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
: 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.