Olympic Gold Medal Winner Jim Dunbar

By Butch Dale

How many people from Montgomery County have ever won an Olympic medal? Well, as far as I can tell…just two. One was basketball star Howie Williams, a 1945 New Ross graduate, who was a four year starter for Purdue and a member of the U.S. Olympic basketball team that won a gold medal at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland. (I will write a column about Howie later on.) The other medal winner was Jim Dunbar, a 1948 Darlington High School graduate, who won his gold medal at those same 1952 Olympics as a member of the U.S. men’s eight-man rowing crew. So how did a farm boy from Darlington earn this great honor?

James “Jim” Dunbar was an excellent student. He participated in sports, but although he was physically very strong, Jim was not considered an outstanding athlete. He concentrated on his studies, and planned to attend college and possibly pursue a military career. After one year at Purdue, Jim was elated to receive an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy. While at the academy, Jim wanted to play football, but he had no experience, and the football coach encouraged him to try out for the rowing team. Crew coach Rusty Callow was unhappy with the current team at that time, and he dismissed all of them. He then selected several cadets who he thought might be good rowers and had them take various physical tests, subsequently picking eight new men for the rowing team, with Jim chosen as one of the new oarsmen. These eight boys, some of whom had no rowing experience, practiced mornings and evenings six days a week, rowing over 5,000 miles that first year! Jim handled the number four oar during these grueling workouts.

This Navy crew opened the 1952 season with a 19-second victory over Yale. The Midshipmen then won their next five races, defeating a total of eight teams along the way, winning each race by at least two boat lengths. Coach Callow was a master psychologist, and he pushed these young men to their limits. They ended the 1952 season undefeated, and were eager to qualify to represent the United States at the summer Olympics. At the Olympic trials, the Navy boys were successful, defeating Princeton by nine seconds in the finals and setting a trials record in the 2,000-meter course. At the games in Helsinki, the crew was determined to win. They moved through the competition, winning each race, and made it to the finals where they faced a strong Russian crew. Their practice, dedication, strategy and abilities paid off as they defeated Russia to win the gold medal!

This eight-man crew stayed together for the next three years, with no other rowing team defeating them in 29 races. In fact, no other team was ever ahead of them in any race . . . a feat unmatched in any sport at the Naval Academy. They are considered by many to be the best eight-man rowing team in U.S. sports history. These exceptional athletes became known as “The Great Eight.”

After graduating from the Naval Academy, Jim was commissioned to the U.S. Air Force, where he first became a test pilot for experimental aircraft, and then spent the remainder of his career as a fighter pilot, retiring as a full Colonel in 1982. He flew his beloved F-105 Thunderchief fighter jet in combat, completing over 100 successful missions during the Vietnam War. Jim received the Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star and 10 other medals. Upon his retirement, he coached high school rowing teams in Virginia and helped raise money for the local teams. The Great Eight crew had several reunions through the years, and remained as an inspiration to succeeding rowers.

Jim Dunbar passed away in May of 2018 at the age of 88 at his home in Woodlands, Texas. He was undoubtedly one of the greatest athletes in Montgomery County history . . . and one of only two to win an Olympic gold medal.

John “Butch” Dale is a retired teacher and County Sheriff. He has also been the librarian at Darlington the past 32 years, and is a well-known artist and author of local history.