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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.