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InterMat Rewind: A Distant Flame

Mark Palmer

6/24/2008
Mark Palmer, InterMat Senior Writer
mark@intermatwrestle.com, Twitter: @MatWriter

Times are tough. Gas prices are at an all-time high. Home foreclosures are at levels most of us could never have imagined. Unemployment rates are climbing. Each time we go to the supermarket, there are new surprises in store in the form of higher prices on basics like bread, milk, meat and produce.

Jack VanBebber tells his story of overcoming overwhelming challenges on and off the mat in this inspiring memoir
Yet, even as challenging as today's situation may be, it's certainly not as rough as it was during the Great Depression. In the 1930s huge segments of the population were out of work, large sections of the central U.S. were being destroyed by the Dust Bowl, food was oftentimes scarce, banks and businesses failed, and there wasn't the safety net of Social Security, unemployment compensation and other government programs we take for granted today.

Jack Francis "Blackjack" VanBebber lived through these tough times of the 1930s as a college student and wrestler at Oklahoma State … and thrived, earning three NCAA titles as a Cowboy, then winning the gold medal in freestyle at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. VanBebber tells his story of overcoming overwhelming challenges on and off the mat in his inspiring memoir titled A Distant Flame: The Inspiring Story of Jack VanBebber's Quest for a World Olympic Title.

This 180-page book, written in Jack VanBebber's words "as told to Julia VanBebber" (his wife, a schoolteacher and writer), was published in 1992 by New Forums Press, Inc., of Stillwater, Oklahoma. And, although it chronicles life as it was 75+ years ago, its story of perseverance against very long odds still has powerful meaning today, especially for wrestlers who have "a distant flame" of competing in the Olympics burning bright within them.

A young flame nearly extinguished

Jack VanBebber was born in 1907 -- the year Oklahoma became a state -- on a farm outside Perry, in the north-central part of the state. (Perry is also the hometown for other wrestling greats, most notably three-time NCAA champ and Olympic silver medalist Dan Hodge.) The VanBebber family was large -- Jack had three older brothers and three older sisters -- but there was plenty of work for all at the Whipple farm.

When Jack was six years old, a fun event at school turned tragic. On a beautiful spring day, his teacher had allowed Jack and some of the boys to go for a ride in her wagon. The wagon hit a bump; the young VanBebber was pitched overboard, and run over by one of the wagon wheels. The metal-rimmed wheel pushed young Jack's breastbone back to his spinal column. The family doctor was concerned about damage to the heart and lungs, telling the VanBebbers, "If things go well, Jack will live." Further discussion speculated on what kind of life Jack would have -- at most, he might be able to do light tasks, but, there was the possibility that he could be "a cripple for life."

However, with time and prayer, Jack was out of bed by mid-summer, able to play with his dog Houndie and help with some light chores around the house and farm. However, the recovery process was very gradual. During the next seven years, Jack had various health setbacks that caused him to miss nearly two full years of school… but he made it to eighth grade at Perry.

Fighting spirit

It was in junior high that Jack VanBebber was introduced to combat sports. After getting into a schoolyard fight, Jack and the instigator were sent to the gym, where the wrestling coach Frank Briscoe made the two put on boxing gloves. At the end of the match -- which ended with Jack being knocked out -- the coach was impressed with Jack's attitude, and said, with the right training, he could more than hold his own against bigger, stronger boys.

The VanBebber family was large -- Jack had three older brothers and three older sisters -- but there was plenty of work for all at the Whipple farm (Photo/A Distant Flame)
That was exactly what the 5'7", 107-pound, sickly youngster needed to hear. At the urging of the coach, Jack started with a walking and exercise program, building up his strength and stamina. It was at this time that he started dreaming about being a Perry Maroon wrestler, reading all he could about amateur wrestling and the Olympics. Jack was also inspired by stories of Teddy Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and Jim Thorpe, all men who had wrestled in their youth.

When Jack VanBebber got to Perry High School, he went out for the wrestling team, and made the practice squad … but didn't get to wrestle for the team his freshman or sophomore years. He was disappointed, but not undaunted. Jack's junior year, he tried out for the football team (also coached by Frank Briscoe), wearing used shoes he had purchased for five dollars earned from selling his bicycle. In his fourth game, he suffered a severe ankle sprain; that was the end of his gridiron glory that year. However, Jack recovered in time for wrestling season. He went through the elimination matches, and won the starting position as the Perry Maroons' man at 139 pounds.

Jack's prep career at Perry

As a starter, Jack VanBebber found his comfort zone on the wrestling mat. His junior year, he won all seven of his dual-meet matches. It is also at this point that A Distant Flame becomes truly compelling to wrestlers and fans, as Jack describes some of his matches from eighty years ago with amazing detail. For example, here's the word picture he paints of his state title match with an opponent from Tulsa:

The Tulsa matman was even stronger than I thought, but I used every ounce of strength and skill I had and the match right away became a repeated pattern of takedowns, brief rides, escapes and set-ups. When the endings whistle blew, I had time advantage -- but at something less than a minute, it wasn't sufficient to award me the match.

After some discussion how to settle the close match, we were told to wrestle an extension, and then the two three-minute bouts ran too close to determine either of us the winner -- so each of us received a gold medal.


(Realize, in Jack's era as a wrestler in the late 1920s and early 30s, a regulation high school or college match lasted ten minutes. No points were awarded for takedowns, escapes, etc. as they are today; a match was won outright with a pin, or by what was called "time advantage" -- similar to today's riding time, which had to be at least one minute. If there was no score in regulation, college rules required two three-minute periods. To learn more about amateur wrestling as it once was, click HERE.)

Jack's senior year at Perry High was similarly successful; he again compiled a 7-0 dual meet record. He also won the state tournament at Norman, home to the University of Oklahoma. However, there was a second state championship, held a couple weeks later at Oklahoma State in Stillwater. In A Distant Flame, Jack provides a thrilling, you-are-there account of that title match … and its moving conclusion.

Off to Oklahoma State!

After graduating from Perry High School in 1927, Jack VanBebber and his family found a way for him to attend classes at Oklahoma State (back then, known as Oklahoma A&M, as in Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College). It is at this point of A Distant Flame that the reader fully understands -- and appreciates -- just how tough a life Jack and his family had.

Jack VenBebber (Photo/Redskin Yearbook)
Life for the VanBebbers had always been demanding, with endless days of backbreaking work with little financial reward. Money had always been tight. However, with the Great Depression hitting just as Jack was in college, the financial challenges of staying in school were even more daunting. There were no full-ride scholarships for Oklahoma State wrestlers back then; no student loan program, either.

Imagine one of today's Cowboy starting wrestlers having to hold down three part-time jobs to stay in school. That's exactly what Jack had to do. And these weren't cushy, make-work assignments, either.

At various times during Jack's college career at Oklahoma State, he delivered milk to Stillwater homes in the pre-dawn hours, jogged two miles to bring the Daily O'Collegian student paper to readers each morning, washed dishes, served as a waiter in a fraternity, even worked the night shift at a local funeral home (once having to go out to pick up a dead body along a roadside, the victim of a robbery). In addition to these part-time jobs, the remainder of Jack's waking hours in college were consumed by classes, homework, ROTC (Reserve Army Training Corps) drills, and wrestling practice. (At more than one point in A Distant Flame, Jack recites a typical day's itinerary, starting with one of his pre-dawn jobs, and ending with a late-night job, usually washing dishes or cleaning the kitchen in a local restaurant.)

The Cowboy way

During Jack VanBebber's time as a wrestler at Oklahoma State (1929-1931), the Cowboys were THE college wrestling program in the United States -- both feared and admired. Their leader was the legendary head coach Edward Clark Gallagher, whose name graces the arena where today's Cowboys still wrestle their home meets. Although he never wrestled in school, Gallagher was very much a student of the sport. He had an incredible understanding of leverage, teaching his wrestlers that scientific technique would prevail over brute strength.

Jack and his Oklahoma State teammates traveled the country to take on the best college wrestling programs of the era. On these road trips, the Cowboys would put on quite a show, arriving in town wearing bright flame-red flannel shirts, cowboy boots and ten-gallon Stetsons. Sometimes they'd perform rope tricks for the fans in the stands of the host school gym. When it was time to wrestle, the Cowboys put on an equally impressive show. Stripped to the waist, wearing nothing but full-length wool tights or trunks (this was long before today's synthetic-fabric singlets), the matmen of Stillwater dominated their opponents with blazing speed and technical virtuosity. During Jack's three seasons as a varsity wrestler (freshmen were not allowed to compete), Oklahoma State never lost a dual meet.

Jack VanBebber (Photo/Redskin Yearbook)
Jack VanBebber was an integral part of the Cowboys' success 80 years ago. In his three years usually wrestling at 165 pounds, Jack never lost a match, compiling a perfect 22-0 record … with eight of those wins by pin.

In A Distant Flame, Jack puts you right on the mat with him, as he describes a number of his college matches, and the holds he used to achieve victory … including his experience at each of the national collegiate championships.

At the 1929 NCAAs hosted by Ohio State, Jack won the 155-pound crown with wins over Ray Parker, University of Michigan's grappler/gridiron stud, and 1929 Big Ten champ Ferdinand Hammer of the University of Wisconsin. The following year, at the 1930 NCAAs at Penn State, the Cowboy from Perry beat conference champ Sam Church of the University of Kansas in the finals to win the 165-pound title. In his last national championships, hosted by Brown University at Providence, Jack pinned two of his three of his opponents at the 1931 NCAAs, including Lehigh's Phil Shanker in the 165-pound title match.

By winning three national titles, Jack VanBebber became only the second three-time NCAA champ from any college, behind Cowboy heavyweight teammate Earl McCready (1928-1930), and just ahead of 175-pound teammate Conrad Caldwell (1929-1931). In addition, during his years as a varsity wrestler at Oklahoma State, Jack VanBebber also won three straight Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) national titles.

The quest to compete at the Olympics

As Jack VanBebber continued his undergraduate education at Oklahoma State in 1932, he reset his sights on his lifelong dream of wrestling at the Olympics, to be held that year in Los Angeles.

As Jack VanBebber continued his undergraduate education at Oklahoma State in 1932, he reset his sights on his lifelong dream of wrestling at the Olympics (Photo/Cowboys Ride Again)
A Distant Flame takes the reader on Jack VanBebber's Olympic odyssey back and forth across the country. At the urging of his Cowboy teammate Conrad Caldwell -- who suggested getting acclimated to the climate of the host city for the 1932 Olympics -- Jack and "Connie" petitioned to be sponsored by the Los Angeles Athletic Club (LAAC), and were accepted. The two set off from Stillwater for California, driving a car for an individual who needed it delivered to Los Angeles, accompanied with only with a few dollars and a basket of oranges to sustain them on the more than 1,000-mile journey. Having to fix a broken spring on the Ford, they rolled into L.A. with just thirty-two cents between them. Once they arrived at the LAAC, their financial situation immediately improved; they both took jobs at a Safeway supermarket warehouse, each earning $80-$100 a month -- a generous income during the Great Depression.

After five months in California, Jack and Connie motored cross-country to New York, to compete at the 1932 AAU national championships -- also functioning as a Semifinal Olympic Tryouts -- held outdoors at the Madison Square Garden Bowl on Long Island. After five days of wrestling a total of eight bouts in bright sunshine and rain, VanBebber won the 158-pound national title. But that didn't assure the former Cowboy a place on the U.S. Olympic team; that would be determined in July, at the Olympic Trials held at Ohio State.

Jack VanBebber was part of a pool of thirteen wrestlers in Columbus vying for the 158-pound spot on the U.S. Olympic freestyle team. He went up against some familiar foes and dispatched them all… until his next-to-last match, when he lost to Charles Manoli of the Boston YMCA. It was Jack's first loss since becoming a Cowboy starter. All was not lost, however, thanks to the complex Olympic scoring system of the time. Because Manoli lost his next match to University of Michigan middleweight Carl Dougovito, Manoli was eliminated from the competition … forcing a finals match between Jack and Dougovito, a Big Ten and NCAA champ. However, the Cowboy rode the Wolverine to victory. Jack realized his lifelong Olympic dream, along with his friend and Oklahoma State teammate Conrad Caldwell.

Dealing with a bully at the Olympics

Two weeks before the start of the 1932 Olympics, the U.S. wrestlers arrived in Los Angeles, settling into their Olympic Village housing. (This was the first Summer Games to provide a community to house the athletes … at least the male athletes, that is. Women athletes were put up in a hotel.) Before competition got underway, Jack VanBebber ran into two Olympic legends: his childhood hero Jim Thorpe … and Mildred "Babe" Didrikson, multi-sport athlete who won two gold medals and a silver in various track events at the 1932 Games, and is considered by many to be the greatest female athlete of the 20th century.

Freestyle competition in the 158-pound weight class began August 1 at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. Jack's first opponent was Raul Lopez of Mexico, who he pinned at 2:21. Later that night, he got a decision over Denmark's Borge Jensen.

The following day, Jack VanBebber stepped onto the mat to do battle with Daniel MacDonald of Canada, a veteran of the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. "Do battle" is the right phrase, according to Jack's account of the match in A Distant Flame. After some spirited grappling with each man scoring the same number of takedowns and escapes, MacDonald took a swing at the Cowboy, hitting him squarely on the chin. The referee stopped the match, warning the Canadian that if he struck Jack again, the match would be over. Here's how Jack described the rest of the match in his memoir:

Disgusted with myself for not displaying pluck by fighting back, I tried to inhale some much-needed air as we went back to wrestling. Again, neither of us managed to gain the advantage.

Then it came to me: I knew MacDonald, experienced and clever, wouldn't hit me again and put himself out. So, knowing I wouldn't be eliminated for one blow, I decided to strike him. If he struck back, he'd be out and I'd be the winner.

Quickly, I gave him a straight jab; it brought him to his knees.

The crowd roared like those at the pro matches. Again, the referee stopped the match. 'Don't make that move again!' he warned.

I didn't intend to. Perhaps it turned that round into a show event, but that wasn't my intention. The sport required that one must use his wits as well as his skills to cope with an opponent. As the match continued, both of us struggled for a takedown until the fifteen-minute whistle ended the round. Having gained a time advantage, I decisioned him.


A gold-medal scare

By beating MacDonald, Jack VanBebber would wrestle Eino Leino of Finland for the gold medal the next day at 6:00 p.m. Or so Jack and his coaches thought.

The next afternoon, after a quiet day relaxing, there was a knock on Jack's door: Your match with Leino is in one hour!

Will Rogers with 1932 U.S. Olympic Wrestling Team
There was a schedule change; the match was moved up to 3:00 p.m., which had not been communicated to Jack until just before two o'clock. Jack had less than sixty minutes to get to the Grand Olympic Auditorium. There was no car to take him. He didn't have any money for a bus or taxi. So, donning his Olympic shirt and beret, he started running. Would he make the six-mile journey in time?

Suddenly Jack's prayers were answered. A fellow member of the Los Angeles Athletic Club recognized the running wrestler, and stopped to give him a lift. Jack arrived at the arena at four minutes to three. Luckily, the matches were running a bit late, so he had time to catch his breath, weigh in, and get ready to wrestle for the gold medal.

According to A Distant Flame, there were 5,000 fans in the stands at the Olympic Auditorium, including his college coach, Ed Gallagher (his Olympic coach was Iowa State coaching great Hugo Otopalik), and, another favorite son from Oklahoma, humorist Will Rogers.

Jack VanBebber upset Finnish mat veteran Eino Leino to win the welterweight (158-pound) freestyle gold medal (Photo/A Distant Flame)
Facing him across the mat was Eino Leino, who had accumulated three medals -- gold, silver and bronze -- in the three previous Olympics. In his memoir, Jack puts you right in the stands with Gallagher and Rogers and the others, providing you with insights into his match where he won a stunning upset over the Finnish mat veteran to win the welterweight (158-pound) freestyle gold medal.

It was an incredible Olympics for the U.S. freestyle wrestling team. Joining Jack VanBebber as medal-winners: fellow Oklahoma State wrestling alum and 1931 NCAA champ Bobby Pearce (gold medal as bantamweight), University of California-Berkeley grad Edgar Nemir (silver medal at featherweight), University of Kansas NCAA All-American matman Pete Mehringer (gold, light-heavyweight), and two-time NCAA heavyweight champ (1931-32), football All-American and recent Northwestern University grad Jack Riley (silver, heavyweight).

The rest of the story

Jack VanBebber stayed in Los Angeles for a while, continuing to work at the Safeway warehouse to build up some savings to take the five-day car trip home. Upon arriving in Perry, Oklahoma in December 1932, he was given a rousing welcome by the community and his family. After Christmas, he enrolled in Oklahoma State … and earned his bachelor's degree in Agricultural Economics in July 1933. A week later, he was hired as an instructor and assistant wrestling coach at Texas Tech in Lubbock, and did some professional wrestling. A couple years later, he was offered a job with Phillips Petroleum, where he met his wife Julia. Except for his three-and-a-half years of service in the Army in World War II, Jack spent the rest of his professional career at Phillips, retiring in 1972. He passed away in April, 1986.

Before his passing, Jack VanBebber was named one of the ten greatest amateur athletes in the Western Hemisphere for the first half of the 20th century. He also was one of the initial inductees as a Distinguished Member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma when that facility opened in September, 1976.

A Distant Flame provides readers with a first-hand account of the life and accomplishments of Jack VanBebber, one of the greatest amateur wrestlers ever to come out of Oklahoma. It is an inspiring, uplifting story of a man overcoming significant physical and economic odds to achieve greatness on and off the wrestling mat … and is must-reading for any athlete who has the distant flame of competing at the Olympics burning bright within.

A Distant Flame, published in 1992, is still available for purchase from a number of sources and can be purchased directly from the publisher by clicking HERE.

To see photos of Jack VanBebber, some of his teammates and opponents, visit the "Oklahoma State -- Jack VanBebber" photo album at the Vintage Amateur Wrestling Yahoo group by clicking HERE.

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