Since his Cal crew team's Olympic victory in 1928 and forever more, Don Blessing will best be known as a gold medalist.
"Everywhere I go, I'm introduced as 'Don Blessing, Olympic gold medal winner,'" said the 90-year-old retired stockbroker. "That distinction stays with you for the rest of your life."
Blessing, who grew up among the dusty farms of the San Joaquin Valley, had never even heard of a crew when he came to Berkeley in 1923.
A fellow student who had attended Blessing's high school in Visalia talked him into joining the team. "He said they needed a guy like me with a loud voice," Blessing recalled from his home in Belvedere.
At five-foot-eight and 120 pounds, Blessing was the right height and weight for team coxswain, who steers the racing shell and calls out the rhythm of the rower's stroke.
Ky Ebright, the legendary crew coach who led three teams to Olympic victory, was hired the following spring.
Blessing was voted most valuable member of his crew, and in June 1928, his team won the qualifying championship for the Olympics.
Blessing said one of the highlights of his Olympic experience was having dinner with Gen. Douglas MacArthur, then president of the Olympic Committee, and his family.
"MacArthur took me out to dinner with him because I was a fiery, outgoing young guy," Blessing recalled. "He wanted some of me to rub off on his son, who was my same age, but very awkward and shy."
Once in Belgium, victory came swiftly and unexpectedly for the Cal crew. An Associated Press story dated Aug. 10, 1928, from a clip book Blessing keeps filled with crumbling newspaper articles, describes the unforgettable moment:
"Sloten, Holland--California Golden Bears are now champions of the world. Their blue-tipped oars flashing irresistible power through the narrow waters of the Sloten Canal this afternoon, these brawny native sons of Uncle Sam maintained their unbeaten record and brought the Olympic regatta to a thrilling climax by beating the Thames Rowing Club, Britain's greatest crew, in the eight-oared final."
The queen of Holland presented Blessing with a wreath and a medal and then kissed him on the cheek. "The band played the 'Star Spangled Banner.' I still tingle when I think about it," Blessing said.
Afterward, during the closing ceremonies, the American ambassador to Holland gave the Cal team a party at The Hague. "There was the princess of this and the princess of that," said Blessing. "It was then that I realized we had done something big."
Blessing came home to a hero's welcome. The city of Berkeley declared a holiday in the crew's honor.
The spry nonagenarian remains a big supporter of Cal athletics, having raised money for future crew teams. He estimates having attended more than 70 Big Games and countless crew competitions. Blessing has been asked to be a guest of honor at this year's Olympics in Atlanta.