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InterMat Rewind: Frank Lewis

Just over 80 years ago, a Texas native who was an Oklahoma high school state champ and NCAA titlewinner for Oklahoma State brought home the ultimate prize in wrestling: a gold medal from the 1936 Berlin Olympics. That man: Frank Lewis.

A son shares his father's golden legacy

InterMat readers met the youngest son of Frank Lewis a couple months ago, in a feature article about the August wedding of Amy Elaine King and Richard Lewis, Frank Lewis' youngest son, at the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. During the course of the phone interview with the newlyweds, Frank Lewis' name came up more than once. This writer thought the wrestling community would enjoy learning more about the 1936 Olympic gold medalist from Texas ... so we conducted a subsequent interview with Rick about his father.

Rick Lewis has strong memories of his late father. Rick was the youngest child of Frank and Virginia Lewis, arriving in 1963 when his father was age 61.

"Dad was in the oil industry, so he traveled a lot," Rick Lewis told InterMat. "He would be gone weeks at a time."

"By the time I came along, he was semi-retired."

"Dad and I would wrestle at home," according to Rick. "He would grab my arm and turn it in a way that was painful. He said when you face is on the mat you figure ways to get out."

Dad put me in tournaments when I was age 10. I would wear long underwear with blue trunks."

Their bond strengthened over the years.

"We spent a lot of time together," the younger Lewis continued. "We drilled wells together, even when I was in high school and in college at Oklahoma State. We'd be together in the car to go to a drilling site. We spent a lot of time on the golf course with each other."

Frank Lewis' young life

Frank Wyatt Lewis, Sr., was born December 6, 1912 in Coleman, Texas, the youngest of three kids. His father was involved in the oil industry.

When he was five, Frank and his family moved to Pecos, Texas. "His earliest memory was seeing troop trains taking soldiers to World War I," said Rick Lewis. "He also remembers seeing the German Kaiser being burned in effigy."

"My grandmother had a brother in Cushing, Okla. -- 'pipeline capital of the world.' His family moved to Cushing when he was about five or six years old -- about the time his father died."

"Mother opened a makeshift medical facility in Cushing in the old jail," Rick Lewis continued. "She treated oil workers who were injured on the job."

"Dad was a lifeguard at a local swimming lake while he was in high school."

While in high school Frank Lewis was introduced to wrestling; Rick Lewis described Cushing High as "always a wrestling powerhouse." While at Cushing, Lewis won an Oklahoma state title in 1929. (Decades later, Lewis was welcomed into the Cushing High School Hall of Fame in 2010. The Daily Oklahoman declared Lewis to be "Greatest Athlete from Cushing.")

Frank Lewis graduated from Cushing High in 1931.

Frank Lewis at Oklahoma State

When it was time to pick a place to continue his education beyond high school, Frank Lewis stayed close to home, enrolling at what was then called Oklahoma A&M (Agricultural & Mechanical) -- now Oklahoma State -- in Stillwater, only about 20-25 miles from Cushing. However, getting there wasn't as simple as loading up the family SUV; Lewis hitchhiked from is adopted hometown to his college home. (As Rick Lewis told InterMat, "One friend had a car. Otherwise, most folks hitchhiked everywhere.")

Frank Lewis was enrolled at Oklahoma State during the depths of the Great Depression of the 1930s. He arrived on campus in the fall of 1932, with only a few possessions -- a bed roll, two pairs of pants, and three shirts. According to Rick Lewis, his father's limited wardrobe was typical for a male student at A&M. "He told me that guys would hold their pants up to the light to see how worn they were. If they needed to replace a worn-out shirt or a pair of slacks, instead of going to a store, there was a guy who traveled to campus to offer used clothing in trade to students."

While in college, Frank Lewis held down a number of jobs. He delivered the student newspaper, The Daily O'Collegian (known by its nickname, the O'Colly). He was a short-order cook. He cleaned buildings on campus. As son Rick said, "Dad did whatever he could do to earn some extra money."

Summers were no different. "Dad went to Minnesota one summer to install pipelines for Great Lakes Pipeline Company," said Rick Lewis. "Another summer, he hitchhiked to Texas to pick cantaloupe."

Frank Lewis started in engineering, but switched to a business major. He also participated in ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps).

Frank Lewis wrestles for the Cowboys

Eighty years ago, many colleges required all students to enroll in at least one physical education class. Oklahoma State was no exception. Despite his Oklahoma high school state title, Frank Lewis had made the decision not to join the storied Oklahoma State wrestling program, choosing instead to focus on his classwork, and, seek out even temporary employment opportunities to help pay his educational expenses.

However, Lewis decided it would make sense to enroll in a wrestling class "to make an easy grade as a freshman at OSU," according to the Daily Oklahoman, the Oklahoma City-based newspaper whose readership extends throughout the state. Members of that wrestling class were required to enter the All-College intramural tournament. When he failed to win the intramural championship "his pride was stung" (to quote the National Wrestling Hall of Fame) but decided to concentrate on wrestling again, joining the Oklahoma State squad in 1933.

Lewis wrestled for head coach Ed Gallagher, who, at that time, had been at the helm of the Oklahoma State mat program for nearly two decades ... guiding the Cowboys to become the dominant program in college wrestling in the era between World War I and II.

Frank Lewis
Here's what the 1933 Redskin -- the Oklahoma State yearbook -- said about the school's legendary wrestling coach:

"Ed Gallagher, veteran Cowboy wrestling coach, compiled yet another undefeated wrestling season and should be given a major portion of the praise for developing this year's strong team. Gallagher-coached teams have dominated the college wrestling world for several years, despite improvement in the rank and file. His uncanny knowledge of wrestling and wrestling holds, combined with his knowledge of men, have worked together to make him the nation's mastermind of college wrestling."

Frank Lewis had a physical challenge that his college coach -- an engineer by training -- helped him overcome.

"A state high school champ and four-time medalist from 100 to 155 pounds, he possessed the raw talent from which coach Edward C. Gallagher could mold a winner. But because of his rapid growth, the youngster didn't have the stamina to wrestle the longer college matches," according to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. "And because of a minor heart condition, his coach had to devise a special training routine to build stamina without putting a strain on his health." (Son Rick Lewis described his dad's condition to InterMat as being a heart murmur.)

That training regimen apparently worked. Frank Lewis wrestled for the Cowboys at 155 pounds for three seasons, 1933-1935. He compiled an overall record of 22-6, with ten falls, for a pinning percentage of 45%.

During his first season at Oklahoma State -- 1933 -- Lewis compiled a 3-2 record, with one fall.

As a junior, Lewis built an overall record of 8-3, with four falls. At the 1934 NCAAs at the University of Michigan, Lewis placed second in the 155-pound bracket. Lehigh's Ben Bishop won the title that year. Despite Lewis' loss, Oklahoma State won the team title, with three of his teammates winning individual championships.

Lewis had even more success in his senior year, with an 11-1 record, with five pins. He capped off that 1935 season with a powerful performance at the NCAAs at Lehigh University. Lewis pinned four of his five rivals at the Nationals -- scoring falls against his first three opponents from Ursinus, Cornell College of Iowa, and University of Kansas to make it to the semifinals, where he won a decision over Jay McVickers of Southwestern Oklahoma State, avenging his only loss of the regular season (a decision in overtime.) In the 155-pound title match, Lewis pinned cross-state rival Joe Kalpin of the University of Oklahoma at 4:22 to win the championship. Again, Oklahoma State won the team championship (with twice as many team points as the runners-up, the Oklahoma Sooners) with three individual champs: Lewis, Rex Peery at 118 pounds, and Ross Flood at 126.

A couple weeks after the 1935 NCAAs, Lewis traveled to the National AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) wrestling championships, where he not only won the title at 155 pounds, but was also named Outstanding Wrestler of the event, earning a gold watch in the process.

College wrestling of 80 years ago

The world of college wrestling in Frank Lewis' era was vastly different than today. Back then, NCAA rules prohibited freshmen from wrestling varsity -- a rule that stood until about 1970. Matches were ten minutes long. Today's point scoring system didn't come along until 1941; in Lewis' time, the two basic ways to win a match were by pinning your opponent, or "time advantage" awarded to the wrestler who was judged to have been in control more time than his opponent.

John Smith's current Cowboys might be blown away by the uniforms their predecessors like Frank Lewis wore ... and where they wrestled. The wrestling uniforms of 80 years ago were wool trunks. Shirts were optional; wrestlers at many Midwestern colleges such as Oklahoma State competed bare-chested. (The NCAA started requiring shirts in the mid-1960s.) Headgear was definitely NOT part of the uniform back then.

As to where Oklahoma State matmen wrestled ... for home meets, matches were held inside a raised, roped-off ring, much like what we now associate with boxing or professional wrestling. Oklahoma State was not alone in using wrestling rings; a number of wrestling programs in the Midwest -- including the Iowa Hawkeyes, Minnesota Golden Gophers, and the Northwestern Wildcats -- used rings, though most were not much more than ropes enclosing mats on the floor. (The NCAA outlawed wrestling rings during World War II.)

Even the home to Oklahoma State wrestling event would not be familiar to current Cowboy wrestlers. Today's Gallagher-Iba Arena was not completed until 1939; Lewis and his teammates wrestled at the school's Gym-Armory, in a much smaller facility built in 1920.

The 1936 Berlin Olympics

Frank Lewis was one of four Oklahoma State wrestlers (current or past) to earn positions on the U.S. Olympic wrestling team to compete at the 1936 Games in Berlin, Germany. Lewis represented the U.S. freestyle team at 158.5 pounds, joined by Ross Flood at 123 pounds, Harley Strong at 145, and Roy Dunn at heavyweight.

Oklahoma State fans had hoped that Cowboys head coach Ed Gallagher would be named head coach of the U.S. Olympic wrestling squad; instead, he was named honorary coach. Wrestling fans -- and the entire community of Stillwater, Okla., hometown for Oklahoma State -- conducted a number of fundraisers to make sure their beloved coach had the opportunity to travel to Germany. The reasons went beyond wanting Gallagher to witness the 1936 Olympics. At the urging of the coach's son Clarence -- a physician -- fans also wanted to make it possible for Ed Gallagher to be examined by specialists in Vienna, Austria regarding the coach's worsening Parkinson's disease, a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects movement, which afflicts actor Michael J. Fox and civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Berlin had been named host city for the 1936 Games in 1931, edging out Barcelona, Spain in the voting conducted by the International Olympic Committee. (Barcelona would host the 1992 Summer Olympics.) German chancellor Adolph Hitler vowed to make sure the 1936 Olympics would be more spectacular than those hosted by Los Angeles four years earlier. The Olympics were to serve as "a showcase for Aryan superiority," to quote "The Cowboys Ride Again!" book about Oklahoma State wrestling by Doris and Bob Dellinger, which went on state "a cloud of international tension hung over the Games."

Since 1960, U.S. Olympic teams have traveled by passenger jet to the Summer Games. Back in 1936, the wrestling team -- along with other U.S. athletes -- sailed to Europe aboard the S.S. President Roosevelt. The wrestlers were able to work out on the way to Germany, even conducting practice matches on the deck of the ship.

Once the wrestlers arrived in Germany, more than one source has mentioned the challenges they faced in Olympic competition. "The American delegation ran up against some puzzling distinctions in the rules," according to the Dellinger book. "Even with the sage advice of (Ed) Gallagher, the Oklahomans found it hard to adjust their styles."

"The rolling fall rule is the one that causes most of the howling," the Daily Oklahoman reported at the time. "An instantaneous touch of the shoulders is all that is needed to pin a man and it causes the boys to be cautious all the time."

Despite those challenges, 23-year-old Frank Lewis managed to earn a gold medal in freestyle at 76 kilograms/167 pounds ... though in a way that would seem odd to Olympic wrestling fans today. Lewis pinned four opponents in matches lasting 5:03 to just over six minutes but suffered what the National Wrestling Hall of Fame described as "a narrow loss" to Sweden's Tur Andersson. However, Lewis had fewer "black marks" than the Swede, so he was awarded the gold medal.

Frank Lewis' medals
Lewis was Team USA's only gold medalist at the Berlin Games. Three of his teammates brought home silver medals: Oklahoma A&M's Ross Flood at 56 kilograms/123 pounds ... Francis Millard of Michigan at 61 kg/134 pounds ... and at 79 kilograms/174 pounds, Richard Voliva of Indiana University.

As a gold medalist, Frank Lewis received a black oak tree from the Germans. He planted it at the Sigma Chi house in Stillwater, as an active member of the fraternity. The tree was later taken down because it was dying.

"Dad didn't talk about the Olympics much, other than to say, 'young people adored Hitler, older folks were scared of him,'" said Rick Lewis. "Dad got within ten yards of Hitler. Said he had a wild look in his eyes."

A rival -- and friend -- weighs in on Lewis

In a May 2002 interview with The Oklahoman newspaper, Lehigh wrestling champ Ben Bishop offered his opinions on Frank Lewis, the man he defeated for the 155-pound crown in the 1934 NCAA finals ... and who later became a lifelong friend of his former mat rival.

"I was at my peak in 1934, and Frank was coming up," a 90-year-old Bishop told the sportswriter for the Oklahoma City newspaper 15 years ago. "A lot of people will not believe I did that because in 1936 he was the No. 1 man."

"He was not a spectacular wrestler," Bishop said of Lewis. "Oklahoma A&M had some wrestlers in those years that were really spectacular, like Ross Flood. About half of the Oklahoma A&M team were super wrestlers.

"Frank was basic. He didn't make any mistakes, awfully strong, great leverage because of his size, long arms and long legs. He'd get on top of you and you'd have one heckuva time getting out."

The Oklahoman's Mac Bentley went on to write, "Bishop counts a victory over Lewis in 1934 as one of the highlights of his Lehigh career" -- a career that saw Bishop compile a 36-4 collegiate career, with two EIWA (Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association) titles to accompany his national title in 1934.

Post-collegiate honors

After graduating from what is now Oklahoma State, Frank Lewis built an enduring career in the oil industry, got married, and raised a family. He kept in touch with wrestling friends, including some of his Oklahoma State teammates, and former mat rival Ben Bishop.

Frank Lewis has earned a number of wrestling-related honors.

In 1979, he was welcomed into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame as a Distinguished Member.

Nearly a decade later -- 1987, to be exact -- Lewis became only the second individual to receive the Edward Clark Gallagher Award, presented each year by Oklahoma State to an individual who made positive contributions to the program over the years. First presented in 1986, it was named for Lewis' beloved coach who headed up the Cowboy mat program from the end of World War I to just before the start of World War II.

Considered to be the father of modern college wrestling -- despite never having wrestled -- Gallagher used his engineering background to create up to 400 wrestling holds, along with positive reinforcement techniques to convince his wrestlers that they were unbeatable.
"Dad was honored during halftime during homecoming at Oklahoma State," according to his son Rick Lewis. "He got rather emotional about the award presentation. It meant so much to him to receive an honor named for the coach who meant so much."

In addition to these awards, Frank Lewis was named posthumously to the Cushing Hall of Fame -- designated to honor great student-athletes at that high school -- in 2010.

Frank Wyatt Lewis passed away in August 1998, at the age of 85. He was survived by his wife Virginia, six children, nine grandchildren, and a sister.

Frank Lewis earned his place among the all-time greats of Oklahoma State wrestling as an NCAA and National AAU champ, for being an Olympic gold medalist in 1936, and for being named as a Distinguished Member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame just three years after it first opened.

His youngest son shared yet another set of criteria that elevated Frank Lewis to greatness.

"My dad was a good man," said Rick Lewis. "A good Christian man."

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