InterMat Rewind: Rex Peery

Mark Palmer

8/5/2009
Mark Palmer, InterMat Senior Writer
mark@intermatwrestle.com, Twitter: @MatWriter

Wrestling runs in families. Oftentimes, a dad who wrestled competitively in high school or college introduces his sons to the sport, whether in casual "matches" on the living room floor, or by enrolling the kids in an organized youth wrestling program.

Rex Peery (Photo/Oklahoma State Cowboys Ride Again)
Then there are wrestling families where championship-caliber mat talent seems to be part of the DNA. Families like the Kolls (dad Bill and son Rob), the Smiths (brothers John, Pat, Lee Roy), and the Schultzes (brothers Dave and Mark).

Then there are the Peerys -- father Rex, and sons Hugh and Ed. Each earned three NCAA Division I championships, for a total of nine individual titles ... making them the most decorated family in terms of the total number of national collegiate crowns.

The Peerys' mat saga is also significant in that it spans two states where amateur wrestling is almost a religion - Oklahoma and Pennsylvania ... and incorporates two wrestling programs - Oklahoma State, and the University of Pittsburgh -- each with mat histories going back prior to World War I.

This summer, InterMat Rewind plans to take a look at each of the Peerys -- their lives as a family, their individual careers in wrestling and coaching, and their lives off the mat. Let's start with the patriarch of the Peerys, Rex.

Meet Rex Peery

Rex Anderson Peery was born in Stillwater, Oklahoma ... an amateur wrestling town if there ever was one. After all, Stillwater is the home to Oklahoma State University, as well as the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum.

Rex Peery competed on the wrestling team at Stillwater High School, winning two Oklahoma state titles -- the 100-pound crown in 1927, and the 107 lb. championship in 1928.

Ed Gallagher
After high school, Rex worked in his father's outdoor advertising business before the stock market crash of October 1929 wiped out everything. Yet, at age 19, he married Clara. The young couple was blessed to own a small home with apartments that were rented out for income.

It appears to have been destined that Rex Peery would wrestle for Oklahoma State (then officially named Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College, or Oklahoma A&M for short). Not just because he grew up in Stillwater ... but, according to elder son Hugh, just two doors down from Ed Gallagher. The legendary Cowboy wrestling coach was able to make Rex an offer he couldn't refuse: A place on the wrestling team, and working as a painter for the school's maintenance department.

However, coach Gallagher and his Cowboys didn't get Rex Peery on the roster immediately after high school. Because of the Great Depression, Rex waited until 1931 to enroll at Oklahoma State ... then, because of NCAA rules forbidding freshmen from competing in varsity sports, he was unable to participate in intercollegiate competition until January 1933. One thing did happen freshman year: Rex and Clara Peery became parents, with the arrival of first son Robert Hugh Peery.

First, a few words on Ed Gallagher and the Oklahoma State wrestling program. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Cowboys were considered to be THE college wrestling program in the nation, with a reputation for excellence that went far beyond the borders of the state of Oklahoma. In the few short years between the time the NCAA had established its national college wrestling championships in 1928, and Rex Peery hit the mats as Oklahoma State's 118-pound starter in early 1933, the Cowboys had won both team titles the years those were awarded, and 15 individual team titles. No other college program at the time came close.

Cowboy Rex

As a sophomore, in the 1933 season, Rex Peery compiled an 8-0 record. According to his record posted at the website WrestlingStats.com, Rex wrestled at 135 pounds in his first few matches for the Cowboys ... but by mid-season, dropped down to 118 and remained at that weight the rest of his college career.

At the 1933 NCAAs, hosted by Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, there were eight wrestlers in the 118-pound bracket, the lightest weight class in NCAA competition at the time. (Realize that the NCAAs were a much smaller event 76 years ago; according to Jay Hammond's History of Collegiate Wrestling, a record 82 wrestlers from 30 schools competed that year in the two-day championships. Today, approximately 330 wrestlers compete at the NCAAs, with 32-34 wrestlers per weight class.)

In his first match at the 1933 nationals, Rex Peery got a 9:33 time advantage victory over Russ Bleakeley of Franklin & Marshall; in the second -- the semifinals -- he got a 9:09 time advantage win over Iowa State's Larry Gibson. (There was no point scoring system at the time; the only way to win a match was by time advantage (akin to today's riding time), or by pin.) In the finals, Peery won the title with a 6:09 time advantage over defending champ Joe Puerta of the University of Illinois. Peery was one of three Oklahoma State champs, along with Ross Flood at 126, and Alan Kelley at 145. The Cowboys shared the unofficial team title with Iowa State.

Junior year, Rex Peery remained perfect, with a 10-0 record. The major difference from the previous season -- eight of those wins were by pin. (He had not scored any falls his sophomore year.)

The 1934 NCAAs were held at the Intramural Gym at the University of Michigan. One interesting detail mentioned in an historical article posted at the Michigan Wolverine website: "Instead of competing in the normal 20-foot, roped-off ring, each mat for the championships was 24 feet square, with no ropes."

There were seven wrestlers in the 118-pound weight class, with Rex Peery as defending champ. In his first match, Peery upset the hometown crowd by pinning Michigan's Carl Fiero at 9:13. In his second match, the Cowboy scored a second fall, this time at 2:10 over Alvie Natvig of Northern Iowa. In the finals, Peery won his second title with a decision over Indiana University's Howard Bush. All three Cowboys who won the 1934 NCAA title repeated in 1935 ... and Oklahoma State won the team title outright.

A memorable collegiate finale

In his senior year, Rex Peery won all 11 of his matches, 8 of those by fall.

The 1935 NCAAs returned to Lehigh ... and the Cowboys returned to northeast Pennsylvania in grand style. According to The Cowboys Ride Again! -- a history of the Oklahoma State wrestling program by Doris and Bob Dellinger - the "colorful wrestlers wore 10-gallon hats, overalls, and high-heeled riding boots." The same book reported that a record field of 42 teams and 142 wrestlers competed at the 1935 NCAAs ... including 13 wrestlers in the 118-pound bracket.

Just before stepping onto the mat for his first match at the nationals, Rex Peery received a telegram, informing him of the birth of his second son, Edwin Clark, named in honor of his father's college coach, Edward Clark Gallagher.

Proud poppa Peery pinned his first two opponents -- Brown's Ken Beaulieu at 4:10, then Rowland Thomas of Washington & Lee at 5:11 -- then got a decision over Indiana's Willard Duffy in the semifinals. In the title bout, the defending champ held onto his crown by pinning George Ledbetter of Illinois at 5:52 to become the third-ever three-time NCAA champ. With that, Rex Peery completed his college mat career with a flawless 29-0 record, with 16 of those wins by pin.

In addition to those accomplishments for the Cowboy wrestling program, Rex Peery also won two national AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) titles, and was an alternate for the U.S. wrestling team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. In addition, he earned two letters playing baseball at Oklahoma State.

Peery the painter

In addition to wrestling, raising a family and classwork, Rex Peery kept busy with painting. His son Ed described his dad as a "very good painter -- raised in a paint store. He always had a paint job lined up on weekends. Hugh and I usually came along to help. I'd paint the closet or hold the ladder."

The Dellinger book provides another story about the painting career of Peery the patriarch, originally told by Cowboy wrestler Sam Barnes about his friend, Rex Peery to Amateur Wrestling News founding publisher Jess Hoke:

"It was the summer of 1933, right after Rex had won the first of his three NCAA titles. I was working downstairs in the sports publicity office in the old Aggie gym when I heard a racket upstairs."

"I went up to the gym floor and far up in the rafters was Rex, in white overalls and a mask, painting a new coat of silver paint on the ceiling with a spray gun. Rex was supporting a wife and child by working on the campus paint crew."

"When he saw me, he shut down and pulled off the mask."

"'Just think, Sam,' he said, 'two months ago, these rafters were ringing with my name. Now I'm getting 30 cents an hour to paint them.'"


A coaching career is born

After graduating from Oklahoma State in 1935, Rex Peery launched his coaching career (Photo/1952 Owl Yearbook)
After graduating from Oklahoma State in 1935, Rex Peery launched his coaching career. According to his son Hugh, Rex coached high school wrestling throughout the state of Oklahoma -- first at Erick for one year, then at Pauls Valley for four years, then at Tulsa Central for nine. At Tulsa, he took the helm of a powerful program that had been the domain of Art Griffith, who had left the school to assume the head coaching position at Oklahoma State when Ed Gallagher died in 1940.

It was at Tulsa Central that Hugh Peery took up wrestling, competing for his dad. In Denny Diehl's profile of the Peery family in History of Collegiate Wrestling, Rex's wife Clara is quoted as saying, "Only sons of coaches can know what a disadvantage this is. They must exemplify everything idealistic the coach tries to impart to all the boys in the room. Yet once it is hurdled, it provides a sense of pride and satisfaction unequalled by any other."

"It was always a family affair, Rex's job," Clara Peery continued. "Though I must admit we had many Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners wrecked during those years."

The Peerys go to Pennsylvania

While at Tulsa Central, Hugh Peery won two Oklahoma high school state titles in 1949 and 1950, both at 112 pounds ... but only one with his dad Rex as coach. Just before Hugh's senior year, his father, mother, brother Ed and sister Ann moved from Oklahoma to Pennsylvania, where Rex took the head coaching job at the University of Pittsburgh.

"Paul Keen recommended my dad to Tom Hamilton, Pittsburgh's athletic director," according to Hugh. At the time, Keen was head coach of the Oklahoma Sooner wrestling program.

Hugh Perry (Photo/1953 Owl Yearbook)
"Hugh stayed behind," says brother Ed. "He had a good friend, John Eagleton. He stayed with him."

"Hugh graduated from high school, came to Pittsburgh in summer of 1950."

"We did the book Wrestling in 1950 for A.S. Barnes Sports Library," recalls Ed. "We posed for pictures. Hugh was a two-time state champ; I'd never wrestled a match." It was an update of the classic wrestling instructional, first written by Ed Gallagher in the 1920s.

The Cowboy takes command of the Panthers

Here's a year-by-year capsule summary of the University of Pittsburgh's wrestling program with Rex Peery as head coach:

1950
• Dual-meet record: 0-10
• Did not place at NCAAs

1951
• Dual-meet record: 7-7
• Did not place at NCAAs

1952
• Dual-meet record: 9-2
• NCAA team placement: Ninth
• NCAA individual champ: Hugh Peery, 115 lbs.

1953
• Dual-meet record: 10-1
• NCAA team placement: Sixth
• NCAA individual champ: Hugh Peery, 115
• NCAA All-Americans: H. Peery; Charles Uram (4th place at 147); Eldred Kraemer (3rd place at heavyweight)

1954
• Dual-meet record: 9-1
• EIWA team placement: Team champions
• NCAA team placement: Second
• NCAA individual champs: Hugh Peery, 115; Joe Solomon, 167
• NCAA All-Americans: H. Peery; Solomon; Bill Kozy (4th place at 130)

1955
• Dual-meet record: 9-2
• EIWA team placement: Team champions
• NCAA team placement: Second
• NCAA individual champs: Ed Peery, 123 lbs.
• NCAA All-Americans: E. Peery; Ed DeWitt (3rd at 157); Joe Solomon (4th at 167)

1956
• Dual-meet record: 10-0
• EIWA team placement: Team champions
• NCAA team placement: Third
• NCAA individual champs: Ed Peery, 123; Ed DeWitt, 157
• NCAA All-Americans: E. Peery; DeWitt; Bill Hulings (2nd at 115); Vic DeFelice (3rd at 130)

1957
• Dual-meet record: 9-1
• EIWA team placement: Second
• NCAA team placement: Second
• NCAA individual champs: Ed Peery, 123; Tom Alberts, 167; Ron Schirf, 191
• NCAA All-Americans: E. Peery; Alberts; Schirf; Bill Hulings (2nd at 115); Vic DeFelice (4th at 130)

1958
• Dual-meet record: 8-2-1
• EIWA team placement: Fifth
• NCAA team placement: Ninth
• NCAA individual champ: Paul Powell, 123
• NCAA All-Americans: Powell; Vic DeFelice (6th at 130)

1959
• Dual-meet record: 9-1
• EIWA team placement: Fourth
• NCAA team placement: Fifth
• NCAA All-Americans: Larry Lauchle (2nd at 123); Bob Bubb (4th at 147); Tom Alberts (2nd at 167)

1960
• Dual-meet record: 7-1-1
• EIWA team placement: Champions
• NCAA team placement: Eighth
• NCAA All-American: Larry Lauchle (2nd at 123)

1961
• Dual-meet record: 6-3
• EIWA team placement: Second
• NCAA team placement: Fifth
• NCAA champion: Larry Lauchle at 123
• NCAA All-Americans: Lauchle; Dick Martin (3rd at 123); Daryl Kelvington (5th at 147)

1962
• Dual-meet record: 7-1-1
• EIWA team placement: Second
• NCAA team placement: Fourth
• NCAA All-Americans: Dick Martin (4th at 123); Daryl Kelvington (4th at 147)

1963
• Dual-meet record: 5-3
• EIWA team placement: Third
• NCAA team placement: Fourth
• NCAA individual champion: Jim Harrison, 167
• NCAA All-Americans: Harrison; Mike Johnson (2nd at 123); Tim Gay (6th at 157); Ken Barr (5th at 177)

1964
• Dual-meet record: 7-2
• EIWA team placement: Second
• NCAA team placement: 27th

1965
• Dual-meet record: 4-6
• EIWA team placement: Sixth
• NCAA team placement: 45th
Rex Peery took over the University of Pittsburgh wrestling program in 1950. While the Pitt wrestling program had been launched in 1914, the Panthers had two long periods where there was no wrestling -- first, from 1918-1934, then from 1938 through 1949. During the years the Panthers put a wrestling team out on the mat, they never had a winning season ... and, in fact, had a number of winless seasons.

The first year with Peery as head coach, the Panthers were 0-10-0. The 1950 Owl, the University of Pittsburgh yearbook, provided an optimistic assessment of that inaugural season:

Wrestling became another entry on the Pitt sports scene as Athletic Director Tom Hamilton signed Rex Peery to coach the grapplers.

After the 1950 season saw the pretzel-twisters go without a victory, neither Peery nor Hamilton were discouraged with the results. The Panthers met some of the top teams in the country and gained valuable experience for next season.


The yearbook was right about the quality of competition. Among the opponents the Panthers took on in 1950: Ohio State, Lock Haven, Kent State, Penn State, Michigan, and West Virginia.

And the Owl was right to forecast brighter days ahead. The 1951 season, the Panthers were in turn-around mode, compiling a 7-7 season. Among the teams they defeated: Kent State, Northwestern, and West Virginia. In 1952, Peery led his wrestlers to a 9-2 season against top programs from the East and Midwest, scoring wins over Yale, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio State, and West Virginia. More impressive, 1952 was the first time ever the team placed at the NCAAs (ninth place) ... and had an individual NCAA champ, Rex's son Hugh Peery at 115 pounds.

That successful '52 season sparked a trend that carried Pitt through the 1950s and into the early 60s. Not only did Peery's Panthers have a string of winning seasons up to the 1964-65 season; in terms of team titles and individual champions, they also made a name for themselves at the EIWA (Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association) and the NCAA championships.

In his 15 years at the helm, Rex Peery's Panther matmen compiled a 116-43-3 record, winning 13 individual NCAA championships and 23 EIWA individual titles.

At the end of the 1965 season, Rex Peery retired as the head wrestling coach at the University of Pittsburgh. Dave Johnson, a three-time EIWA champ under Peery, took over the wrestling program ... while Rex Peery became Pitt's men's golf coach. Peery continued to serve in the athletic department of the University of Pittsburgh as an assistant professor until his retirement.

While wrestling coach at Pitt, Rex Peery worked with Arnold "Swede" Umbach on the instructional book simply titled Wrestling, published in 1961 ... and served as coach of the U.S. freestyle wrestling team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, notable for Dan Brand winning a bronze medal at 191.5 pounds, and being the first U.S. wrestling team to have two African-American members, Bobby Douglas and Charlie Tribble. In addition to his coaching, Peery was a member of the Olympic Wrestling Committee for 12 years.

Peery was one of the founders of USA Wrestling programs in Pennsylvania and served on its national governing council, as well as the board of governors of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. In 1976, Rex Peery was inducted as a Distinguished Member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame as part of the inaugural class.

Father and sons

In reviewing Rex Peery's career as head coach at Pittsburgh, his two sons are a critical component to his success. Together, Ed and Hugh account for six of the 13 individual NCAA titles claimed by Panther wrestlers in the 1950s and early 60s. When Ed joined his dad and older brother Hugh as a three-time national champ by winning the 123-pound title in a thrilling match in the "home gym" at Pitt -- Fitzgerald Field House -- at the 1957 NCAAs, the Peerys made history by being the first two-generation family to win a total of nine individual national collegiate titles. In fact, no other single family can claim as many NCAA titles as the Peerys.

Ed Peery (Photo/Pitt Media Guide)
The two sons have fond memories of their father Rex even as youngsters. "He wrestled us all the time," says Hugh.

Ed concurs. "Before dinner, he'd get on the rug and we'd do, say, the side roll, and he'd offer instruction and encouragement. Each time, we'd learn different things."

Those wrestling matches continued even when the sons became accomplished wrestlers in their own right. Here's Hugh's recollection of a practice session with his dad Rex:
"When I was freshman at Pitt, I took him down for the first time. So he had to keep wrestling until he took me down. I thought he'd have a heart attack."

"He had a manner about him," remembers Ed. "He'd cause you to do your best -- very encouraging. He'd say 'You're as good as it gets.'"

"Dad would get so emotional -- really tied up in our matches," says Ed. "I think it was harder on him than us."

"He'd say, 'Go get 'em" and "You'll see this guy again. Whip 'em good this time. Once you've put a whippin' him, he'll dread seeing you again."

"I loved wrestling for my dad," says Hugh.

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