Campus & community, Profiles

He led Cal to Olympic gold in 1928. Now his rowing medal is back at UC Berkeley

The donation means the university now holds gold medals from each of its three Olympic men's eight rowing championships.

By Jason Pohl

a photo of a hand extended outward and holding an Olympic gold medal from 1928 from Amsterdam

After years of wondering when the timing would be right, the family of the late Peter Donlon on Jan. 25 donated the Cal rower's 1928 Olympic gold medal to UC Berkeley. "It's a great place for it to be," said his daughter, Diana Caldwell.

Brandon Sánchez Mejia/UC Berkeley

For decades, in a family’s home in West Marin, a set of rowing oars hung horizontally over the French doors leading to the patio. Below the oars was a finish line photo of the moment UC Berkeley’s undefeated 1928 men’s varsity eight won the world championship. And next to that photo was an unassuming square frame that held Olympian Peter Donlon’s gold medal.

That medal, from the Olympic Games in Amsterdam, wasn't always on display. Donlon's daughter, Diana Caldwell, doesn't remember her dad ever showing it off. It was only when his son, David Dwight Donlon, inherited the medal and built a house in Inverness that it was exhibited proudly.

"It was very present," Alexandra Donlon Treene said of her grandfather's medal in her parent's home. "It was very much the decor. It was there to enjoy, as anything should be."

At a small ceremony on Thursday, the medal was given a new home: UC Berkeley. The Donlon family gathered in California Hall with a small group of campus leaders and gifted the medal in an event that at times felt like a cross between show-and-tell and a joyous family reunion. Two generations of Donlons shared photos of and stories about Peter Donlon and celebrated where the medal will now live and be cherished.

"I think it's great," said Caldwell, age 89. "It's a great place for it to be." 

People gathered around a table look at black and white photographs showing the 1928 UC Berkeley men's Olympic rowing team
In what at times felt like a mixture of show-and-tell and a family reunion, members of Donlon's family brought photos and shared stories about the Olympian in the family. "He was very charismatic," his daugher, Diana Caldwell, recalled.
Brandon Sánchez Mejia/UC Berkeley

It was never really a question of if the 1928 medal would return to Berkeley, family members said. They had planned for years to gift it to the campus. 

It was mostly a question of when.

In recent years, they'd warmed to the idea of donating it in 2028, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the ascendance of Cal crew in the rowing world. That thinking changed in recent months, they said. Rowing has received national attention due to last month's film adaptation of the best-selling book, The Boys in the Boat. Plus, the team's recent back-to-back national titles also are proof the sport is having a moment. Reading a recent Berkeley News article about Cal's rowing history was more evidence the right time was now, they said.

"With this sort of renewed enthusiasm for Cal crew," said Diana Donlon Karlenzig, Peter Donlon’s granddaughter, "we thought, 'Well, why wait? Why not just go for it now?'"

"There's no time like the present," added Treene. 

a group of 8 people stand behind a woman, who is seated at a table holding an Olympic gold medal
Cal's rowing coach, Scott Frandsen, far left, and Oliver O'Reilly, vice provost for undergraduate education, far right, met with Donlon's family on Thursday, Jan. 25. "This medal will inspire future generations," O'Reilly told the family.
Brandon Sánchez Mejia/UC Berkeley

Oliver O'Reilly, vice provost for undergraduate education and a Berkeley mechanical engineering professor, said he was deeply moved by the family's generosity. He's known Treene for years — she rowed at Berkeley, too, and has spoken at his popular Bears in Boats freshman seminar about the history of men's and women's rowing at Cal. The two also worked together on a project on the history of women's rowing, commemorating 50 years since the passage of Title IX. 

The donation is significant for another reason: Berkeley is the only university with three gold medals in men's eight Olympic rowing. The campus already has in its collection gold medals from the 1932 and 1948 rowing victories, held in Long Beach and London, respectively.

This medal will inspire future generations.
Oliver O'Reilly, UC Berkeley vice provost for undergraduate education

The Donlon family's donation completes the trifecta.

O'Reilly said the email from Treene indicating the family wanted to donate the medal to the campus "was one of the nicest emails I've ever received in my life."

"Momentum just built from there," he said. 

Peter Donlon wasn't destined to be a rower — especially not the most valuable rower in the boat. Born in Ventura County in 1906, his father grew avocados and citrus and was president of the Bank of Oxnard. Peter developed asthma as a child and moved north to attend high school in the Bay Area.

He'd hoped to play football, Caldwell recalled. But the young man’s mother — Caldwell's grandmother — worried the sport was too rough and feared he'd get hurt. So Peter Donlon picked up swimming instead and later went out for the crew team when he arrived at Berkeley in 1924. 

an image of a frame picture on a table of a man rowing; on the framed image are two medals from the 1928 Olympic Games
As the stroke, Donlon translated commands into motion and set the cadence that each rower behind him followed. He was most skilled rower on the team and instrumental in the team's 1928 Olympic victory.
Brandon Sánchez Mejia/UC Berkeley

Back then, rowing was a closely watched sport. Thousands of spectators lined the waterways when competitions came to town, some cramming onto observation trains that followed alongside the boats. For championships, millions tuned in to radio broadcasts. The demanding sport — a test of strength, endurance and technique — was on par with horse racing in its popularity.

Donlon excelled at the challenge.

The eight rowers in a boat all follow the commands of the coxswain, who shouts from the stern. The person closest to the coxswain, commonly known as the stroke, translates those commands into motion and sets the cadence that each rower behind then follows. That spot in the boat is where the most skilled rower sits. Donlon dominated it.

He helped lead the team to a series of remarkable firsts: its first victory over the University of Washington at the dual in Seattle; its first win at the Poughkeepsie Intercollegiate Rowing Association Regatta; its first win at the Olympic trials, beating the defending Olympic champions from Yale University in the process; and the first of its three gold medal wins at the Olympic Games. 

A black and white image of boats being rowed in a race as they cross under a sign that says
The Cal men's eight rowing team won the Olympic gold medal in the 1928 games in Amsterdam. It was its first of three Olympic golds for Cal rowing under the direction of Coach Ky Ebright, who put UC Berkeley — and West Coast rowing — on the map. 
Courtesy of the Friends of Cal Crew

"He led the crew. He elevated it to that level," said Scott Frandsen, Cal's men's crew coach, who met the Donlon family for the first time on Thursday. Having the medal from the '28 Olympics is significant, he said. "To have it be his is extra special." 

Teams travel together to the Olympic Games. But after the awards are distributed and the celebrations end, athletes can go their separate ways. Peter Donlon — presumably with his medal — headed to a job aboard a California-bound freighter.

His daughter said it was a fitting extra adventure. It wasn't the boys in the boat, she laughed, but it was a boy on one.

The 1928 trip to the Netherlands wasn't Peter Donlon’s only journey to the Olympics. After he graduated, Donlon worked as an assistant to Ky Ebright, the longtime coach of the Cal rowing team, and helped the team to a repeat Olympic victory in 1932. It wasn't until recently that many in the Donlon family learned about that part of Donlon’s Olympic story.

an image of several other images laying on a table showing people rowing a boat and a medal situated in the middle of the frame
In addition to winning an Olympic gold, Donlon brought home a commemorative "participation" medal. 
Brandon Sánchez Mejia/UC Berkeley

For all their patriarch’s strength and athletic skill, the Donlon family described a sense of camaraderie that was a core part of who he was. He owned a tile and brick company and took up interests besides rowing. For a while, he lived in Honduras, working in the rubber industry, his granddaughters said. When he returned to the Bay Area, he took up golf, spending countless hours among friends before he died in 1979.

Throughout his entire life, Caldwell said, "he was very charismatic."

With the medal now at Berkeley, Frandsen and O'Reilly said the plan is to have a display case built to show all three Olympic medals together — likely at the T. Gary Rogers Rowing Center, home of Cal crew, and at select other Berkeley events.

"On behalf of the university," O'Reilly told the family, "thank you so, so much for your generosity and your faith in us. This medal will inspire future generations."