Don Blessing

Donald C. Blessing
Born December 26, 1905, San Juan Bautista, California
Died July 4, 2000, Kentfield, California, age 94

Don Blessing made his mark as the animated, and often profane, coxswain of the gold medal winning eight-man rowing crew in the 1928 Olympic Games at Amsterdam. Growing up in the vineyard country of the San Joaquin Valley, he attended the University of California at Berkeley and through his rowing prowess became a lifelong insider and spirited backer of Golden Bear athletics. After college, he became a successful stockbroker and investment banker and by 1960 had amassed enough of a fortune to join the group that would land an American Football League franchise for Oakland.

Blessing was born on December 26, 1905 to parents Frank and Ivy and spent his early years in Hollister, California, about 100 miles south of San Francisco. When he was ten, his family, including younger brother, Roy, moved inland to Visalia where the elder Blessing owned and operated a vineyard and walnut orchard. The Blessings were well enough off to run in the loftier circles of the region and Don’s name was a regular mention in the social pages of the local paper. During his years at Visalia Union High School, Don played for the basketball team and participated in the school’s drama program.

After his graduation in 1923, Blessing enrolled at Cal. On the diminutive side, he wasn’t cut out for collegiate basketball or football, but he was perfect for the role of coxswain and as a freshman turned out for crew under coach Ky Ebright. Working his way up the ladder, by 1926 he was at the helm of the junior varsity boat, leading them to a victory over their arch-rivals, the University of Washington Huskies, in the annual Pacific Coast Conference regatta.

In 1927 he earned a spot on the top varsity boat, leading his team to another win over the Huskies, the first triumph for a Cal varsity eight over Washington since 1921. That year they finished third in the national regatta at Poughkeepsie, New York.

It was in 1928 that Blessing garnered international headlines. At the beginning of the crew season in February, observers thought the Bear crew had a shot at an Olympic berth at the summer games in Amsterdam. But in March, it looked as though Blessing might not join them when he steered his boat into a submerged piece of driftwood, wrecking the expensive rowing shell. After a stint of washing windows as penance, Coach Ebright restored him to the number one boat and for the rest of the season the team seemed to be charmed. The Pacific Coast Conference regatta, held that season on Lake Washington in Seattle, ended with a Bear victory, the first time the Huskies had ever been beaten on their home waters.  Blessing and company then took the prize at Poughkeepsie, setting a record for the four-mile course. That set the stage for their victory in the Olympic trials on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, earning the right to defend American honor in the Netherlands.

Blessing was now attracting attention not just for his skill in getting the most out of his rowers, but for the way he went about his business. Coxswains often performed their tasks of setting the stroke rate, operating the tiller, and keeping tabs on the other competitors in a measured fashion, but not Blessing. From the starting gun, he exhorted and upbraided his charges in a constant stream of invective, profanity, and boat-pounding, goading them to do their utmost, possibly in an effort to get him to shut the hell up, often startling rival boats. A signature move, one he borrowed from the Yale University team, was the waving of a white flag at crucial moments during a race, signaling those times when maximum effort was required.

And it worked. In Amsterdam they made quick work of the Belgians, Danes, and Italians in preliminary races then beat the Canadian team in the semifinals for the right to face Great Britain in the gold medal race on August 10. The contest was tight and tense throughout but, inspired by an almost apoplectic Blessing, the Americans put on a final burst of speed and won by three-quarters of a boat length. Upon their return to the Bay Area, he and his team were feted at length and their exploits would be celebrated in various ceremonies for the rest of their lives.

Having graduated from college in the spring, he entered the work world joining the brokerage firm of Grimes and Swift (later Henry F. Swift and Company). He also moonlighted as a crew correspondent for the Oakland Tribune. In October 1929, he married fellow Cal grad Nola Dillon and the couple settled in Berkeley. Over the next several years he continued to be active in the local rowing world both as a reporter and as an adviser to the Cal team. He was also active as a football booster, forming the San Francisco Grid Club in 1932.

Life was good for the Blessing family. Daughter Sherrell was born in 1933 and Donald, Jr., came along in 1936. The elder Donald made partner at Grimes and Swift in 1937 and earned membership in the San Francisco Stock Exchange. By the 1940s, they were doing well enough to purchase a cabin on Lake Tahoe and take a number of international vacations. Throughout these years they participated in all sorts of social and charitable events moving in their upper middle class circle with ease.

The years didn’t pass entirely without pain, though. Nola nearly drowned in 1932 while swimming in the ocean near Carmel and Don’s brother Roy died in a one-car crash just a few weeks later. His mother died in 1937, having divorced and remarried some years back and his father died in 1951, “after a long illness.” Otherwise, the family’s fortunes improved almost without interruption. By the end of the 1950s, Sherrell had married and the first of the Blessing grandchildren had arrived.

In 1960 Blessing was named to the Helms Foundation college athletics hall of fame in rowing, the first coxswain to be so honored, and in January, he joined the group of investors that brought an American Football League team to Oakland. That season, he weighed in on a number of issues, approving of the hiring of head coach Eddie Erdelatz, disapproving of the nickname “Senors,” but otherwise took a secondary role in the team’s operations. As the first season drew to a close, rumors of dissension among the owners appeared. Matters came to a head in January 1961. Blessing and four of his co-owners sold their shares back to the remaining trio and left the pro game.

Blessing continued his career in investment banking for another 17 years before retiring from Swift and Co. at the age of 72. Throughout that time and beyond, he continued to be a most vocal Cal alum, regularly communicating with whoever happened to be the head football coach at the time. Men like Joe Kapp and Steve Mariucci described him as “gruff and soft”, “bright and abrasive”, and “a bold dude” who would “tell you what he thought”, but they also said they respected him and never avoided his calls.

Nola died in 1985, but Blessing lived on another 15 years, saying “athletics is what keeps me alive.” He died on July 4, 2000, at the age of 94, the oldest living gold medalist in his sport at the time of his death having been celebrated for that accomplishment throughout his life. He was survived by Evelyn Dahlman, his girlfriend after Nola’s death, children Sherrell and Don, Jr., five grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.

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