William Forrest (Buck) Dawson, the son of the then vice-president of the Dixie Cup Company (his father went on to be president of Dixie and to head the "Keep America Beautiful" campaign) came to the U-M in 1939 from his home in Easton, Pa. He hit the campus big time and became vice-president, by his count, "of over 17 extracurricular activities," to the detriment of his studies.
"I flunked out the third year by never going to class," Dawson says. "I was Mr. Joe College, but my studies suffered. Fortunately, there was an unwritten law that if you went away to serve in the Army, you would get another chance."
So Dawson enlisted as a private in 1942 and volunteered for overseas duty, ending up in the infantry glider troops in the 82nd Airborne Division, making his entrance into Holland in the September 17, 1944, invasion at the end of a long cable pulled behind a C-47 "Dakota." "'Look, Hermann, no motors.' That's what we used to say," Dawson says of the Yanks' dig at Goering, head of the Nazi air forces. "The gliders were pulled by planes, and they'd cut us loose and we'd crash into the ground. The landing could kill you if there were jeeps or howitzers on board. But ours carried just 14 men, and we landed in a sugar beet patch and only tipped over."
Once in Holland, whipped up by a kind of bravado engendered by the intensity of the war, Dawson, who thought of himself as a "poor man's" version of the actor Pat O'Brien, embarked on the first of his film-struck adventures.
Maj. Gen. James M. Gavin, commander of the division, sent Dawson to Paris to get the story of America's achievements--specifically the 82nd's Dutch campaign--back to the press. He drove through a British tank column in a captured German car that once belonged to none other than "Look, Hermann" Göering, himself. "The press guys in Paris got a kick out of it. They dared me to go see Marlene Dietrich, who'd just arrived and was staying at the Ritz. I put on the dirtiest combat stuff I could find, didn't shave, carried my parachute, carbine and helmet. Then I went to the Ritz and told those rear-echelon b*****ds who'd never seen combat that General Gavin had sent me and I wanted to see Dietrich.
"'Absolutely not,' a fat major said. I sent up a note and waited. There was a hush and there she was, sashaying down the big circular staircase. I went up to her, talking fast because I assumed I wouldn't have much time: 'I'm Lieutenant Dawson . . .'
"'Let's go into the dining room and have tea,' she replied. All those colonels in full dress and I'm filthy. We start talking. I made up this proposition: She should come up to Holland as guest of General Gavin and the 82nd Airborne, to be the first German and the most famous legs to go into Germany we'd taken Bergendahl near the Dutch border.
"She said it was impossible, 'a prisoner of the Army,' she put it that way 'I'm their guest and I have obligations, but first chance I get, I'll come up, I promise.'
"She autographed this big picture. All the time I'm surrounded by people staring daggers at me. I drank my tea and got the hell out of there."
In France, Dawson helped organize a war bond contest to "get rid of some of the back pay." "We'd go into Rhiems," he recalls, "to spend money and end up fighting each other. That #%*@! Patton had commandeered our new jump boots for his truckers, so we dragged them out of their cabs and took our boots off their feet.
"A recon guy and I went to Paris to take the war bond money to the finance headquarters. Marlene was there at the George V hotel with [French actor] Jean Gabin and gave me a pair of garters to use as publicity for the war bond drive with a trip to the states as the prize."
He got back from Paris just in time to move out for the Battle of the Bulge ("terrible conditions, lots of our guys got killed"). In its European campaign, the 82nd Airborne liberated Holland and fought its way through the Bulge, meeting the Soviet troops 60 miles across the Elbe. Dawson was present at the liberation of the Ludwigslust concentration camp.
It was a welcome antidote to see Dietrich driving into camp near Cologne in a general's staff car. Keeping her promise, she asked for Dawson, telling everyone within earshot, "'I wouldn't be here if not for him,'" Dawson says. "My platoon was just amazed. My battalion commander was furious. 'We can't have all these disruptions,' he said."
The next day Dawson was transferred back to division headquarters and Gavin gave him a job as public relations officer. Maj. Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway had previously assigned him to write the 82nd Airborne's history, and he published that book, Saga of the All-American, in 1946.
With the liberation of Berlin, Dawson was able to return Dietrich's favor. Dietrich, who detested the Nazis, left Germany in the 1930s, but her mother, Josephine von Losch, had lived out the war in Berlin. "Marlene gave me a 'care package' to take to her mother, and she took more care of me than I did of her, and we became great friends."
The press job not only got him out of combat but also into a position to meet more of the great and famous, who began to throng through occupied Berlin. Martha Gellhorn, then married to Ernest Hemingway, became a friend and contributed a preface to his book. Ingrid Bergman, touring with Jack Benny, was so reserved that to impress her as he guided her around the war-torn city, "I jumped off Hitler's balcony and nearly drove my legs up through my chest," Dawson say.
But best of all, he got a job offer. Marlene Dietrich urged Wilder, "'You have to get this man signed, Billy. He has the best press agent's mind I've seen,'" Dawson remembers. Wilder promised him a job at Paramount.
The Roses of January Fade by June
With four bronze stars and a goal for his future, Dawson returned to Ann Arbor to complete his BA, one of the millions of war veterans who swarmed onto the nation's campuses after the war, thanks to the GI Bill. So many, in fact, that he and his roommate, Dick Wakefield, the Tigers' American League batting champion, couldn't find a room on campus.
Dawson placed an ad, "Are your evenings long and dull? Do you need company? We laugh at all jokes and won't study if it bothers you. All we need is a room." They got almost 20 offers.
Dawson focused his boisterous energy on the Ensian. The yearbook hadn't made money for seven years, so when the board chose him as managing editor, he offered a deal. "They paid a small salary--$300--but I told them I didn't want any salary, just half the profits. They agreed and it made $3,200-$1,600 for me.
"We filled the office with volunteers from all the fraternities and sororities and made it an all-around promotion office. To prove it was superbly bound, we threw it off the roof of the Michigan Union tower. Of course, as a paratrooper I knew how to tie it and how to rig a little parachute."
With less success but maximum exposure, he lobbied the Rose Bowl authorities to choose a queen not from Pasadena, as was traditional, but from Michigan. He personally nominated Ann Gestie, the fiancee of his friend, All-American tailback Bob Chappuis. Her photograph appeared on the front page of the Los Angeles Times as "Overlooked Michigan Beauty," but the Pasadena women remained queens.
With graduation a mere formality the next June ("since I was allowed to graduate without a major or a foreign language"), Dawson set out with the team to celebrate the new year in Hollywood.
It was during these champagne days, partly financed by auctioning off at Paramount a football he'd had signed by the Michigan team, that Dawson arrived on the set of Foreign Affair to see Billy Wilder about the promised publicity job Marlene Dietrich had touted him for. Wilder not only reiterated his offer, but "also offered the use of his Cadillac while I was out there," Dawson says.
But everything fizzled between January and June. When he hit Hollywood after graduation, Dawson recalls, "Movies were in a depression due to TV; all the live stuff was moving to New York. Hollywood panicked and tried to come up with things like cinemascope to offset TV. I went out to talk to Billy Wilder, and he said he couldn't get me a job. Publicity and public relations men were out of work, so they were not about to hire someone untried.
"Instead of the supreme confidence I had that I could do anything that I got from bouncing around in the Army, the ball went flat. My whole thinking was geared to movies, nurtured all my life. I stayed on, playing volleyball on Santa Monica Beach with Peter Lawford, [Rams quarterback] Bob Waterfield, Jane Russell and people like that. I stayed there six months and then went back east with my tail between my legs and took a job selling hosiery through vending machines for Roman Stripe, and then with Vicks."
Trying to regain the excitement of nine years of student and army life, Dawson rejoined the Army in Europe during the Korean war and was in on the beginning of NATO. A terrible jeep accident in 1954, a long hospitalization in Walter Reed and a lost eye put an end to that.
Plunging Back Into the Swim of Things
Where could he go on shaky legs but back to Ann Arbor? This, his third stint at Michigan, saw a different, more serious student. He took writing classes, and his memoirs of the war won a Hopwood writing prize. And at a lecture at Hill, he found a wife. It was there he ran into Rosemary Mann Corson whom he'd dated years before. Rosemary, a widow with three children, was the daughter of Matt Mann, Michigan's swimming coach from 1925 to 1954. Buck and Rosemary married in 1955, when they were both 35, Rosemary wearing the other pink garter that Marlene Dietrich had given Dawson.
The Mann family ran Camp Ak-o-Mak in Ontario, Canada, and this was a way of life that Dawson easily fit into. "Since I was 10, I never missed a year camping. Working with kids is the sober underpinning of my crazy life. Rosemary always says she doesn't know whether I married her for herself or the camp," Dawson jokes.
Rosemary became a women's swimming coach, and at the camp they trained top swimmers, including Marty Sinn, Susie Thrasher and Diana Nyad. They also founded the Ann Arbor Swim Club, providing competitive opportunities for women swimmers at a time when the University's physical education program didn't support women's competition. Dawson also found time to publish more books on topics ranging from Edwin Forbes's Civil War sketches to surveys of notable swimming pools.
Swimming led Dawson to the final chapter of his career. In his work with the Amateur Athletic Union he urged the creation of the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, and was its first director from 1965 to 1988. He is now director emeritus.
"To establish an International Hall of Fame took great vision and energy," says current ISHOF president Dr. Samuel J. Freas. "I was fortunate enough to inherit a viable and solvent institution from Buck. It's his enduring legacy. It really is a shrine and center for the aquatic sports world, a place for everyone who swims," Freas continues. "People are moved to be inducted into this hall of heroes."
Now retired, Buck and Rosemary divide their time between Camp Ak-o-Mak and Ft. Lauderdale.