We here at KHS are getting into the Olympic spirit! If you are, too, check out this piece of Kentucky’s Olympic history. KHS has eight medals in the collections from the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium that were awarded to Willis A. Lee, a Kentuckian born in Natlee in Owen County.
Lee was a noted marksman that participated in 14 events as part of the U.S. shooting team. Lee won five gold medals, one silver and one bronze. The eighth medal in the collection is a participation medal. Lee and his teammate Lloyd Spooner each won seven medals during the games — a record for medals won during a single Olympiad. The men held this record until 1980 when the Russian gymnast Alexander Dityatin won eight.
For the 1920 Olympics, the gold medals were not actually made out of gold. They were made of vermeil, a combination of sterling silver, gold and other precious metals. In the case of the medals in the KHS collections, “gold” medals now appear to be silver since silver was the base metal for the pieces.
Pictured here is one of Lee's gold medals from the 1920 Antwerp Olympic Games. On the front is a nude male holding a palm frond, representing a victorious athlete with the palm of victory. Behind him is an angel blowing a horn, representing Fame. On the back is the monument of Antwerp in front of a port with ships' masts and a church spire, with the coat of arms of the city at the bottom.
Willis A. Lee went on to command naval troops during World War II and was awarded the Naval Cross for his command during the naval battle at Guadalcanal. Lee was promoted in 1944 and put in charge of the battleships of the Pacific Fleet. He was a Vice Admiral in the Navy at the time of his death in 1945.
To see more of Lee's Olympic medals visit the KHS Objects Catalog or visit the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History in person now through August 11! Open Wednesdays 10 a.m. – 4 p.m., Thursdays 10 a.m. – 8 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.