Partners in Crime
Bill Keating Jr was the first cousin of my wife, Mary. From the time we met, when I was in college at Indiana University, Bill and I stayed in touch with each other through our families and a shared passion for swimming. We went to some Olympic Games and Olympic Trials together, just to watch the swimming events. Bill was always a joy to be around because he was full of interesting stories. Even if slightly exaggerated, all of his stories were based on truth.
He would always begin his stories by asking “Did I ever tell you the story about….?” I may have heard the story ten times before, but it didn’t matter. Nothing would stop Bill from telling it over again. Oddly enough, I enjoyed hearing the same stories many times. His life was that interesting. Often, at least with me, the stories were about swimming. One of his favorite stories was how we collaborated in a crime in Munich during the 1972 Olympic Games to heist the largest Olympic flag in the city, flying in front of the Bayerischer Hof Hotel. He didn’t share this story with many others.
It may not be fair that I expose Bill to this crime when he is no longer here to defend himself. At least now, he cannot be disbarred from his law practice or fined by the IOC. Besides, he was only an accomplice in and not the perpetrator of this crime.
The day before Bill was to leave Munich and return to Cincinnati, we walked into the lobby of the Bayerischer Hof Hotel, where our family was staying. It was a dark, gray rainy afternoon. The huge white Olympic flag with its five intersecting rings waved gloriously in the wind, perched above the hotel entrance. The flag seemed oblivious to the fact that what it symbolized, a unified peaceful world, had been threatened by the Israeli athletes who were slaughtered by Palestinians in the Olympic Village just a few short days ago. Nonetheless, hanging from that long pole extending out from the balcony on the second floor, this Olympic flag, the largest one I had ever seen, would be a coveted prize, indeed.
“Bill,” I said, stopping him as we neared the front desk. “Wouldn’t that Olympic flag look great hanging in the Keating Natatorium in Cincinnati?”
Despite his immediate concerned expression, he couldn’t disagree that the Olympic flag could inspire thousands of young swimmers training in Cincinnati, dreaming of one day competing in the Olympic Games.
“What are you thinking of doing, Gary?” he asked me with a diffident look.
I knew Bill was leaving Munich for Cincinnati the following morning.
“Look,” I told him. “You leave the part about getting the flag up to me. If I get it, I want you to stuff it into your suitcase and carry it home for us tomorrow. Will you do that?”
Bill looked down, still wondering if he wanted to be involved at all. Finally, and reluctantly, he looked up and said “OK, I’ll do it”.
With that, I walked back outside in the stormy weather. The hotel is near one of the busiest squares in Munich, yet on this particular rainy day, there were not many people walking on the sidewalk in front.
“This is the perfect time to get that flag”, I thought to myself. I looked up and counted the hotel windows over from the corner of the hotel on the second floor, so I would know precisely which room on that floor had a window that accessed the balcony containing the flagpole. Then I walked up to the second floor and counted doors from the corner of the hotel and discovered that it was room #204 that I needed to enter. I went back down to the front desk and very casually asked for the key to room #204. In Europe in those days, the keys weighed a ton and no one ever took them out of the hotel. Two keys were hanging from the #204 sign, a good sign that the guest was out. The desk clerk not only handed me the heavy key but also gave me the mail that had been delivered to that person. That was another good sign that the room was unoccupied. In spite of the terrorist attack occurring just days earlier, the clerk hadn’t asked for my identification. Those were different times. I smiled, thanked him, and took the mail and key, heading toward the elevator.
I went to the fifth floor where we were staying and got Bill. He emptied his suitcase and together we went down to the second floor. He waited around the corner from the elevator and hid with the empty suitcase. I went to room #204 and knocked on the door. No answer. I knocked again, louder. Still no answer.
Quickly, I turned the key and opened the room. I threw the mail on the bed and opened the window. I had calculated correctly as the balcony was right there and the flag pole just off to one side. I climbed out of the window on to the balcony and unhooked the lower part of the flag from the pole. As I started pulling on the string to bring it toward me, my heart was racing. The flag was bigger than I had thought. While pulling it down, it nearly dropped down and touched the sidewalk below. Still, no one seemed to notice.
Suddenly I heard a clanging noise coming from the street. First, there was one noise, then two then three loud noises.
“What the heck is that?” I thought. Finally, I realized that someone was throwing bottle caps onto the sidewalk. I looked up and saw my father-in-law, Charlie Keating, with his head outside of the window on the fifth floor laughing. He threw another bottle cap and it struck the sidewalk. It was his way of showing disapproval.
I didn’t find the humor and quickly finished pulling the wet flag in, untethering it from the rope. I jumped back inside the hotel room, closed the window, and folded the flag up tightly in my arms. Outside of the room, I handed off the flag to Bill who stuffed it quickly into his suitcase. I locked the door to the room and calmly returned the key to the front desk as if nothing had happened. The following morning that Olympic flag was checked through in Bill’s luggage and on its way to Cincinnati.
Several weeks later, with the Olympic flag displayed in a tall glass frame hanging in the Keating Natatorium in Cincinnati, Charlie Keating decided to write a letter to the manager of the Bayerischer Hof Hotel, explaining the entire crime. He offered to pay for the stolen flag. He received a reply from the hotel manager stating that he had been very surprised and disappointed to find the flag missing from the hotel, but that he was relieved to know who the criminals were and that the flag had ended up in such a worthy place. He didn’t even ask for us to pay for the flag.
While I am not proud of having committed that crime nor having pulled Bill Keating Jr. into it, for more than a decade, until it finally disintegrated from the humidity inside the natatorium, that Olympic flag-inspired countless swimmers training in the Keating Natatorium to reach greater heights. For that, I am grateful.
Sadly, Bill passed away from brain cancer a few years ago. He was one of the most caring and selfless people I have ever known. I will never forget Bill nor the Olympic flag that we stole together in Munich.
Yours in swimming,