Golden Tributes

Terry Wight hands over his father, David Wight’s 1956 Olympic gold medal in the eights to Yale. Behind him is the eight’s cox, Bill Becklean.

8 April 2018

Tom Weil was at Yale’s Gilder Boathouse yesterday and got a perspective of being at the right place at the right time. Tom writes:

There are two ways to obtain an Olympic gold medal. You can win one… or you can acquire it by other means. This Saturday, Yale was given the medal won by David Wight, the 2-man in Yale’s Melbourne Olympics championship eight. The ceremony, attended by many in Wight’s family, as well as by Bill Becklean, the 1956 coxswain, and Roger Bullard, the 1956 team manager, was held at Gilder Boathouse following a sweep of the Dartmouth heavyweights by Yale’s defending national championship crew.

Coach Steve Gladstone opened the occasion by reading from a letter written by 1956 crew member Caldwell Esselstyn, which told how Wight made the Olympic boat. He had stroked his Exeter Academy four to a national schoolboy championship and a first heat victory over two college fours in the 1952 Olympic trials, and then rowed at 6 in a Yale freshman eight that upset Harvard, but, for two and a half years after that, was relegated to the third or fourth varsities. Early in the spring of 1956, however, in his senior year, when the varsity 2-man failed to make practice on time, Wight was thrown into the boat, which then took on a form that it had failed to find before Wight’s addition to the mix, and the path to Olympic gold was almost set (John Cooke had yet to take over the 3-seat, but that is another story). Gladstone noted that Wight’s persistence and love for the sport were central to his ultimate success.

Bill Becklean, and behind him, Steve Gladstone.

1956 coxswain Bill Becklean then provided a poignant tribute to a dear friend who had been his teammate since their days together on the crew at Exeter, noting that Wight had taught him three critical lessons, which Becklean passes on to the crews that he coaches today: be on time, do your best, and don’t give up.

Becklean was followed by Wight’s son, Terry, who mentioned how humble his father had been about his gold medal, and his guilt at having earned it because of his teammate’s failure to get to practice on time. Toward the end of his life, his father worked with Terry to put the story onto paper. They finished the day before Wight passed away on November 9, 2017. Reflecting David Wight’s perspective on the twist of fate that gave him a seat, the work is titled “The Right Place, The Right Time”. Terry concluded his talk by presenting the Olympic gold medal, handsomely set in a frame that shows both sides, to coach Steve Gladstone, who thanked the Wight family on behalf of Yale, and, noting that it would serve to inspire generations of Yale oarsmen to follow, ended the ceremony by passing it around among the crew members who had gathered for the occasion.

David Wight at Gales Ferry during the Yale-Harvard Boat Race on 10 June 2017.

This was not the first time that readers of HTBS will have heard of David Wight, who lived in Old Saybrook, not far down the Connecticut shoreline from Mystic Seaport, and occasionally spoke at the Rowing History forums that were held there. See here.

Unlike many medals that allow the event and placement to be stamped, and the name of the winner to be engraved, on a blank reverse, Olympic medals bear designs on both sides, leaving no room for further details, which places a great burden on proving who won the medal, and for what. At least three of the 1956 Yale Olympic eight gold medals are at, or are destined for, institutions that will be able to point with certainty to their provenance. Two members of that eight came to New Haven from Groton, and three from Exeter, so it is fitting that, in addition to the medal given to Yale, another is destined to go to Exeter, and a third to Groton, each to honor and be honored in perpetuity, and to serve as motivation for all who have the opportunity to stand in their presence and absorb their significance.

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