(1914-1986) – Born in Hungary. AFLA national sabre champion (1944, ’46, ’50, ’51, ’52, ’53, ’56). Member, U.S. Olympic team (1948, ’52, ’56, ’60). Finalist, Olympic sabre individual (1948) – seventh place. Member, Olympic bronze medal-winning sabre team (1948). Pan-American sabre champion (1951).
Obituary written by Robert M. Blum
Tibor A. Nyilas died May 19, 1986 of cancer. Doctor Nyilas is survived by his wife, the former Eleanore Gawkowska, his son Robert, and his two grandsons- and thousands of devoted friends, patients, colleagues, and companions in the world of medicine and of sport, by all of whom he was quite literally worshipped.
Nyilas’ achievements in fencing were simply spectacular. A youthful national star in his native Hungary before he came to the United States in 1939, Tibor absolutely dominated American Saber Fencing for more than twenty years.
He was seven times national Saber Champion between 1946 and 1956. He was a Saber finalist in every Saber Nationals he entered from 1945 – when this writer first saw him – until 1960. Three times Nyilas won the national individual three-weapon championships.
Nyilas was four times an Olympic team member (1948-1952 – 1956-1960) and twice a Pan American team member (1951-1955-1959). He was an individual finalist in the London Olympics in 1948, and a member of our bronze medal saber team there. He was the Pan American saber champion in 1951—and won team gold in those games as well in both saber and foil. For this, the F.I.E. awarded him a special medal struck for the occasion.
The modern-era influx of the young Hungarian stars, after the 1956 Hungarian revolution, did not daunt him or quell his fencing ardor, though he was then well into his forties. In both 1957 and 1958, he tied for first with Dan Magay, each time finishing second—but ahead, it should be noted, of Hamori, Keresztez, Orley, Pallaghy, and Domolki, the other recent Hungarian emirgres, not to mention such as Worth, Dyer, Kwartler, Gorlin, and Cohen, the domestic stars.
At the age of 46 in the Rome Olympics in 1960, when the United States Saber Team eliminated the top-ranked U.S.S.R by 8-8 on touches, Tibor won all 4 of his bouts. The following year in Warsaw-his last trip as a competitor- Nyilas was still 2 for 4 against the U.S.S.R- which again lost to us by a 9-7 score.
As a domestic competitor, Tibor represented Salle Santelli at first, and then the New York athletic club. His stacks of local tournament medals-awarded in an era when only the first three places received medals- are beyond count.
The Nyilas fencing style was elegant and exquisite; full of contrasts and creativity. Tall and yet catlike, his speed and softness of hand rivaled that of Pawlowski, the effortless explosion of his fleche that of Pallaghy or Rylskii. Yet, like Westbrook, his footfalls were as silent as falling snow.
His greatest fencing rivalry was with his friend and constant comrade, George Worth. Competitors since high school in Budapest, their bouts arrested all other tournament activity as everyone crowded close to the strip to watch.
Tibor’s fencing was incredibly intellectual. “Fence each bout for the next one”, he taught, “and the next one for the nationals.” Yet those who heard his fencing roar as he attacked on the piste—unforgettable and beyond imitation—never doubted his animal joy and enthusiasm for the sport.
But unlike many other distinguished athletes, Tibor Nyilas’ fencing results were the least of his triumphs as a man. His was a unique human presence. His judgment was legendary. His graciousness, his humor, his disciplined intellect were accompanied by an unquenchable curiosity about life and an immutable belief in the goodness of everyone he knew. It was impossible not to love him.
He was a doctor with no peer, as his patients (and I was one) and his medical colleagues knew. Nyilas was a general practitioner, a family doctor in the grand tradition. His concentration on a patient and her needs was awesome; his diagnoses were superb, his dedication to the call of medicine and the relief of suffering was complete.
His office was his sacred place. Although gravely ill by February of this year and in constant pain, he calmly kept his usual office hours. Less than three weeks before his death, Nyilas was still putting aside his oxygen tubes three times weekly to drive—alone—to his office where his patients still flocked for his affectionate care.
Nyilas was a man of diverse interests. He was a passionate Cardinals and Mets fan. He loved ballet. His stamp collection, focusing on sports in general and on fencing in particular, was known throughout the philatelic world. He was fluent in four or five languages. He played excellent bridge, poker, tennis, and Ping-Pong.
He was a model husband and father, and was quite able (in contrast to other aged and aging fencers) to turn with calmness from the furnace of international competition to the hearth of his comfortable home. His rich and irreverent wit punctuated even his casual chats.
But friendship was his greatest gift. He had mastered the art of selflessness; when one was with him, the conversation always seemed about you, never about him. He knew how to share secrets and keep them. He knew how much a word of encouragement can mean, a touch of the hand, a smile. Was I preparing for a big trial? The phone would ring at 8:00am. “Bobby? Tibor. Go get him!” Unsure of myself? “But you have even beaten Pawlowski. What is tougher about this?”
He was forever modest about himself; but he knew of the power of love. He knew the power of death also; but death did not frighten him. Quoting his father’s deathbed philosophy, he recently observed to me calmly, “after I am gone the trolleys will still be running”.
His last few weeks were painful ones, for the cancer from which he suffered was extremely widespread. Characteristically, he exhibited neither self—pity nor illusion. He parried the expressions of concern and grief which friends tendered with his usual self-effacing curiosity about their own problems.
Now that he is gone the trolleys are indeed still running. But those who are still on those trolleys will remember Tibor Nyilas, and long for his companionship for the rest of the ride.
1948 Olympic Team aboard the Queen Elizabeth
Left to Right: Warren Dow, Ralph Goldstein, Norman Lewis, Joe deCapriles, George Worth, Mike deCapriles, Tibor Nyilas, Gus Prokop
Fencing Olympians on board Queen Elizabeth in 1948
Left to right: Gus Prokop, Ralph Goldstein, George Worth, Tibor Nyilas