Leonard “Bud” Meyer Jr., who flew midnight bombing missions over the Pacific in World War II, earned two Bronze Stars after a tour in Korea and, as an Olympic swimming official, once disqualified Olympic great Mark Spitz in a race, died May 5 of heart failure. He was 89.
Meyer was equal parts serious and gregarious. He was military stern but known to charm all comers while with the Marine Air Corps and later with the U.S. Army as a second lieutenant and throughout his post-military career, which included management positions at Campbell Soup Co. in Sacramento and Modesto, with food management stints in the Philippines and Saudi Arabia.
Meyer and his wife of 65 years, Betty, retired to Fair Oaks, though to know Meyer, the words “retirement” and “idle” never registered. Meyer remained active through swimming meets and was a fixture at the Spare Time Clubs and the Rio del Oro club in the region, a friend to all who regaled in sharing life stories.
“Oh my gosh, what an amazing life, amazing,” said his daughter, Olympic swimming great Debbie Meyer, who won Olympic gold in 1968 while still attending Rio Americano High School. “We didn’t start pressing Dad for stories until his 70s – ‘Dad, you’ve got to write this stuff down.’ Things like giving a parachute to Henry Fonda while in the war.
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“I talked to Dad’s barber, and he said he used to love listening to Dad’s stories. One time, on a night mission over the Pacific, they were low on fuel. Dad said they were going to make another pass, and he wanted a successful mission because at 12:01 a.m., it was his birthday. That’s who he was. Those were the stories he told.”
Debbie Meyer recalled addressing scores of her father’s old military buddies. She became emotional in sharing stories.
“A squadron reunion, 10 years ago in Quantico, Va.,” she said. “Twenty of them left. I’m looking at these proud gentlemen, and I say, ‘I’ve got to tell you where my work ethic came from – from my dad being a Marine.’ It really hit me then. He was part of that Greatest Generation.”
Debbie Meyer said her father’s encouragement and approval as a teenage world-class swimmer inspired her. She was a prodigy and her father had a sense of pending greatness. Meyer gave his daughter a stopwatch for Christmas in 1964. Engraved on the back, it reads, “Debbie Meyer, Dec. 25, 1964. Mexico City, 1968.”
During the 1968 Olympic Trials, Meyer mailed his daughter a card that read, “HAPPINESS IS A GOLD MEDAL.” The card came back, altered a bit, with, “HAPPINESS IS THREE GOLD MEDALS.”
At the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, Debbie Meyer proved prophetic. At just 16, she won the 200, 400 and 800-meter free style races to become the first swimmer to take three golds in one Games. Her father bounded around the place, bearing a card that read, “Hi! I’m Debbie Meyer’s father.”
From 1967-71, Debbie Meyer broke 20 world records and 24 American records. She offers swimming instruction at the Debbie Meyer Swim School in Carmichael and in Truckee. She was named by The Bee as the regional Athlete of the Century.
“Dad was proud beyond words, and I could feel it,” she said.
When Debbie Meyer was hired to coach swimming at Sacramento State after retiring from swimming, she phoned her father, explaining, simply, “I need a starter and an official.” She added, “And he was very good. Being involved in sports, molding kids, preparing them for life, that’s what he was about.”
But Bud Meyer never buckled to celebrity. In an international meet in 1970 in Santa Clara, he disqualified Spitz, a rising-fast swimming great who went on to win seven Olympic golds in the ’72 Games.
“Dad had the guts to DQ Mark Spitz, because he knew rules were rules,” Debbie Meyer said. “George Haines, Mark’s coach, said, ‘How can you DQ Mark Spitz, going for a world record?’ My dad said he caused a false start. It was the right call.”
Debbie Meyer was moved by letters praising her father in recent weeks, including from Peter M. Guadagni, the chairman of Pacific Masters Swimming, who wrote of Bud Meyer, “his presence on deck is fondly remembered and missed. His knowledge of our sport and good nature helped set the standard for our competitions. In Bud’s memory, we will just keep swimming.”
And from decades-long friend Mike Burton, an El Camino High School graduate who won three Olympic golds: “Your father was the greatest starter of all time.”
Bud Meyer was born May 12, 1924, in Baltimore. At 17, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps and flew in a B-25 Mitchell, an aircraft that had no armament other than wing-mounted rockets. He was a member of the “Suicide Squadron of the Pacific,” as termed by the Marine Leatherneck Magazine, part of a three-man crew as a radar-radioman that attacked enemy ships in the Pacific.
Unable to get a commission back to the Marine Corps in the early 1950s after an illness, Meyer transferred to the Army, later earning the Bronze Stars.
He is survived by his wife, children Clif Meyer of Los Alamos, N.M.; Debbie Meyer of Truckee; and Jeff Meyer of Cameron Park, five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Services are Friday at 11 a.m. at St. Mel’s Catholic Church, 4745 Pennsylvania Ave., Fair Oaks.