At last! Kentucky Olympian who won 7 medals in 1920 inducted into sports hall of fame

Willis Lee’s Olympic medals

Former Kentucky Historical Society Curator Sara Elliott displays the Olympic medals of Willis A. Lee of Owen County.
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Former Kentucky Historical Society Curator Sara Elliott displays the Olympic medals of Willis A. Lee of Owen County.

Nearly 100 years after he wowed the world with his record-breaking performance in the 1920 Summer Olympic Games, Kentucky native Willis A. Lee is getting his due recognition.

Lee, who also achieved fame as a naval officer in World War II, is one of six to be inducted into this year’s Kentucky Sports Hall of Fame.

The announcement by the Louisville Sports Commission was made Wednesday afternoon at the KFC Yum! Center. The non-profit commission owns and operates the Hall of Fame, which was founded in 1963 to recognize athletes and sports figures who are Kentucky natives as well as those who participated in sports in Kentucky.

An induction ceremony will be held Aug. 19 at the Galt House Hotel in downtown Louisville.

Lee’s athletic prowess was shrouded in obscurity until a Lexington Herald-Leader article in 2016 chronicled the life of one of Kentucky’s most outstanding athletes. A group of students at Maurice Bowling Middle School in Owen County, led by teacher Denise Humphries, rallied to get Lee inducted into the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame.

In making the announcement, Karl F. Schmitt Jr., president and chief executive officer of the Louisville Sports Commission, described Lee as “one of the most decorated U.S. Olympians ever.”

He said Lee was chosen by the commission’s first “bygone era selection team,” which is made up of current members of the hall of fame. It selects athletes who have been out of their game for at least 40 years.

In the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium, Lee was a sensation when he won seven medals. The Owen County native remains the Kentuckian with the most Olympic medals.

Lee, a young naval officer who wore thick glasses after black powder blew up in his face as a boy, was a member of the American Rifle Team.

Sara Elliott, senior curator of the Kentucky Historical Society, holds a gold medal Kentuckian Willis A. Lee won in the 1920 Summer Olympics in Belgium. Jack Brammer

His team won nine gold, two silver and two bronze medals. Lee personally won five gold medals, one silver and one bronze. His seven medals are at the Kentucky History Center in Frankfort, along with a participatory medal.

Laurel Harper, in charge of communications for the center, said the medals will be taken out of storage and put on public display through June 22 in light of this week’s announcement.

In the 1920 Olympic 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.

Other Kentuckians who trail Lee in the Olympic medal count, 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.

Lee, who was born May 11, 1888, in the rural Owen County town of Natlee, not far from the Scott County line, achieved more fame after the Olympics.

He became a vice admiral of the U.S. Navy during World War II and commanded ships during the Battle of Guadalcanal in November 1924. He was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions in the battle. It is the second highest military medal for valor, behind the Medal of Honor.

Lee had a heart attack on Aug. 24, 1945, at age 57 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. His wife, Mabelle Alle of Rock Island, Ill., never had any children.

In January 1952, in Quincy, Mass., the Navy honored the late Lee by naming a $29.5 million destroyer leader the USS Willis A. Lee.

When President Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of Cuba in October 1962 to keep Russia from sending missiles to the island country only 90 miles from Florida, the Willis A. Lee was commissioned to help for 10 days until the confrontation between the two superpowers was resolved. The ship was scrapped in June 1973 and the name of Willis A. Lee faded into history.