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Life Celebrated For Ambassador Dave Bolen, CU’s First Olympian

Dec 24, 2022
Bolen in his track days as a sprinter.

           BOULDER — Ambassador Dave Bolen, the University of Colorado's first Olympian who went on to have amazing career of accomplishments outside of the sports arena, passed away in Scottsdale, Ariz., on December 10; he was two weeks shy of his 99th birthday.
            A "Global Celebration of Life and Legacy on behalf His Excellency Ambassador David B. Bolen Sr.," was held simultaneously around the world in commemoration of his brilliant life and illustrious career on Friday, Dec. 23, on what would have been the Ambassador's 99th birthday. 
            In Germany, the first Celebration of Life event was held on his behalf in a charming castle located on the Weser river near Bremen.  The castle is a World Heritage site which was built in the 1300's.  It was from here that 160 guests wished the Ambassador smooth sailing to the New World.  In Scottsdale, Ariz., the celebration was held at the Atria Sierra Pointe Luxury Senior Living with his very close-knit community where the Ambassador spent the last decade of his life.  A grand memorial service is also planned in the near future.
            "My father always said that it was important to dream big and then have the self-confidence to reach those goals," his daughter Cynthia Bolen-Nieland said.  "He mastered all of life's challenges with unflinching bravery, drive and determination.  He was truly an absolutely remarkable human being.  'Being and Olympian and an Ambassador are names that nobody can ever take from him,' he told me."
            "He loved the arts, classical music, lively discussions, veggie cuisine, sports, natural lifestyle medicine, astronomy and his mind was always searching for the meaning behind the unseen," she added.  "He was sort of a clairvoyant in that he had a keen sense of premonition mostly with utmost accuracy and precision.  He loved diversity of cultures and always encouraged us to learn a new language, get to know the culture where we were, and explore the local cuisine.  Even until his last hours, he enjoyed practicing his German with his son in law, Udo, a brilliant CPA in Germany."
               "I had the privilege of spending time with Ambassador Bolen on several occasions," CU athletic director Rick George said.  "A true icon, he was almost larger than life.  He had so many interesting stories to tell from how he arrived at CU through his years representing the nation.  He was able to return to Boulder six years ago and soaked up everything his could about his alma mater and the town as well.  It was always a pleasure to visit with him."
               Former CU athletic director Bill Marolt attended the Scottsdale event.  In 1964, Marolt, a member of the U.S. Olympic ski team, was one of the first recipients of the "Bolen Award," presented to CU students who participate in a Summer or Winter Olympics.         
               Ambassador David Benjamin Bolen was born in Heflin, La., on Dec. 23, 1923 and was raised in Grambling, La., after his father was named the town's postmaster.  He enrolled at Southern University in 1941, and attended school there until June, 1943, when he joined the Army Air Force.  He was discharged as a sergeant in 1946, and enrolled at the University of Colorado in the school of business in July of that same year.
               As a member of CU's track team, he was unbeaten during the 1947 season and was the 440- and 880-yard run champion of the Mountain States Conference (also known as the Big Seven).  He also anchored CU's undefeated mile relay team.  His best time in the 440 was a 46.6 effort at the 1947 NCAA Championships, as he finished second behind Herb McKenley of Illinois.  Those performances led him to become a member of the 1948 U.S. Olympic Team, the first CU athlete to ever make an Olympic squad.  He finished fourth in the 400-meter run at the London games, and his best time in the event was 48.6 seconds, which he achieved in the Olympic trials.
            Bolen later in life said, "The Olympics is not something you train for. You have to have talent, world-class talent. You have to use that talent for the benefit of yourself and others."  Bolen first discovered that he had that talent when he raced other children during an Easter egg hunt during his childhood and found that he was faster. He later decided he wanted to use his "foot speed" to gain a college education.
             In 1949, Bolen won the 600-meter event in the National AAU Championships in a 1:11.6 time.  He also won that same event in 1948 with a 1:11.8 time.  The recipient of the Robert Russell Memorial Award after his return from the Olympics, as was selected as the Most Outstanding Athlete in the Rocky Mountain Area for 1948.  He represented the United States on four occasions as a member of the AAU All-Star team that competed in both Eastern and Western Europe.
               He graduated from the University of Colorado in 1950 (B.S. & M.S., Business).  Upon his graduation from the CU, he was appointed a foreign service officer in the United States Consular Service.  He was first assigned to the American Embassy in Monrovia.  He was then stationed in Karachi, Pakistan, where he also coached track at the University of Karachi and worked with the Pakistan Olympic Association.  He returned to Washington as was detailed to the Department of Commerce as an international economist.  He later became desk officer for Afghanistan affairs in the State Department.
               Bolen studied advanced economics at Harvard during 1959-60 academic year, earning a master's degree in public administration.  In 1960, he was assigned to Accra, Ghana, as head of the economic section in the American embassy.  He also volunteered as a track coach for the young athletes of Ghana.  In 1962, he returned to the Washington to serve as staff assistant to the assistant secretary of state for African affairs. 
               In 1964, he was named officer in charge of Nigerian Affairs in the Bureau of African Affairs.  During this time, he accompanied the assistant secretary on two trips to Africa, covering more than 20 countries and including meeting with a dozen heads of state or government.  He spent the 1966-67 academic year at the National War College in Washington for senior training in foreign affairs.
               He served five years, 1967-72, in the American embassy in Bonn, Germany, first as economic officer and later as economic counselor.  In 1972, he became an economic and commercial counselor in the American embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.  In 1974, he was named U.S. Ambassador to the South African nations of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland; President Richard M. Nixon nominated him for the post. 
            In 1977, President Jimmy Carter named him as the ambassador to East Germany, the first African-American to serve as ambassador to a nation behind the Iron Curtain (he served until 1980).  While in that role, the fluent in German Bolen helped to lay the groundwork for the destruction of the Berlin Wall.  On November 9, 1989, the day the wall came down, Bolen's daughter, Cynthia, was photographed handing a long-stemmed rose to an East German border guard standing atop the wall (it was named one of the best eight pictures in the world that year).
            Bolen also worked to help free Nelson Mandela from prison.
               He was a recipient of the George Norlin Award in 1969, the highest alumni honor of the University of Colorado, and was named to the University's "Hall of Honor" that same year as an alumnus who attained distinguished achievements in his field and brought honor to himself and his alma mater.  In 2000, he was a member of the third class to be induced into the University of Colorado Athletic Hall of Fame, and in 2013, he was honored with the Leeds School of Business Distinguished Alumni and Service Award.
            Ambassador Bolen read Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address many times with his eldest daughter, Cynthia during his last days and hours.  Among his many achievements and awards, he will be remembered for his leadership in preparing the fall of the Berlin Wall and dismantling apartheid in South Africa. In all places where he was sent, he served with the utmost integrity, precision and effectiveness to bring about freedom, democracy and peace for each and every individual.
             "He was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth but developed with his wealth of God-given talents of incredible speed, clear thinking, and the ability to solve problems with great precision," said Bolen-Nieland, who is a Global Ambassador for CU's Leeds School of Business.  "During his studies at Harvard, they nicknamed him, 'The Streak.'"
               The Ambassador is survived by three children, Cynthia, Myra and David, Jr., two granddaughters, Lauren and Monica.  He was preceded in death by his wife, the former Elizabeth "Betty" Gayden, also a 1950 CU graduate; she passed in 2009 shortly before their 60th wedding anniversary.  As a talented artist in her own right who studied with the famous German artist Max Beckmann (who fled Germany to teach young artists in the U.S.), she lent a special flair of creativity and brilliance to all of the diplomatic posts where the couple were assigned.
               During the Celebration on the occasion of his 99th birthday, Cynthia read pertinent passages from his memoirs, Running Down a Dream, which he completed in 2016.  Ambassador Bolen will also be remembered for his wit, humor and respect for human life on earth.  His presence bought depth and richness to all who had the honor to know him.