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Olympian VanBebber to be honored by hometown

Jack VanBebber, 1932 U.S. Olympic gold medalist and three-time NCAA champ at Oklahoma A&M, now Oklahoma State, will be honored by his hometown of Perry, Oklahoma with the dedication of a new statue in the Perry Wrestling Monument Park on Saturday, November 12, 2016.

There are two separate events to honor the late wrestler who died in 1986: an invitation-only brunch event with a presentation made by guest speakers, followed by the statue unveiling which will be free and open to the public.

Jack VanBebber statue
The exclusive, invitation-only lifetime achievement celebration for VanBebber will take place from 11:00 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. at the Heritage Center, Sixth & Cedar Street, in Perry. A minimum donation of $125 per person -- with proceeds going to the Perry Wrestling Foundation -- is required for participation at this event.

There will be four speakers who will pay tribute to VanBebber at this celebration. John Smith, head wrestling coach at Oklahoma State -- and himself a two-time Olympic gold medalist -- will talk about VanBebber's collegiate wrestling career. Lee Roy Smith of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame will discuss VanBebber's Olympic exploits and Hall of Fame honor. Mike Chapman, wrestling historian and columnist for Wrestling Insider Newsmagazine (WIN), will present VanBebber's lasting legacy. In addition, former Perry mayor Chuck Hall will speak at the celebration. Approximately 40 members of the VanBebber family are expected to attend.

Following the celebration at the Heritage Center, the public is invited to the Perry Wrestling Monument Park at 1:00 p.m., where the bronze statue of Jack VanBebber in wrestling stance will be unveiled.

The new VanBebber statue, which stands seven feet, six inches tall, will join the one unveiled earlier this summer of Dan Hodge, two-time Olympic wrestler and three-time NCAA champ for the University of Oklahoma in the 1950s. Both statues were crafted by local sculptor Jim Franklin, who has produced other famous statues, including the one of Billy Sims at University of Oklahoma.

Like VanBebber, Hodge was born and raised in the Perry area; both wrestled at Perry High School.

"The lifetime achievement celebration and public statue unveiling are outstanding ways to keep a great man's legacy alive," said Chance Leonard of the Perry Wrestling Foundation. "We seek to honor an individual, Jack VanBebber, who represented our town on the world stage during the 1932 Olympics."

Jack Francis VanBebber won the gold medal in men's freestyle competition at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, defeating an Olympic champion in the finals. Prior to the Olympics, VanBebber, wrestling at Oklahoma State for its legendary coach Ed Gallagher, won three consecutive NCAA titles for the Cowboys in 1929-1931. He achieved these great on-the-mat accomplishments despite a near-tragic childhood accident. At age six, VanBebber fell off a wagon; one of its metal-rimmed wheels ran over him, crushing his chest. At the time, doctors thought he would be crippled for life, unable to engage in any strenuous activity.

In 1950, VanBebber was selected as one of the ten most outstanding amateur athletes in the western hemisphere for the first half of the twentieth century. In 1976, VanBebber was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma as a member of that facility's charter class. In 1988, VanBebber was named to the all-time best amateur wrestling team by Amateur Wrestling News; two decades later, he was welcomed into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame.

"I don't know any other wrestler who endured as much hardship as Jack VanBebber did in order to win Olympic gold," Leonard told InterMat.

Despite passing away 30 years ago, VanBebber's inspiring story lives on in his memoir, A Distant Flame."

VanBebber and Hodge are just two alums of the Perry High School wrestling program which is about to embark on its 95th season. In addition to being able to claim two Olympic medalists, this community high school -- located in a town of approximately 5,000 residents -- can also boast of having forty Oklahoma high school state team titles, 162 individual state champs, and sixteen dual state titles. In addition, 18 Perry Maroon wrestlers have earned a total of 28 All-American honors at the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships.

The community wanted to honor its unique high school wrestling legacy. After discussing the idea of an enclosed museum, the Perry Wrestling Foundation decided instead to have an outdoor facility -- the Perry Wrestling Monument Park -- open to all, at all hours of day, with statues of VanBebber and Hodge, and granite columns engraved with the names of the individual athletes from the high school who had achieved greatness on the mat.

Perry Wrestling Monument Park
The idea of the park goes beyond honoring local mat heroes past, present and future.

"We wanted to create motivation for our young wrestlers to put in the effort, win state championships, and have their names engraved for future generations to see," said Chance Leonard.

"High school wrestling hardly gets the coverage it deserves," Leonard continued. "I hope other programs across the country will look to the Perry Wrestling Monument Park and do something similar to honor their greats and those who support their wrestlers."

Individuals interested in attending the lifetime achievement celebration/brunch honoring Jack VanBebber may contact Chance Leonard at chanceleonard@aol.com or visit the Perry Wrestling Foundation Facebook page and send a private message.

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