‘Part of our legacy’: ‘Boys in the Boat’ rower’s family yearns to bring gold medal home

Jun 12, 2024, 11:59 AM | Updated: Jun 14, 2024, 12:17 pm

Photo: Front and back of Olympic "Boys in the Boat" rower John White's gold medal....

Front and back of Olympic "Boys in the Boat" rower John White's gold medal. (Photo courtesy of Lorry White, Colby White's wife)

(Photo courtesy of Lorry White, Colby White's wife)

John G. White was part of the University of Washington (UW) team who rowed their way to victory against the Germans in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The inspiring feat was turned into popular book and then movie, “Boys in the Boat,” which premiered last December starring George Clooney. The team of nine rowers each won a gold medal but unlike the ending of their story, the journey of John White’s medal nearly led to a loss.

John White died in March 1997, according to Olympedia. His Olympic memorabilia was passed down to his family and his gold medal was subsequently displayed in the UW boathouse next to rower Joe Rantz’s medal. The university currently gives guided tours so that the public can revel in the accomplishments of a local team.

But then one day, at the beginning of the year, John White’s medal was pulled from its case, and with it, a part of the inspiration was snuffed out of the boathouse.

Rower John White’s gold medal goes up for auction

John White’s medal wound up in the hands of his grandson, Collin White, and in April, he put the medal up for auction. The medal was listed at a starting bid of $10,000 with Grey Flannel Auctions. From there, a press release from the company landed in the inbox of MyNorthwest, detailing that the medal was being auctioned with a “letter of provenance” from the White family.

In May, shortly after MyNorthwest published a story on the medal being auctioned, Colby White, Collin White’s brother and the first grandson of John G. White, and his wife Lorry White, reached out to MyNorthwest. In an abrupt email, they each relayed the medal was being auctioned without the consent of the family.

Colby White told MyNorthwest he found out about the auction through other family members who saw the story on KIRO 7. Initially, he thought it was a scam. How could their family keepsake be auctioned without them knowing?

“Everybody was shocked that he would do something like that,” Lorry White said.

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Colby White shared the medal is a historic family heirloom that keeps them close to his late grandfather. They said the thought of it being stored away with a stranger as a mere collectible was devastating.

“Never has my husband talked about ownership. It’s about having management of it so it’s not stuck in one person’s hands for 20 years and nobody can see it. It’s about sharing and letting the family enjoy that history,” Lorry White said.

Colby White said he believes his grandfather would share the same sentiment.

“I think he would be mortified that some private owner would just have the medal somewhere,” he said.

Family members work tirelessly to stop auction

The pair immediately got to work to stop the auction, partnering with a pro-bono attorney who was a former rower at the UW.

Shortly before he found out, Colby White was hosting a screening of “The Boys in the Boat” on Lopez Island, in April, with a display of John White’s Olympic memorabilia.

Photo: Rower John White's Olympic memorabilia displayed at a screening of "Boys in the Boat" on Lopez Island.

Rower John White’s Olympic memorabilia displayed at a screening of “Boys in the Boat” on Lopez Island. (Photo courtesy of Lorry White, wife of Colby White)

“While we’re doing all this, anyway, so we found out and then it came to OK how are we going to stop this?” Colby White said.

Colby White said the decision to auction the medal was made by Collin White, their aunt and their father.

“The aunt wanted to sell at one time and everybody put up a stink. And then it was decided that Collin could be the keeper of it, and it wasn’t going to be sold because it meant so much to the family,” Lorry White said.

Colby White said he contacted his brother who said he would “check into it” but then as time went on, bids came in and the medal was still live on Grey Flannel Auctions’ website. Eventually, the company responded but told Colby White it couldn’t simply stop the auction.

After a grueling negotiation process — where at one point the family thought the only thing they could do was let it go to auction and make the highest bid — the auction house came to the conclusion that it would be $18,750 to stop the auction, explained Lorry White. She said Collin White eventually paid the money to stop the medal from being sold.

“The decision to remove John White’s gold medal from auction was due to a family dispute. At Grey Flannel Auctions, we prioritize respect and empathy above all else, and we stand by the White family during this challenging time,” Grey Flannel Auctions Director of Operations Michael Russek told MyNortwest in a statement.

We were happy to assist where we could, and we are pleased that the medal will be staying with the family. As a family-run business ourselves, we understand the multitude of emotions involved in auctioning off a piece of this magnitude,” he continued.

‘It’s part of our White family legacy’ historic medal coming home

However, even though the auction was halted and the medal returned to Collin White, it has yet to come home. As of Thursday, the medal is still in Arizona but Lorry White said the heirloom is making its way back to its Washington roots.

When it does return, Colby White said he’ll get the family together to approach his brother who according to Lorry White, has changed his mind multiple times on returning the medal. But in the hopeful event that he does return it, Lorry White said the family will have 90 days with the medal before loaning it back to the UW where it will be displayed next to Joe Rantz’s medal.

“I even think about being able to show it to our friends and show it to the grandkids, I mean, all of it. But to have it on display at the UW right now would be so … it’s just right. It just would be the right thing to do,” Lorry White said.

One can think of Indiana Jones’ famous line “It belongs in a museum.” And Lorry White said that’s what John White would have wanted.

“I think for him to have it on display at the UW, for the younger rowers, the alumni, rowers, and people who were thinking about rowing. I think he’d be thrilled,” she said.

Colby White added the story of triumph is part of what makes the memorabilia so special.

Photo: One of the suits worn by rower John White at the 1936 Olympics.

One of the suits worn by rower John White at the 1936 Olympics. (Photo courtesy of Lorry White, Colby White’s wife)

“It’s a part of our White family legacy. It’s our claim to fame. You tell the story to anyone and they just light up like ‘Wow, really? Jeez, that’s amazing,” he said.

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Lorry White then turned the camera, during the interview with MyNorthwest, to show John White’s oar hanging up in their house as a shining reminder of their family’s legacy.

“What an incredible feat, what an incredible man, any of those rowers to, to have done, back then, even to do what they did. And we live here, We live here with the Olympic oar right there on the wall. I mean, it is inspiring. It’s inspiring. And it’s really cool for me to know he came from that stock. It’s important. It’s important for the whole family,” she said.

Photo: Rower John White's oar hangs in his grandson's home.

Rower John White’s oar hangs in his grandson’s home. (Photo courtesy of Lorry White, wife of Colby White)

White family ‘exhausted’ but not ready to give up

Even though Colby White is afraid he might never get his grandfather’s medal back, he and his wife aren’t ready to give up.

“We were both really let down knowing that he changed his mind again, but we’re also exhausted, and the timeline to try to get a court injunction with the auction company just wasn’t gonna work. And so the only way I think that we’re going to be able to get it back is legally and I think it’s going to take an attorney,” Lorry White said.

“I don’t feel done,” she added.

MyNorthwest reached out to Collin White, who responded and then said he wanted to keep all communications off the record.

Julia Dallas is a content editor at MyNorthwest. You can read her stories here. Follow Julia on X, formerly known as Twitter, here and email her here.

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