The frenetic world of today’s seventh-graders often fixates on celebrities, such as Jennifer Lawrence, Ariana Grande or The Weeknd.
You don’t hear them talking much about Willis A. Lee — unless you’re at Maurice Bowling Middle School in Owen County.
Several students there have been working on projects this year to honor Lee, an Owen County native who won more Olympic medals than any other Kentuckian and became a Naval hero in World War II worthy of praise from Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.
Their projects include organizing efforts to get Lee inducted into the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Owen County Athletic Hall of Fame, raising funds to install a state historical marker for him in Owenton, placing a “Hometown Hero” banner at the old county court house square to recognize him, and speaking about his accomplishments to area civic clubs.
Their “dream” is to someday have a fountain monument in Owen County to honor him.
“People from Owen County don’t get much publicity,” said seventh-grader Alexandria Perry. “Hey, like we’re here. It kills me we’re ignored. We just thought Willis Lee hasn’t gotten the attention he deserves. We are trying to fix that.”
Perry is one of eight students at Bowling who have been quite active in resurrecting Lee’s fame.
Their language arts teacher, Denise Humphries, got them on the cause after she read a July story in the Lexington Herald-Leader about Lee, “the Kentucky Olympian you’ve never heard of who won seven medals in one summer.”
Lee was the star of the 1920 Summer Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium. As a young naval officer who wore thick glasses after black powder blew up in his face as a boy, Lee was a member of the American Rifle Team that year.
At the games, his team won nine gold, two silver and two bronze medals. Lee personally won five gold medals, one silver and one bronze. His seven personal medals are at the Kentucky History Center in Frankfort, along with a participatory medal.
For 60 years, Lee shared the record for the most medals received by an individual at a single Olympics. In the 1920 Games, Lee tied with teammate Lloyd Spooner of Tacoma, Wash., for the most medals any athlete had ever received in a single Games. Their record stood for 60 years until Russian gymnast Alexander Dityatin won eight medals in 1980.
Lee remains the Kentuckian with the most Olympic medals. Trailing him, according to the Kentucky Almanac, are track and field star Ralph Waldo Rose of Louisville, who captured six medals in the 1904, 1908 and 1912 Olympics and Louisville swimmer Mary T. Meagher, who won three Olympic gold medals in 1984 and one bronze in the 1988 Games.
After the Olympics, Lee enhanced his résumé. He became a vice admiral of the U.S. Navy during World War II and commanded ships during the critical Battle of Guadalcanal in November 1942. His name also made headlines 20 years later when a destroyer ship named after him was in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the most intense nuclear confrontation face-off this world has ever seen.
But Lee’s name mostly has been shrouded in obscurity all these years. There are no state historical markers in Owen County touting him. The Louisville-based Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame, which started honoring outstanding native athletes in 1963, does not include Lee.
His only public recognition was on Bowling Middle School’s “Wall of Fame” in the school’s basement. It featured his photo and a small article about him.
“I remembered seeing his picture on the school’s ‘Wall of Fame’ when I was reading the Herald-Leader article about him,” said Humphries. “I thought he would be a good subject for my students, and here we are.”
After much research on Lee, the students got the Kentucky Historical Society to approve a marker for him. It will be placed on Rowland Avenue in Owenton where his boyhood home once stood.
The students are trying to raise $2,500 by March 1 to pay for the marker and have a dedication ceremony next spring at the end of the school year. They have formed a non-profit — Educational Excellence Foundation of Owen County — with a local bank’s help to accept money.
In September, the students placed a “Hometown Hero” banner on the old county court house square and will see him accepted Jan. 6 into the Owen County Athletic Hall of Fame.
They were not successful with the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame.
“I was kind of saddened by that,” said student Brooklyn Morris. “He’s the most decorated Kentuckian in the Olympics and he gets shut out in his home state.”
Humphries said she received a message in November from the state hall of fame, notifying her that Lee’s name was not on the list for this year’s inductees. Humphries was advised to re-submit an application next year.
“I have no idea why he didn’t get in but we will keep trying,” she said.
Meanwhile, the students keep preaching the glory of Willis Lee.
They have had two speaking engagements. Student Isaac Cockrell said he told the local Rotary Club about Lee’s war exploits.
The entire seventh-grade class, which totals about 500 students, went on a field trip in October to the Kentucky History Center to see Lee’s Olympics medals.
“Just winning the most medals of any Kentuckian is reason enough to honor him, but he did so much more,” said student Taylor Arnce.
“And to think he came from Owen County. That’s a big deal,” said student Casey Tackett.
How to help
Contributions to help Owen County students pay for a state historical marker in Owenton to honor Kentucky Olympian and World War II hero Willis A. Lee can be sent to Denise Humphries at Maurice Bowling Middle School, 2380 Highway 22, Owenton, Ky., 40359. Checks can be made out to the Educational Excellence Foundation of Owen County.