Hidden Magic — Walt Disney’s Olympic Connection

I know there are some of you out there like me, who can’t take as many trips to a Disney Park as we want. So how can we keep the magic with us wherever we live? Yes, we have our ear hats on a shelf, photo memories of our trips on the walls, and the shrine to our favorite collectible we keep spending endless income on. But once we walk out our doors, what do we do? As a historian I decided to look into the past.

With the Summer Olympics underway and how hot it’s been everywhere, I thought a little story about the Winter Olympics would be fun! It all started one day when I was visiting our local University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and I walked by a flag pole and noticed a plaque on it. I thought, that’s strange, and went to take a closer look. It read:

“This Official Olympic Flagpole was used at Squaw Valley, California in the pageantry Ceremonies of the VIII Olympic Winter Games held in February 18-28, 1960. Walt Disney Chairman of Pageantry.”

What!? Of course, I had to research to find out more. So, with an easy Google search I found out what many may already know. Walt Disney was Chairman of the Olympic Pageantry Committee that produced the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the 1960 Winter Olympics. The 1960 Games had many firsts. The first Olympic Village was built, American television broadcasted live coverage, the instant replay was introduced, artificial ice was used, and there were official sponsorships of the huge snow sculptures and flagpoles. Yes, the flagpoles.

Searching a little further, I found an image of a letter that was sold at auction. Walt sent out letters to businesses and people he knew to help raise the money for 30 snow sculptures and 43 flagpoles. These flagpoles would display the flags of the nations participating in the Olympics around the ceremonial area and also line the pathway to the Olympic Village. Depending on size, sponsoring a flagpole was between $500-$600, plus shipping to have it delivered to you after the Olympics.

Photo Credit: Oakand Tribune, February 19,1960

Start of the Olympic Ceremonies of the VIII Winter Olympics with the flagpoles in the background.

 

So how did one of these Olympic flagpoles get to the plains of South Dakota? As I started my research, I worked backwards combing through newspapers. The dedication ceremony on May 8, 1962 was in memory of Augustana College Business Manager, Olin Lokken. However, the flagpole actually was placed in the center of campus a few years earlier in September 1960. The story goes that Gordon Bell, one of the wealthiest residents living in Sioux Falls during the 1950s and 60s, notified architect Harold Spitznagel of the availability of the pole, and Spitznagel arranged for the purchase and delivery. 

This is where it gets a little unclear. Was this for the Olympics, or after? Was this plaque on the flagpole as it stood watching the Olympic Games, or was it placed afterwards? To find out I made phone calls and sent emails to Augustana College, the architect firm created by Spitznagel, and even to Disney Archives. I did find out that memorial gifts in Olin Lokken’s name were also used to help fund this but there’s nothing concrete as I am writing this. Sometimes in doing research you come up with dead ends so theories arise, but the truth is history.

THEORY: While doing research I went on a tangent (which often happens). Harold Spitznagel’s legacy can be seen to this day throughout the region from local residences to schools and from theaters to the Mount Rushmore Visitor Center. He certainly had the means to hear of the request from Walt Disney. Likewise, as vice president and co-owner of Foster-Bell Co., Gordon Bell could have received the call from Walt as well. Overall, I believe they purchased the flagpole after the Olympics and used the memorial money to create a plaque with Lokken’s name, but who knows who the original sponsor may have been.

Even though I can’t find definitive proof of my theory, my research led me to find magic in other ways. Two men, Gordon Bell and Harold Spitznagel, came together to celebrate Olin Lokken’s life. They also did much for the community as well. Bell helped the local zoolgical society create the Great Plains Zoo that still attracts families today. During WWII, Spitnagel served as Director of Housing for the 40,000-person military base. Like Walt Disney, both believed in making the world a better place for others and uniting their communities to support common causes. Isn’t that what the Olympics is all about, too? 

Let us know if you have seen any of these flagpoles! Where have you seen Walt’s Olympic spirit on display? 

My name is Molly and I live in South Dakota. With my art and design training and love for history, I have helped develop over 80 local history exhibits through the years as a Curator. Disney has been in my blood since I was born. Visiting my Grandparents in California also meant my parents taking us to Disneyland. Since the late 1970s, I have taken many trips to DL and WDW but sometimes it’s too long in between trips. I have always tried to stay connected to Disney, so once I found Lou and WDW Radio, it became even easier to dream of Disney in between visits!

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