonder: was there some similar yearning, some like hunger of the soul, that could explain these halls of fame? How else account for the fact that the PGA, until now content with operating its 31-year-old Golf Hall of Fame without a home, has a committee considering the creation of a museum to go with it? Or that soccer, whose history in this country has been less than glorious, has two rival groups seeking to build a national shrine? Or that a Pittsburgh fan named Joel Piatt has offered his personal collection of sports memorabilia—including 20,000 autographed pictures and 15,000 programs and score-cards—as a ready-made hall of fame to any "interested and dedicated benefactor"? Joel, in other words, has a shrine but needs an angel.
And what are we to make of a vacant lot in New Brunswick, N.J., the last stop on my pilgrimage? The 10-acre field, a grassy expanse across from Rutgers Stadium, has been donated virtually rent free by Rutgers University to the National Football Foundation, which has been raising money for a college football shrine since 1954, a mission that was carried out by a predecessor group for nearly a decade before that. Yet after a quarter century of such activity, and even though today the foundation has close to $2 million in its building fund, there is still no hall of fame erected on that field.
Instead, the foundation contentedly goes about its other business, and a substantial business it is. Operating out of rented offices in Manhattan and New Brunswick, it has 114 local chapters that confer awards on high school athletes and makes it its avowed goal to bridge, once and for all, the generation gap. The foundation inducts Hall of Fame members, 315 of them so far (including Jim Thorpe, naturally), at its annual $100-a-plate dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria, an affair attended by captains of industry and Presidents.
With the passage of time, the suspicion has taken hold at Rutgers that 78-year-old Chester La Roche, the retired New York adman who has headed the foundation from the start, does not really want the Hall of Fame at Rutgers, where the first college football game was played in 1869, but rather at Yale, where Quarterback Chester LaRoche graduated in 1918. LaRoche, whose paeans to the American dream are faithfully reprinted at length in foundation literature, responded earlier this month by announcing that George Murphy, the ex-California Senator, had been hired as the foundation's new president and charged with getting the shrine built at last.
As for the delays up to now, LaRoche clings to his ambitions for nothing less than a $4 million building, explaining, "We've waited this long. We should do it right if we're going to do it at all." Meanwhile, the empty field was all there was for me to visit. It was dusk when I arrived, and the gathering darkness made it necessary to strain to make out a large sign, weathered and peeling, that read: ON THIS SITE WILL BE ERECTED THE FOOTBALL HALL OF FAME OF THE NATIONAL FOOTBALL FOUNDATION. It Seemed more a monument to futility than to football, but the setting did have at least one advantage over many of the other halls of fame. There was no shortage of parking space.
Back in New York a letter arrived from Buck Dawson, who had found another use for the Swimming Hall of Fame: he was organizing the directors of all the halls of fame into a national association and had already scheduled a meeting for Fort Lauderdale. The first impulse was to warn the unsuspecting Dawson that any such venture ran the risk of being hopelessly dominated by bowling, a sport with a national hall of fame in Milwaukee plus at least 100 state and local shrines.
I decided against attending the meeting, although the temptation was great. After all, what if a representative had showed up from the National Sports-casters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame of Salisbury, N.C.? And what if by chance I had found myself in his company, perhaps on chairs Dawson had us all carry to the beach? Might not this fellow have discerned in me some faint promise of immortality? We will never know, of course, but what unworthy pilgrim would not blush at the very thought?