Jack Daniels was and is Missoula's most unsung athlete, and possibly Helmville's as well.
Sports Illustrated noticed him more than 60 years ago. An article last week in the Missoulian sports section ran down the first 10 Montanans to receive recognition in SI’s “Faces in the Crowd” column.
Daniels was No. 1, on May 12, 1958. SI's blurb noted the 25-year-old Daniels, a “durable Army lieutenant from Missoula and old hand at modern pentathlon grind” helped the United States A team to victory in a four-nation competition in San Antonio, Texas.
Ray Rocene, the Missoulian's venerable sports editor, noticed Daniels years before that. He began following his swimming and ROTC shooting exploits from the time Daniels arrived at Montana State University in Missoula in 1951.
At first Daniels was a name on a list of prospects on Coach Fred Erdhaus' 1952 Montana State Grizzlies’ swim team. A backstroke specialist, he was one of two Grizzlies who went to Laramie, Wyoming, in March 1952 for the Skyline Conference championships. Daniels placed second in both the 100-yard and 200-yard back strokes, both times to Loy Rovenstine of Denver University.
Later that month came notice that Daniels, still a freshman, had been elected captain of the team. For the first time, he was listed as being from Helmville. That’s where the Daniels family lived after he’d graduated from high school in Redwood City, California, and transferred to the Missoula university following a year at Colorado School of Mines.
“I wasn’t hunting and fishing and having fun and my brother was, so I transferred to Montana,” he told the Missoulian years later.
Daniels won the Skyline championship in the 100 backstroke as a sophomore and captained the swim team for three years. He graduated in March 1955, and a year later was an Olympic prospect. The Missoulian got hold of Daniels’ regimental newspaper and cited it in a March 27, 1956, story datelined Ovando.
It said Lt. Jack T. Daniels, stationed in Korea with the Army’s 34th Infantry Regiment near Seoul, was a 1956 Olympic contender in the pentathlon. The event consisted of a 220-yard swim, a two-mile road race, a .45-caliber pistol match, horseback riding and fencing.
“He is currently athletic and recreation officer with the regiment, and he formerly lived at Helmville,” the story said. “During summer months, he spent his vacations in the Tupper Lake area where his parents have maintained a summer camp.”
The ’56 Olympic Games were held in Melbourne, Australia, in November. On Dec. 28, the Missoulian carried a photo of Daniels flanking his mother, Louise, with Montana athletic director George Dahlberg on her other side. The Daniels were holding a sterling silver serving set.
“Missoula’s own Olympic hero, 2nd Lt. Jack Daniels, a United States modern pentathlon entry in the Melbourne games, was honored during the halftime intermission at the Montana–North Dakota State basketball game at the Field house Thursday night,” the caption read.
While the ’56 U.S. pentathlon team’s bid for its first world championship fell short in a military event long dominated by Europeans, Daniels helped it to a silver medal.
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Daniels’ best finish was a second in horseback riding, even though he’d never ridden a horse until he took up the sport. Out of the Army in 1959, Daniels trained for the 1960 Olympics in Rome as the only foreign student accepted to the Royal Gymnastics Central Institute in Stockholm.
The three-man U.S. team won bronze that September, after which the Missoulian carried a full-page spread on the local star.
“First impression of Jack Daniels is one of near disbelief that the man is one of the world's ranking athletes,” Lou Linley started the Oct. 16 feature. “Handsome in the extreme, his finely etched features belie the well of physical reserve which necessarily must be built into a competitor in the modern pentathlon.”
By 1965, Daniels’ post-competitive career was shaking out. He’d been coaching track at Oklahoma State University when Rocene announced Daniels had left for Lima, Peru, to coach the Peruvian national team for a year.
To be sure, most Missoulian references to Jack Daniels after that have come in the same sentence or advertisement as “fifth” and “bottle.”
He became one of the top running coaches in the world largely out of sight of his hometown readers.
In 1996, Daniels made a bid to come home. In the midst of a highly successful career at State University of New York Cortland, he was one of three finalists for UM's head track coaching job. It went to another Grizzly alum, Tom Raunig.
That was just about the time Daniels was dubbed the “world’s best running coach” on the cover of Runner’s World magazine.
Daniels was 81 in January 2015 when he reappeared in Missoula for a presentation on his principles for successful distance running. At age 86, he recently retired from coaching cross country at Wells College in New York. He’s still in New York and still in the game.
For all that, around here Daniels admits he plays second fiddle to his late little brother. The charismatic Jerry “Hog” Daniels led a fascinating life as a Missoula smokejumper who morphed into a CIA operative among the Hmong people fighting communism in the hills of Laos during the Vietnam War.
Jerry Daniels’ efforts after Laos fell in 1975 are the main reason Missoula has enjoyed a rich Hmong culture for the past 40 years. His mysterious death in Bangkok in 1982, and the government’s top-secret handling of his casket and burial in Missoula, continue to raise questions among friends and family, including brother Jack.
In a 2008 article, Jack Daniels acknowledged his own accomplishments in the athletic and running worlds.
"But that's nothing compared to what Jerry did, I don't think," he said. "And he did it for such a long time. He was so committed to it."