Tall and strong Walter “Buddy” Davis might look just like any other Texas cattle rancher, but he is so much more. He’s a gold-medal winning Olympian, one of only two Aggies to be named an All-American in two sports, was a basketball player on not one but two NBA championship teams, is a world record holder and — perhaps most important — he’s the father of seven daughters and two sons. Oh, and he overcame crippling polio when he was a 9-year-old elementary student in Nederland.
Buddy had the distinction of standing on the center podium in the 1952 Summer Olympics held in Helsinki, Finland, after winning the high jump event, and he still has the gold medal to prove it.
“I remember standing on that podium,” said Buddy recently in his Lufkin home, “and watching the American flag go up the pole. When the first notes of our national anthem sounded across the stadium, I got a chill like you wouldn’t believe.”
Until the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, the XV Olympiad was famous for featuring the most world records broken. A total of 69 nations participated in these games, up from 59 in the 1948 games. Thirteen nations made their first Olympic appearance in 1952, and there were about 100 participants in the American delegation including two that took home the gold and silver medals in the high jump.
But how did a boy from Nederland, Texas, get to Finland and the world’s biggest athletic stage?
Born to A.J. and Mary Therease Davis in Nederland, Buddy attended public school. His dad worked for Pure Oil Company for some 44 years. His mom was a registered nurse. When Buddy was 9 years old, he contracted the dreaded polio disease and his home was put under quarantine, forcing his two sisters and one brother to live with an aunt for a number of months. Buddy’s mom was determined that her son would live as normal a life as possible, so she put to use all of her nursing talent.
Mary read everything she could get her hands on about the disease and organized deep warm baths for her son’s legs and then spent hours massaging the muscles and helping them to retain their strength. After 18 months, Buddy had regained the use of his legs and was able to walk and run again.
Buddy continued to grow and soon fell in love with his next-door neighbor in Nederland, Margaret Tynan. Buddy graduated from Nederland High School in 1948 and went on to Texas A&M University where he played basketball, becoming the highest scorer in the state. In his junior year, Buddy got the idea he might like to try baseball. His basketball coach was also the baseball coach and allowed him to pitch relief for three good innings. The young athlete was pretty proud of himself when he struck out eight men. “Look, Buddy, I’ve got four good pitchers and one basketball center. Get over to the gym and do your calisthenics,” the coach said, bringing to an end his baseball career. On the way to the gym, he happened to see the track and field practice on Kyle Field. He watched as one athlete cleared the bar with the old scissors technique.
On a spur-of-the-moment decision, Buddy decided to give the high jump a try with his baseball mitt in his hand. He cleared the bar and went on to win the Texas Relays that year with a 6-feet, 9-inch jump. The coach decided to take him on to other track and field events. Buddy became an All-American in track and basketball, one of just two Aggies to ever win that designation in two sports.
By the time Buddy was a senior in 1952, he was married to Margaret, had started a family, and had captured the NCAA and Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) titles in the high jump and received an invitation to the Olympic trials. He had also broken the high jump world record and the 7-feet barrier in May 1952. “I went from obscurity to a world record with one jump,” said Buddy humbly. “Think about it. Nederland did not even have a track when I was there in high school, and here I am being invited to the Olympic trials.”
Buddy describes the trials for the Olympics in Helsinki as a whirlwind. “It certainly was not then what it is now,” he laughed. “We did not have sponsors, coordinators and a core of press people.” He said he made the Olympic team on a Saturday in Los Angeles, and the next day he flew to New York to get his passport and uniform. The athletes stayed at Princeton University in New Jersey for the week. Margaret was home waiting on the birth of a child and did not get to accompany her husband to this important event. Her parents, however, did get to see him in Los Angeles where they were visiting relatives.
Buddy remembered clearly that he had a quarter in his pocket when he left Los Angeles, and when he left New York for Finland, that had been reduced to a dime. “We didn’t need anything, really,” he said. “The committee saw that we had food and our clothing, but looking back now, can you imagine traveling without money in your pocket?”
The games opened July 19, 1952, and the high jump was on the first day of competition, July 20. He said that the temperature was in the 60s, and he remembers it being a rainy kind of day. He and his teammate, Ken Wiesner, were both “straddlers,” referring to the technique that replaced “scissors.” There were 28 competitors in all, and Buddy took the gold with a record-setting leap of 6 feet, 8.32 inches.
“No one met us coming off the podium with endorsement offers, contracts or even gifts that I remember, but it didn’t really matter. We had won medals for our country, and we were proud and happy,” he said. “Margaret learned of her husband’s success through the newspapers. “We didn’t have television then,” she said, “and I was so happy when I learned that Buddy had done well. I still have the air mail letters he wrote to me from Finland, and I treasure those.” The Davis’ second daughter was born July 23, 1952, just three days after his medal-winning jump.
Buddy went on to play professional basketball for two teams and win two NBA championships. His two rings, one from the Philadelphia Warriors in 1956 and the other from the St. Louis Hawks in 1958, testify to these feats. One is kept with his gold medal in a protective case, and Margaret proudly wears the other as she has for these many years.
“I only wish I had not been so young and inexperienced,” said Buddy, “so that I could have realized what winning the gold medal really meant and that I would have been mature enough to take in everything.”
Buddy went on to have a storied professional career in law enforcement with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department, a 30-year banking career where he achieved the office of bank president, a stint as a top ranking civilian with the U.S. Coast Guard in Puerto Rico, and lastly with FEMA. He, like his father, has always raised cattle.
He and Margaret have nine children, seven girls and two boys, and a number of grandchildren and great grandchildren. “Oh, you should see this place when they all come home,” laughed Margaret, speaking of their comfortable Lufkin home with big wrap-a-round porches and a fishing pond. “It is quite loud, but lots of fun.”
Buddy said that they were a close-knit family and that he believes he gets that from his dad. “My dad was the most kind and gentle man I’ve ever known,” he said. “It is said of us, if a bee stings one of us, we all swell up.”
“As all of us kids get older, we realize more and more what an amazing story our dad is,” said Shaun P. Davis, Buddy’s youngest son and executive director of South East Texas Regional Planning Commission and former district director for Congressman Charlie Wilson. “Growing up we knew our dad was famous, but he rarely talked about it and we took it all in stride. My dad was more interested in being a good provider and taking care of our cows out in Bessie Heights Marsh across from Port Neches Park. That’s what I’ll always remember most — my dad and I and my Granddaddy Arthur Davis working cows across the river. I’ll bet you that’s what he remembers most, too.”
Brenda Cannon Henley can be reached at (409) 781-8788 or at brendacannonhenley [at] yahoo [dot] com.