Olympics are making sport news lately as several nations fight for the right to host future games. I vividly recall the first post-war Olympics hosted by Switzerland and then London in 1948, because I was still serving in the German occupation.
Our Army newspaper, The Stars and Stripes, carried reports supposedly written from England by a young soldier from Kalispell, Montana; however, that authorship wasn’t exactly correct. Therein lies a fine story.
Close friend and clasmate, Wilbur “Burr” Martin, went to Flathead High his freshman year before heading for Alaska to earn money. Returning in early 1945, he stayed a short while then enlisted in the Army, probably lying about his age.
In winter 1948, he got his name in The Stars and Stripes by breaking the world record time in the one-man bobsled Olympic trial at St. Moritz, Switzerland. He had established a close friendship with a millionaire who sponsored the American bobsled teams.
In the Swiss Olympics, Burr was leading for a gold medal after the first two runs. On the third and last day down the treacherous Cresta Run, he hit a curve too fast and catapulted off the course. Somewhat shaken up, he managed to get back on track and finished out of the top three. Because of his unbelievable performance, he was put on the winners’ stand before closing ceremonies and awarded a special medal. Later, a Swiss guide helped Burr climb the Matterhorn.
Burr was asked by a Stars and Stripes editor to cover the Summer Olympics in London, but somehow got another GI to do this assignment while he went back to Switzerland to practice water skiing on Lake Geneva.
“Reporter Martin” covered the London Olympics while winning the World Water Skiing Championship. To the best of my knowledge, water skiing has never been an Olympic sport.
We both went to the University of Montana, and one day in 1949 he showed up to speech class with four elementary school boys. He explained he was helping them to overcome stuttering. Speech professor Herb Carlson backed this ambitious program, and it became common to see Burr’s old car with young passengers around campus. Carlson later helped Burr get a scholarship for a speech pathology degree at a noted Midwest university, and Burr went on to make great contributions to that new science.
He augmented his GI Bill during college by heading up a spectacular summer water ski show on Chicago’s Lake Michigan. He left the university each spring to train his team in Sarasota, Florida.
It was frightening to watch his 1950 snow ski runs on Big Mountain. He had fast reflexes and no fear, but also no knowledge of how to stop. Zoomed over the high bottom bank and completely through the parking lot on his first run. People were amazed that neither he nor any cars were damaged.
Burr Martin was one of the most intelligent, wittiest, coordinated, and strongest men I ever knew. Although we had many conversations over the years, I never really understood what drove him to do the things he did. Our last conversation was at dinner in my home, perhaps in the 1980s while he was still a college professor. His sister Donna proved the family’s athletic genes by becoming the mother of Flathead’s champion wrestlers, the Tyree brothers.
Wilbur “Burr” Martin passed away many years ago. I deeply cherish the memories of him and I enjoy talking about an unusual man few locals remember.
G. George Ostrom is an award-winning columnist. He lives in Kalispell.