SALT LAKE CITY — Jay Lambert, very possibly the most unassuming Olympian the state of Utah has ever produced, passed away this week at the age of 86.
As his three grown children, Vickie, Mike and Ann, gathered at the home on Nevada Street where their father lived the past 42 years and set about sorting through his stuff, they were not surprised at what they uncovered from his famous past.
Almost no trophies, medals or mementos. Only an old poster of a smiling Jay Lambert wearing his U.S.A. Olympic uniform in 1948 when he was a member of the boxing team America sent to the London Games.
They brushed away the dust, brought the photo of their father in his prime up from the basement, and positioned it next to the fireplace in the front room, the place most people would have put it in 1948.
But not their dad. He came home from the Olympics, fought just enough bouts as a professional — 12 of them — to pay for medical school and then hung up his gloves for good.
For the remaining 60 years of his life, the boxer was a physician and surgeon.
He started his practice back when doctors made house calls. First he'd diagnose the problem, then he'd got out his scalpel and fix the problem. Over the decades he tended to generations of families, at all hours of the day and night.
"People could know him for years and years and have no idea he was this famous athlete who was in the Olympics," said Ann.
And if they somehow found out, he was as adept at deflecting the attention and praise as he'd once been at dodging jabs and hooks.
"He'd always say, 'I had three older brothers, what was I going to do?'" remembered Vickie.
Mike recalled once asking his dad about Joe Louis, the world heavyweight champion who boxed exhibition matches with Lambert and another up-and-coming young Salt Lake heavyweight named Rex Layne.
"I'd read that Rex Layne said he could have held his own with Joe Louis, so I asked Dad about that," recalled Mike. "I remember he shrugged it off. He said, 'Joe Louis was playing with us the whole time; anytime he'd have wanted, he could have mopped the floor with us.'"
Born and raised in Lehi near the Point of the Mountain, Lambert learned to box at Marv Jenson's gym in West Jordan, where he was a contemporary of Gene Fullmer. He was the perennial AAU heavyweight champion in the Rocky Mountain Region as a teenager and then, after serving in the U.S. Army for 21 months prior to the end of World War II, he resumed his amateur career and won the heavyweight division at the U.S. Olympic Boxing Trials in 1948.
He was victorious in his first two bouts in the London Olympics before being eliminated in the quarterfinals by Johnny Arthur of South Africa in a split decision.
After the Olympics he turned pro, with Jenson as his manager, and compiled an 8-3-1 record while winning $5,000. He retired from the ring in 1950 at the age of 24 and was accepted into medical school at the University of Utah. He used his prize money to pay his tuition.
By and by, Dr. Lambert and his wife, Ila, who died in 1997, had the children who were cleaning out the house on Nevada Street this week as they reminisced about their father.
"He was the epitome of the golden rule," said Ann.
"He didn't have a mean bone in his body," said Mike.
"He loved to help people. He never even thought about suing anybody," said Vickie, who illustrated with a story.
"I used to see his bills (for his patients)," she said. "And sometimes they'd get way overdue. I'm kinda feisty so I'd write them saying they needed to get this caught up. Then my dad would learn about it and he would say, 'Vic, did you send them a note? Why would you want to do that? These people are having hard times. They can't afford it.'"
After dozens of stories, just like that one, the grown kids of Jay Lambert looked first around the room at each other and then at the photograph of their dad in his Olympic uniform that they'd placed front and center next to the fireplace.Comment on this story
"Oh man," they said, thinking the same thought almost in unison. "If he saw this and heard us talking right now, he'd be so embarrassed. He'd be like, stop, come on — he was not one to brag."
Leave that to the next generation.
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday.