"Focus of inquiry, Gagne remembered as wrestler and gentleman
BY ANDREW J. NELSON
WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER
When professional wrestler Verne Gagne performed in Omaha in the 1950s, he put on quite a show.
Verne Gagne, United States heavyweight rassling champion, in 1953.In a June 1958 match at the Civic Auditorium, the Minnesotan retained his championship after jumping into the ring and bashing his opponent, Dick The Bruiser, over the head with a folding chair. Later that year, he felled Edouard Carpentier with a punch to the Adam’s apple. Carpentier swallowed his tongue and a dental bridge, and was taken to the hospital.
Photos from the World-Herald library of Verne Gagne in his prime Out of the ring, however, Gagne was a charming, educated man. Like other professional wrestlers who performed in Omaha, he rarely cursed, drank or smoked and would not fight a regular guy.
Now 82 and battling Alzheimer’s disease, Gagne is at the center of an inquiry after a fatal altercation at a Bloomington, Minn., health care facility, the (Minneapolis) Star-Tribune reports.
Gagne and Helmut Gutmann, 97, scrapped Jan. 26 in the memory loss section of Friendship Village, said Gutmann’s daughter, Ruth Hennig.
Gutmann, a scientist and musician who fled from **** Germany in 1936, suffered a broken right hip. He died 2½ weeks later.
“No one knows” what led to the clash, Hennig said. “I don’t think anyone was present when it began or even if anything precipitated it.”
The Hennepin County, Minn., Medical Examiner’s Office has not certified a cause of death. Bloomington police are determining whether they will recommend that charges be filed, Deputy Chief Perry Heles told the Star Tribune.
Hennig said family members have yet to discuss whether they want Gagne prosecuted.
A native of Corcoran, Minn., Gagne wrestled for the University of Minnesota and was an NCAA champion. He began wrestling professionally in 1949 and for most of the 1960s was the world heavyweight champion of his American Wrestling Association. For years, the popular weekly TV show “All Star Wrestling” was produced in Minneapolis.
“I know it sounds like I’m talking about someone who’s gone, and I know I shouldn’t do that, but because of this insidious disease, he’s not our Verne,” said Billy Bye, who had been a University of Minnesota athlete with Gagne.
Wrestling legend Verne Gagne watches a WWF program on television in 2006. Gagne, a Minnesota pro wrestling legend, had an altercation with a fellow resident of a Bloomington health care facility, leading to the man's death, a relative said today in Bloomington, MinnesotaThat squares with the memories of Eugene “Speedy” Zweiback, 71, of Omaha.
Zweiback’s father, Joe, operated the Vitamin Store at 305 S. 16th St., and sponsored many of the local matches in which Gagne participated.
As a youth, Speedy would watch from the side as performers grappled and hit each other with inanimate objects.
“You and I would say no human being on Earth could take this punishment — this is all fake,” Zweiback said. “But you would look at that crowd .¤.¤.”
Staged or not, Gagne and his fellow wrestlers considered themselves professional athletes. Many, including Gagne and Dick The Bruiser, had played professional football. They tended to be health nuts. Gagne got to know Joe Zweiback by patronizing his store.
They were not brutes, Eugene Zweiback said. Gagne attended Minnesota; Dick The Bruiser (whose real name was William Afflis), Purdue.
“These guys, with rare exceptions, were all college graduates,” Zweiback said. “They were never going to deliberately hurt each other .¤.¤. Everyone was friends, and everyone helped each other out the best they could.” After the matches ended and the crowds left the Municipal Auditorium (located where Omaha’s Central Police Headquarters now stands), the performers and their associates would pile into a couple of cars and drive a few blocks south to dine at an Italian steakhouse. Cascio’s was a frequent stop.
Once there, they would eat huge steaks and heaping piles of spaghetti and fries.
"Those guys could eat,” Zweiback said. “They were hungry guys.”
If a drunk confronted them, wanting to see how tough they really were, the men would not oblige.
“The thought that those guys would ever physically retaliate was unacceptable,” Zweiback said.
The World-Herald once described Gagne as “a poor loser” when, after losing a 1952 match at the Municipal Auditorium, he pouted and stomped around the ring. He didn’t like a referee’s call. Much of the crowd apparently felt the same way. The referee left the building under police protection.
The next month, he confronted a World-Herald sports writer who had written skeptically of the athleticism of “rassling.” Approaching the writer backstage at the auditorium, Gagne proposed a session where he could demonstrate that body slams, sleeper holds, surfboards and other ring maneuvers weren’t phony.
The writer demurred.
“I didn’t find Gagne belligerent,” the newspaper’s Don Lee wrote. “He was a pleasant well-spoken lad who retained the same clean-cut appearance which has won him thousands of admirers and dollars.”
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I used to watch "All Star Wrestling" every Monday night as a grade schooler. I remember Joe Swieback's corny vitamin store commercials.