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The Tip of the Sword

The Tip of the Sword

A little after sunset on February 12, 1932, hundreds of spectators spilled into M.I.T.’s Walker Memorial Gymnasium. It was a cold night, wet and windy. The temperature hovered cruelly just above freezing. Rather than gentle snow, the arriving fans were greeted with piercing rain. They didn’t mind. The opportunity to see the country’s greatest swordsman was worth the weather.

Joseph Levis was the darling of American fencing. He was the star of the team that came up short of a medal at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, but their gutsy performance put the European- dominated fencing world on notice: the United States was learning how to swordfight. The upcoming 1932 Games in Los Angeles offered the hope of a breakthrough in a sport that was increasingly drawing national attention. The reason the crowd turned out on this February night was to watch the eastern finals of the Olympic qualifying tournament. Levis, everyone agreed, should win.

There was less consensus over who would claim the second and final spot on the Olympic roster. The Boston Globe favored Everett Lane, Harvard’s captain, and there was growing support for Archibald Busby, Yale’s wiry captain. Busby arrived late to the previous day’s opening round because he refused to skip class. He was forced to fight six bouts without any rest and won them all. But there was a fourth contender whom Lane and Busby were well aware of, even if the crowd was not.

Frank Righeimer, Jr., ’25 was a head taller than the others. Dark-haired with a reserved demeanor that belied his youth, the 22-year-old was finishing his third year at Harvard Law. Compared to his competitors, many of whom started fencing before prep school, Righeimer was relatively new to the sport.

He attended Yale as an undergraduate. When he arrived in New Haven in autumn of 1925, he dreamed of playing basketball and pursuing a legal career. The son of a prominent Illinois county judge, Righeimer graduated from Tabor the previous spring where he won academic prizes in French and chemistry and lettered in soccer and basketball.

At Yale, he maintained his scholastic prowess from start to finish, but his athletic dreams were dashed early. During his first semester, he was cut from the basketball team. As he walked out of the gym after receiving this devastating news, he passed the fencing coach’s office. Something compelled him to stop.

Four years later, Righeimer was elected captain of Yale’s fencing team. (Coincidentally, Tabor launched a fencing program around the same time. Like a shooting star, it burned brightly but briefly, fading after a few years.) To this day, Righeimer’s 1929 season is one of the most dominant seasons on record. At the collegiate championship, he won titles in two events, foil and épée. (Fencing has three events named after the three types of swords: foil, épée and sabre. The weapons have different weights, and the events are governed by different rules concerning target areas and scoring). Later that year, Righeimer took the gold medal for épée at the US national championship, which only a handful of undergraduates have ever won. Although his impressive resume was unknown to many of the journalists and fans attending the qualifying tournament in February 1932, Righeimer’s competitors feared the hawkish precision of his sword.

Their fears were well-founded. He defeated Lane, the Harvard captain, with an assertive 5-2 victory. In order to face Levis in the finals––and secure an Olympic berth––he had to get through Busby, the current captain of his alma mater. He did, winning handily 5-2. In the finals, he lost to Levis 5-3, but demonstrated Olympic mettle. Levis, the Globe observed, “had a hard time scoring five touches on Righeimer.” The fact that both of these swordsmen would represent the United States in Los Angeles was encouraging for the team’s medal prospects.

The 1932 Olympics were historic for a number of reasons. For starters, they almost didn’t happen. It took a herculean effort from the international community and the city of Los Angeles to hold them in the midst of the Great Depression. They were also noteworthy for instituting several permanent changes to the Games. Medal podiums were introduced, athletes resided in a single “Olympic Village” for the first time, and the whole event was reduced to its current length of 16 days. Previously, the shortest Games were 79 days long.

In fencing, one of only five sports to appear at every modern Olympics, 1932 was a milestone year, at least for the Americans. On July 17, the L.A. Times issued a confident assessment: “The United States will enter the Olympic fencing this year with the strongest team that has ever taken part for that nation.”

The team’s performance matched the hype. Along with his compatriots, Righeimer stood on the new podium twice when he collected bronze medals in the foil and épée team events. Levis earned a third medal, a silver in the individual foil, in what the Museum of American Fencing has called “the finest accomplishment ever by an American fencer.” The ’32 Games represent the high-water mark for American fencing. The men haven’t won two team medals in a single Olympiad since.

After Los Angeles, Righeimer returned to Chicago and started working as an assistant state’s attorney. During the city’s famous “Public Enemy” campaign, he prosecuted Al Capone-era gangsters like “Machine Gun Jack” McGurn and James “Mad Bomber” Belcastro. He returned to the Olympic stage in 1936, the foreboding Berlin Games, but the podium proved elusive. The outbreak of World War II precipitated his return to Germany. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps and served as a captain in the counterintelligence division. At the end of the war, he was reassigned to Washington and tasked with drafting the legislation that established the Air Force as a separate branch of the military. For this service, he was awarded the Legion of Merit.

Frank Righeimer, Jr., passed away in 1998 at the age of 89. His legacy is preserved by many honors––he was inducted into the Fencing Hall of Fame, and Harvard Law School’s annual citizenship prize is given in his name––but it also endures in the values he lived, values found at the top of Tabor’s mission statement: committed citizenship, personal responsibility, and passion for the highest standards of achievement.