Share this article

print logo

Cold Case Files: Olympian's life ended in shack at the foot of West Ferry

This promises to be a very memorable year for friends and family members of the late James E. "Chick" Hewson, a champion rower and former Olympic race walker.

After years of lobbying, nominating and circulating his name, Hewson's supporters recently learned that the native of Buffalo's Black Rock neighborhood has been selected to the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. He will be enshrined in the hall later this year, after a gala dinner in October.

"This is great news," said Thomas D. Graham, 76, of East Aurora, an old friend who served on Hewson's rowing crew in the 1950s and won championships with him all over North America. "Jim Hewson was the greatest oarsman in the history of Western New York, and I also believe the greatest endurance athlete in the history of Western New York."

"My buttons are bursting. I'm extremely proud," said the athlete's nephew and godson, John Hewson, 64, of the Town of Tonawanda.

But there is also an element of sadness for those who remember James Hewson.

Oct. 18 will mark the 40-year anniversary of his tragic death at the hands of robbers. Buffalo Police say Hewson was beaten and choked by killers who attacked him at his workplace – a small, nondescript shack at the foot of West Ferry Street. Hewson worked night shifts there as a city bridge tender, raising and lowering the steel lift bridge that enables tall ships and big boats to pass through the Black Rock Canal.

Nearly four decades later, the murder of this champion athlete remains unsolved – a Cold Case.

"Jim was my great friend and mentor. There was overwhelming grief when I learned of his murder," Graham recently told The Buffalo News. "And there is a real paradox about Jim's murder that still hits me hard to this day. This great man was murdered in a shack that sits maybe 100 to 150 yards from the finish line for rowers from the West Side Rowing Club. This man died close to a place where he had many of his great victories."

James E. "Chick" Hewson, a champion rower and former Olympic race walker, won 71 trophies and 92 medals during his career. (News file photo)

Retired Buffalo News reporter Michael Beebe still remembers the October 1978 morning when Hewson's body was found. Alerted to the homicide while working in Buffalo Police Headquarters, Beebe hustled out to the crime scene, where he learned that a bridge tender had been slain in an apparent robbery. Police found signs of a fierce struggle in a ramshackle little building near the lift bridge.

It had all the appearances of a sad, but fairly routine, murder case until a veteran homicide detective waved at Beebe and said, "Hey, Mike!"

"You're not going to believe this, but this guy was a former Olympic athlete," Beebe recalled the detective saying. "We were just over at his house, and it's loaded with all kinds of medals."

Police said Hewson, 62, had a habit of carrying his cash around in a sock. Detectives theorized that Hewson may have been killed by someone who saw him taking money out of the sock to pay for a drink at a West Side bar where he stopped before work that evening. They said Hewson may have been followed from the bar to the bridge tender shack.

Friends said Hewson was a wiry man, about 135 pounds, but exceedingly strong and athletic. Those who knew him said it would have taken at least two or three men to subdue him. Finding no signs of forced entry, police surmised that Hewson knew his attackers and opened his door to them.

Police investigated a couple of questionable characters who hung out in Niagara Street bars that Hewson frequented, but they never succeeded in obtaining enough evidence to make arrests. If the killers were in their 20s when they committed the crime, they would be in their 60s today.

"The case remains open, and we encourage anyone with information about it to contact our Cold Case squad at 851-4511," Buffalo Police Capt. Jeff Rinaldo told The News.

Hewson's career as an athlete was one of the most amazing in Buffalo sports history. Beginning in the 1930s, he won 49 gold medals at the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta in St. Catharines, Ont., the most prestigious rowing competition in North America. Most rowers would have been thrilled to win even one medal at the Henley.

He was a leader on a series of West Side Rowing Club teams that won 26 national titles. One of his most famous victories came in 1949, when Hewson's crew came from behind to defeat the team headed by America's most celebrated oarsman, Jack Kelly Jr. of Philadelphia. According to news reports, the race drew 20,000 spectators to the Black Rock Canal.

Hewson rowed on West Side Rowing Club teams that were finalists in the Olympic trials for the 1948 and 1952 games. When his rowing team narrowly missed selection to the Olympic team again in 1956, Hewson decided to take another route to the Olympics. He qualified for the Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, as a race walker, in both the 25-kilometer and 50-kilometer events. Hewson was also one of the nation's top marathon runners during the 1950s.

James Hewson, shown in 1961. (News file photo)

At age 40, he was nominated for the Sullivan Award, given to the nation's top amateur athlete. He had won 71 trophies and 92 medals during his career as a rower and race walker.

"Because of his tremendous work ethic, Jim could out-row anyone half his age," recalled Graham. "He worked out every single day."

In his heyday, Hewson's daily routine included 1,000 situps, walking or running 10 to 15 miles and – after all that – rowing for six miles, according to news articles written about him in the 1950s.

Hewson was also a decorated World War II hero who served as an Army paratrooper in the European war theater. He suffered a very serious back injury when he jumped into Normandy, France, during the D-Day invasion of 1945.

"After that, doctors told him his athletic career was over," Graham said. But Hewson proved them wrong.

Hewson made friendships with athletes all over the world. One of his close friends was Jack Kelly, the champion oarsman from Philadelphia, and Hewson also became a friend of Kelly's very famous sister, actress Grace Kelly.

After Grace Kelly became Princess Grace of Monaco, Hewson once showed up at the palace in Monaco where she lived, according to his nephew, John Hewson.

"According to the story that has been passed on in our family, my uncle knocked at the palace door, and said, 'I want to see the princess. Tell her Jim Hewson from Buffalo is here,' " John Hewson said.

A few minutes later, the story goes, the princess came to the door, shouted, "Chickie!" and gave Hewson a big hug.

"For all of his accomplishments and stories, Uncle Jim was the most humble, unpretentious man you ever met," said John Hewson. "My dad, Chuck, was also a champion rower, and when the two of them got together to talk about old times, it was hilarious."

John Hewson said he is thrilled that his uncle has been selected for the sports hall of fame, but he also wishes that police would unlock the mystery to James Hewson's 1978 murder.

"Every time I drive by that bridge, I think about it," John Hewson said. "With all the great things that he did, it's just sad how it ended."

There are no comments - be the first to comment