Sunday, Sept. 11, 2011Posted: 6:35 p.m.
By Taylor Bell
In 38 years as Evanston's boys swimming coach, Dobbie Burton won 89 percent of his dual meets and four national championships and produced 25 state trophy-winning teams and 200 All-Americans, including 1956 Olympian Dick Hanley.
An impressive resume for a man who accepted the job in 1947 even though the school didn't have a swimming pool at the time, a man whose former athletes still respectfully refer to him as Mr. Burton, not coach.
"He had a lot of good qualities but motivation was best," Hanley recalled. "I played football through my sophomore year but he convinced me that with the Olympics coming on that I would be better off in swimming. He'd write down the times he expected me to do. It seemed to be way above what I could do. But I would do what he predicted."
William Dobson "Dobbie" Burton, who coached at Evanston from 1947 to 1985, died last Thursday. He was 92. On March 11, his birthday, the swimming pool that was built in 1958 was re-dedicated in his name.
Burton was one of the pioneers of high school swimming in Illinois, an icon who loved to compete against the state's other nationally recognized coaches, New Trier's Dave Robertson and Hinsdale Central's Don Watson. He dominated in the 1950s, winning five state championships and four mythical national titles.
"He was a tremendous influence," said Hanley, who won four state individual titles from 1953-55, set national high school records in the 100 and 200-yard freestyle, won one NCAA title and four AAU titles at Michigan, set one world record and was a silver medalist in the 1956 Olympics.
"He said all the time: 'You have to pay the price.' He could get you up to compete. The ones who didn't compete well? He called them 'ham and eggers.' He said you were no better than your mind and he got your mind where it was supposed to be. You could be the best trained athlete but if you didn't think positively, you won't do it."
The list of other swimmers who earned All-America recognition under Burton's guidance included Tom Alderson, Dave Burgess, Ed Cole, Mike Farmer, Tony Follett, Peter Hammer, Deed Hardin, Jacob Johnson, Doug Lennox, Sean McCaffrey, Skip McCallum, Jeff Moore, Dave Pemberton, Tom Pringle, Tom Schwarten, Terry and Tim Silkaitis, Eric Skalinder, Peter Skoglund, Bill Stiles and Bill Swisher. His son, Patrick, competed on the 1981-83 teams.
Burton, who was inducted into the Illinois Swimming Hall of Fame in 1969, produced five NCAA Division I national champions, a dual meet record of 418-54, a dozen top 10 national finishes, 17 Suburban League championship teams and six Central Suburban League winners. Aside from his five state titles, he had 11 runners up and nine third-place finishers.
"He was a kind and benevolent disciplinarian. He worked us as hard as he possibly could without being mean. But he was fair. He knew when to encourage and berate. He was our best friend," said Burgess, a member of the class of 1958.
"In those days, he was in favor of having as many kids as possible on the team. There was always so much competition. You always had somebody chasing you. That was part of the motivation. Everybody wanted to be on the swimming team, part of the success."
Stiles, a member of the class of 1959, said Burton's success had nothing to do with his record. He recalls a story that he frequently relates to people about Tom "Hoot" Gibson, a personally troubled and mentally challenged youngster who was a member of the 1959-61 teams.
"Gibson came out for the team and (Burton) got into his head that he could be an outstanding swimmer," Stiles said. "He made him the leader of the team. He told the rest of the team: 'You think too much. If you do what Hoot does, you'll be successful.' He went on to win the 400-yard freestyle (and three seconds) in the state meet.
"In four years, he took someone who you wouldn't think could be successful and made him a state champion. Mr. Burton did that with a lot of people. He was a great motivator. A lot of what he accomplished with his kids had nothing to do with swimming but a lot to do with motivation. He was an inspiration to all of us."