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.