Rex Beach ’97 ’27H, circa 1894
The beginning of the 2012 Olympic games brings to mind the story of Rex Beach, often cited as the College’s first alumnus to win an Olympic medal. In his memoir, Personal Exposures (Harper & Brothers, 1940), Beach wrote that he had a job selling firebrick in 1904, the first year that the Olympic games were held in the United States. Although he complained that the samples he had to carry were heavy, he was pleased that his job took him to St. Louis, which “offered me an excuse to do something I had long wanted to do; viz., compete in the Olympic games.” But did he?
The 1904 Summer Olympics were held as part of the St. Louis World’s Fair (the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition). As a result, “every athletic contest that took place under the Fair’s auspices was deemed ‘Olympic,'” according to Bill Mallon’s book The 1904 Olympic Games (McFarland, 2009). The confusion over what was actually an Olympic competition that year remains with us even today.
At the time, Rex Beach was a member of the Chicago Athletic Association, an organization he called “athletic in name only,” but which he was eager to join so that he could eat at its well-provisioned training table. He began there by playing football, a game he had never even seen, but claimed to know well. At the end of the season, “in a frantic effort to remain an athletic member and eat meat,” he joined the aquatic team. This was a much better fit for him, as he could swim “pretty well” and “had majored in fancy diving.”
Rex Beach diving, in undated photo
In St. Louis, Rex Beach competed both as an individual–winning the one-mile handicap swimming race–and as a member of the Chicago Athletic Association’s water polo team. Unfortunately, handicap races are not counted as Olympic events. As for the water polo match, “There is no justification whatsoever for calling this sport an Olympic one in 1904,” according to Bill Mallon. Mallon writes that a German team wanted to compete in this event, but was not allowed to, because its members were not part of a single club, “and by itself this should disqualify the sport from Olympic consideration in 1904.” The International Olympic Committee also considers this match an exhibition game, so even though Beach’s team placed second, they did not win an Olympic silver medal.
If Beach was disappointed, he made no mention of it in his memoir. He led quite an eventful life, prospecting for gold in Alaska and eventually finding fame as the author of adventure novels, some of which were made into films. His book The Spoilers was a bestseller in 1906 and made into a movie five times.
A poster for the 1930 film version of The Spoilers, starring Gary Cooper
Beach returned to Rollins many times over the years, participating in the College’s Animated Magazine and receiving an honorary degree in 1927. He also served as president of the Alumni Association from 1927 to 1940. One of his memories of his student days at Rollins, recounted in detail in his memoir, happens to involve diving. On a group outing to a nearby spring, he hoped to impress a particular girl. The group set out, and began by eating lunch “under the magnolias and the distrustful glare of a chaperone who had eyes in the back of her head.” As he tells it:
“Mixed eating was permitted at Rollins, but coeducational bathing was taboo. The faculty probably considered it no less shocking than strip poker. We boys had brought our suits, however, and during the heat of the afternoon we refreshed the girls by allowing them to watch us cavort in the cool, clear depths.
My light of love had never seen me dive, and anticipation of the thrill she was about to enjoy doubled my vigor, put new strength into my legs. I determined to dive higher and farther than anybody and to remain so long under water that panic would ensue. I did precisely that. In a manner of speaking I dived completely out of that vicinity. I leaped so high, wide and handsome that I missed the deep hole and all but vanished into the bushes on the dry bank beyond. I rose from the spring board like an arrow from a long bow and, like an arrow I clove the shallows, ramming myself up to the armpits in the bottom. No bad habit was ever harder to get out of and when I finally floated to the surface like a spent grampus it was to hear in the far distance the faint clamor of shrieks.
From forelock to brisket I was skinned!”
Rex Beach eventually bought a ranch in Sebring, Florida, where he took an active interest in farming. Sadly, his health failed in his later years, and suffering from throat cancer, he took his own life in December 1949. He and his wife, Greta, are buried on the Rollins campus, near the Alumni House.
Although he never won an Olympic medal, he was one of a kind, and we are proud to claim him as an alumnus.
~ by D. Moore, Archival Specialist
To read more about Rex Beach, please visit our Golden Personalities page located at: http://ow.ly/bHoT30kRHxN.