OLYMPIC LEGACY: An Olympic vision
Godfrey Dewey leads effort to bring III Olympic Winter Games to Lake Placid
(Editor’s note: This story is part of an “Olympic Legacy” series to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the III Olympic Winter Games at Lake Placid in 1932. What happened that year led to this village hosting the XIII Olympic Winter Games in 1980 and the continuing legacy of training Olympic athletes, inspiring future Olympians and hosting international winter sports events.)
LAKE PLACID — It was Friday, Sept. 12, 2014. Members of the New York State Police and Pennsylvania State Police hockey teams were skating around the ice, slapping pucks and warming up for their matchup in the Olympic Center’s 1980 Rink of the Herb Brooks Arena.
At the home team bench, retired New York State Police Sgt. Sean Donovan was helping three girls put on their new red-white-and-blue USA jerseys, the same kind members of the 1980 U.S. hockey team wore when they beat the Soviets in the famed “Miracle on Ice” game in this same arena.
Each had the same name on the back: Riley.
Heidi Riley had brought her three daughters to Lake Placid — Abby (11), Katie (9) and Jillian (4) — for the annual Adirondack Police Hockey Tournament. Their father, Ross Riley, had died the previous November during a training exercise at Letchworth State Park in Wyoming County. He was a State Police trooper and 44 years old at the time. This trip was meant to honor Ross and give the girls a much-needed pick-me-up.
Donovan, of Lake Placid, was a co-organizer of the tournament. It began in 1995 as a fundraiser for the Thomas Shipman Sr. Memorial Youth Center, built to honor the former Lake Placid police officer who died April 13, 1995.
Donovan had played hockey when he was younger.
“I was a C player,” he said Monday, Feb. 7. “There was a state police team that would travel to tournaments in different states in the Northeast. I said, ‘What a better place to have a tournament than here.'”
With Lake Placid police officer Bill Moore, they created the Adirondack Police Hockey Tournament for U.S. and Canadian police hockey teams. At first it raised money for the youth center, then for the Bobby Preston Memorial Scholarship and eventually for families of fallen police officers. In 2014, it helped the Ross Riley Memorial Fund.
“I am very grateful that they are all doing this as a fundraiser for my husband’s fund,” Heidi said in 2014. “It means a lot that they would take the time and do this in honor of him and for him. It’s very humbling, and it’s very touching.”
After getting their jerseys, members of the New York team led the girls to the center of the ice, and each dropped a puck simultaneously to start the game.
That Sunday, the Pennsylvania State Police won the trophy against the Ontario Provincial Police. During the award ceremony, the girls were on the ice, handing out trophies and posing for photos with a banner that had their father’s name on it.
“I’m walking off the ice with one of the girls, Katie, and I said, ‘Nice weekend. So what do you think? Pretty cool town?'” Donovan said in 2014. “She said, ‘No. It’s an awesome town.’ … Heidi said it was great because the girls have a lot of happy memories now to add, and that’s part of what we do.”
Islander in the Adirondacks
A native of Massapequa, Long Island, Donovan enjoyed visiting the Lake Placid region when he was a kid. He remembers skiing at Whiteface Mountain in Wilmington as a junior in high school.
“And then I had an opportunity to work here with my job,” he said. “I was already bitten by the Olympic spirit of Lake Placid. I had other options of where to transfer, but I chose here. And a lot of it was because of the international sports that take place in Lake Placid.”
The year was 1988. Donovan was a state trooper at the time, based in the village of Brewster just west of the Connecticut border. After passing his sergeant’s exam, he transferred from Troop K to Troop B headquarters in Ray Brook. He retired here in 2009.
Donovan still keeps busy. He works part time as a server at The Boat Tasting Room on Main Street, and he guides groups visiting the village.
“Last week, I was with a CBC group for two days,” he said. “I was on Canadian TV last week. They were putting a show together about former Olympic host sites.”
For several years, he had been one of three guides giving history tours at the Olympic Center. His last tour was in mid-March 2020 as the state Olympic Regional Development Authority venues were shutting down during the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
Donovan’s passion for all things Olympic — coupled with his outgoing personality and knack for storytelling — made him a perfect guide. Yet it took some time to persuade the two guides at the time — Howard Riley and Jim Rogers. After all, who was this guy with a Long Island accent? Was he even in Lake Placid during the 1980 Winter Olympics?
“I have vivid memories of the 1980 games,” Donovan said. “I wasn’t here, but I was in the military then, so it meant a lot to us.”
The “guru” guides of the Olympic Center tours were definitely here in 1980. Riley, a former newspaperman, and Rogers, a former radio station owner, had active roles in the Lake Placid Olympic Organizing Committee. And both are members of the Lake Placid Hall of Fame.
“I asked Jim about doing it, and he didn’t embrace it at first,” Donovan said. “He had said that part of the attraction is that he and Howard had personal memories of the Olympics.”
But then Donovan told Rogers that he had recently taken a tour of the Gettysburg battlefield.
“And the tour guide there wasn’t in the battle,” he said, “but he did a pretty good job. So (Jim) liked that and gave me a little training, and I picked Howard’s brain, and I started doing that.”
During the tours, Donovan walked visitors around the 1980 Rink, showing them where the Miracle in Ice took place — the same ice where Linda Fratianne won a silver medal in women’s figure skating — and, pointing out the window to the Olympic Speedskating Oval, where Eric Heiden won five gold medals for the U.S. during the XIII Olympic Winter Games.
At the 1932 Rink, he’d explain that the Jack Shea Arena — built for the III Olympic Winter Games — was the first indoor space with artificial ice to host Winter Olympic competitions. The arena hosted all the figure skating events, some of the hockey games and all of the curling demonstration matches in 1932.
Donovan also talked about Lake Placid’s Jack Shea winning two gold medals in speedskating, Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie’s gold medal and the financial challenges of hosting the Games during the Great Depression.
“The story of Billy Fiske, an Olympic bobsledder who won his second gold medal here in bobsled. His first one was four years earlier at St. Moritz,” Donovan said. “And the story of Eddie Eagan, the only person ever to win a gold medal in both the summer and winter Olympics. He won a boxing gold medal in Antwerp (1920), and then he won a gold medal in bobsled.”
As a pusher on Fiske’s four-man sled, it was the first time Eagan had competed in bobsledding.
“Probably the biggest legacy of the 1932 Olympics is figure skating,” Donovan said. “Once that arena was used for the 1932 games, it became a permanent fixture in Lake Placid … Also it allowed athletes from all across the nation, and even some foreign countries, to come here to train to be figure skaters.”
Legendary coach Gustave Lussi began training figure skaters at Lake Placid’s arena during the summer of 1932. Known as “The Father of Modern Free Skating,” he trained 16 World Champions, including six Olympic gold medalists such as Dick Button (1948 and 1952) and Dorothy Hamill (1976).
In many ways, Lussi put Lake Placid on the map as a training center for U.S. and Canadian figure skaters.
“I call it the smallest town in the world that everyone’s heard of,” Donovan said.
But it wasn’t figure skating that first put Lake Placid on the map for international sports; it was speedskating. This village hosted its first internationally sanctioned event in February 1920 with the International Outdoor Speed Skating Championships on Mirror Lake. Ski jumping — promoted by the Lake Placid Club at its Intervales facility — was next. The Club’s Sno Birds organization began developing many other winter sports after it was formed in December 1920.
Lake Placid Club Vice President Godfrey Dewey — son of Club founder Melvil Dewey — took an active role in local sports development. The Club created College Week in 1921, between Christmas and New Year’s Day, attracting skiers from colleges across the country. Some of these skiers would eventually compete in the Winter Olympics.
It was late in 1927 — just before the II Olympic Winter Games were to be held in February 1928 at St. Moritz, Switzerland — when Dewey began seriously considering Lake Placid as a host city for the Olympics, according to the official report of the 1932 Winter Olympics. The 1932 Summer Olympics had already been awarded to Los Angeles; therefore, a U.S. site for the Winter Olympics that year would make sense.
“Members of the American Olympic Committee inquired unofficially as to whether Lake Placid would be in a position to hold the III Olympic Winter Games if they were awarded to the United States,” the report stated.
“Local sports leaders naturally were pleased at the implied compliment to Lake Placid’s standing as a winter resort but replied without hesitation that they would not even consider holding the Games unless thoroly convinst [sic] that they could meet the highest standards set abroad for Winter Olympic competitions.”
Not knowing all those standards, Godfrey Dewey went to Europe to find out. The Club had already sponsored members of the 1928 U.S. Olympic ski team, and Dewey was named manager of the team. Plus, he was chosen as the U.S. flagbearer for the opening ceremony at St. Moritz. So he’d already be in Switzerland to study how the Games were organized and held.
Dewey sailed to Europe in January 1928 for a two-month tour that brought him to winter resorts such as Chamonix, France, host of the 1924 Winter Olympics; Caux and Gstaad in the Vaud Alps; Grindelwald and Murren in the Bernese Oberland; Engelberg and Arosa in central Switzerland; and Davos, Switzerland.
At St. Moritz, Dewey “made a careful study of the entire Games program,” the 1932 Winter Olympic report stated. “This included an analysis of the nations represented and the sports in which they took part; housing accommodations; the financial budget; Olympic facilities; the Games organization including the various committees; health and safety measures; policing; and supervision of the Olympic sports — in fact everything that would enable him to project an accurate picture of a Winter Olympic program to report to Lake Placid on his return.”
Upon his return, Dewey spoke to the Lake Placid Kiwanis Club on March 21 about his European tour and reported that Lake Placid was in good standing to host the 1932 Winter Olympics.
“Housing is the biggest question for Lake Placid to settle, the matter of sports facilities being practically satisfactory now,” Dewey told the Kiwanis Club (March 23, 1928, Lake Placid News). Lake Placid would also have to build a bobsled run.
This was the beginning of Dewey’s tour around New York to promote a Winter Olympic bid for Lake Placid. He needed to raise $50,000 to pay for the bid and convince local leaders that it was possible to host the Olympics.
He first got the backing of local groups such as the Kiwanis Club, chamber of commerce, village board, town board, school board and Lake Placid Athletic Club. He formed a preliminary organizing committee that included chamber of commerce President Julian Reiss, Bank of Lake Placid President F. B. Guild, North Elba town Supervisor Willis Wells and businessman William Burdet (March 30, 1928, LPN).
By Aug. 3, 1928, the News reported that the chamber of commerce had guaranteed $50,000 for the bid. That included $10,000 from the Lake Placid Club. On Feb. 8, 1929, the News reported that the Saranac Lake Chamber of Commerce and Rotary Club had also raised $10,000 for the bid.
Dewey secured political support as well, having lobbied members of the state Assembly and Senate and Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt. On Jan. 14, 1929, both houses of the New York Legislature passed resolutions backing Lake Placid’s Olympic bid. And on Feb. 21, the governor signed a bill permitting the Conservation Commission to construct, equip and maintain a bobsled run. The bill was unanimously passed three days earlier by both houses of the Legislature (March 1, 1929, LPN).
That was the last part of the bid needed. On Feb. 27, 1929, Dewey reported that Lake Placid’s formal bid had been sent to the International Olympic Committee, which would review it in April before making their site selection.
David vs. Goliath
In this chapter of the 1932 Winter Olympic bidding process, Lake Placid is David and California is Goliath. The state of California had committed $1 million toward the 1932 Olympic Winter Games, compared to Lake Placid’s $50,000. There were nine cities bidding for the Games: Lake Placid and Bear Mountain in New York; Yosemite Valley and Lake Tahoe in California; Duluth and Minneapolis in Minnesota; Denver, Colorado; Oslo, Norway; and Montreal, Canada.
Dewey was most worried about California. When he sailed from New York on the Ile de France — bound for the IOC meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland — California Olympic Committee President Col. William May Garland was also on the ship.
“Of course, the critical situation to be delt [sic] with on the boat going over was Col. Garland’s attitude,” Dewey said in a May 7 speech after a testimonial dinner in his honor at the Lake Placid Club (May 17, 1929, LPN). “He was in a very difficult and delicate position as the sole representativ [sic] of the United States on the International Olympic Committee.”
Even though Garland represented California, he was expected to present all the U.S. bids equally to the IOC.
“He was quite conscious of the difficulties of the situation and I want to pay tribute to him as a thoro [sic] sportsman anxious to handle it in the best way,” Dewey said.
On April 10, 1929, the IOC unanimously chose Lake Placid to host the III Olympic Winter Games, and Dewey quickly sent a cable back home with the good news. After the jubilation subsided, the reality of hosting the games set in. There was much work to be done, including more fundraising, building the Olympic venues and solving Lake Placid’s housing shortage for Olympic guests.
The editorial in the May 17, 1929, issue of the Lake Placid News rallied the community for the challenges ahead, based on Dewey’s final words of his May 7 speech: “Let’s go!” Those words would be needed by the end of the year as the nation began suffering economically during the first months of the Great Depression.
“Remember Dr. Dewey’s slogan, ‘Let’s Go.’ Let’s make it Lake Placid’s Olympic slogan — and let’s make it mean all that the words imply, with the whole community and those supporting it doing their full share in the big job and reaping the untold benefits accruing from these premier winter games of the world.”