InterMat Rewind: Hugh Peery

Mark Palmer

12/28/2009
Mark Palmer, InterMat Senior Writer
mark@intermatwrestle.com, Twitter: @MatWriter

There are fathers and sons in wrestling ... then there are the Peerys, a true wrestling dynasty. The father, Rex Peery, and his two sons, Hugh and Ed, each won three NCAA wrestling championships. That's a total of nine titles. A haul of hardware no other wrestling family can match.

This year, InterMat Rewind salutes the Peerys -- their lives as a family, their individual careers in wrestling and coaching, and their lives off the mat -- with a series of individual articles. This summer, we profiled Rex Peery.

Meet Hugh Peery

Robert Hugh Peery was born in Stillwater, Oklahoma when his dad Rex was a student at Oklahoma State University. As Hugh pointed out in an interview for this profile, "I was born in dad's freshman year, but he had worked two years after high school before going to college, because of the Depression."

Hugh Peery
"There's a photo of me in a diaper on the mat with my dad."

Hugh Peery's immersion in wrestling continued in his youth. In the 2003 book, A Turning Point, written by Jamie Moffatt and Roger Olesen, Hugh said that his dad often brought him to wrestling practice at Oklahoma State. "When I was four or five, Dad took a job coaching wrestling at the high school level. As I was growing up, I would go over to the high school and would wrestle every day. When I got to high school, I wrestled guys that had, maybe, two or three years' experience, while I already had been wrestling for 15 years and learning from my father. I had a great advantage."

Taking advantage of that early start

Hugh Peery's actual, competitive wrestling career officially began at Tulsa Central High School, where his father was head coach (having taken the job when former coach Art Griffith took the helm at Oklahoma State upon the passing of Ed Gallagher in 1940). "I started as a sophomore. Back then, freshmen couldn't compete."

That first season, Hugh Peery placed third in the state. However, in his junior and senior years, he won Oklahoma high school state titles at 112 pounds in 1949 and 1950.

"There were only about 13-14 teams in the state at the time," Hugh said, providing some historical perspective on the state of high school wrestling in Oklahoma 60 years ago.

That second state title may not have happened in Oklahoma, if it weren't for some generous friends.

Just before Hugh's senior year, Rex Peery was offered the head coaching job at the University of Pittsburgh. Dad, his mother Clara, sister Ann, and younger brother Ed all made the move to Pennsylvania ... while Hugh stayed in Tulsa, with family friend and teammate, John Eagleton.

"I am forever indebted to the Eagletons," said Hugh Peery.

"It was a tough year for me. I truly missed my family, especially once wrestling season was over."

Go east, young man

After graduating from Tulsa Central in 1950, Hugh joined the rest of his family in the Pittsburgh area. He told a story about the family building a new house.

"Dad decided to build a house in Shaler Township, because they had a good wrestling program."

"Before construction started, a guy brought concrete blocks. The driver offered to take them off the truck, but dad said, 'These guys will do it,' so we did." And got a good workout in the process.

That summer, Hugh and his brother Ed posed for photos in an updated version of the classic instructional book, simply titled Wrestling, which had been originally written by legendary Oklahoma State coach Ed Gallagher.

Wrestling for dad, again

Rex Peery (Photo/1952 Owl Yearbook)
Hugh Peery resumed his wrestling career at Pitt, wrestling for his father Rex, as he had his sophomore and junior years at Tulsa Central High.

"I loved wrestling for my dad," Hugh disclosed. "He always put us through the paces, rope climbing, ladder climbing, chinning."

Hugh told a story about a practice session match that sounded as if it were anything but a friendly roll around on the living room rug: "When I was a freshman at Pitt, I took him down for the first time in a practice session. So he had to keep wrestling till he took me down. Thought he'd have a heart attack."

Before wrestling an official intercollegiate match at Pittsburgh, Hugh Peery competed at the 1951 Pan American Games in Argentina, bringing home a gold medal.

In the interview for this profile, Hugh Peery was characteristically modest when talking about his college career as a Pitt Panther ... and, in fact, opened that portion of our conversation remembering a bitter defeat.

"I lost one match as a sophomore, to (Bob) Homan of Penn State, a Mepham (High School, Long Island, New York) grad, at Penn State. It was the worst match I have ever wrestled."

That loss to Homan was Hugh Peery's first -- and last -- in college. He crafted a 56-1 overall record at Pitt, including a 48-match win streak that started the very next match after losing to Homan.

"I wrestled him the next year, had him on his back in 15 seconds. Never pinned him, but beat him 18-8."

"I was not much of a pinner," Hugh Peery continued. "I wasn't strong enough."

Hugh Peery's biography at the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in his native Stillwater, Oklahoma, states, "He was noted for his speed and clever style. He was an exceptional takedown artist with a wide variety of moves, and his usual pattern was to establish an early lead and maintain pressure with a vast repertoire of rides, escapes and pinning holds."

This description of Hugh Peery's wrestling style is borne out by looking at the brackets for the three NCAA championships where he wrestled. As wrestling historian Denny Diehl pointed out in his analysis of Hugh for the book The History of Collegiate Wrestling, the elder Peery son had only one close match in three national college tournaments ... and that was a 6-5 victory over sophomore Terry McCann of the University of Iowa at the 1954 NCAAs. McCann went on to win two NCAA titles and a gold medal in freestyle at the 1960 Rome Olympics. Hugh remembered that match well, saying, "(McCann) was tough. I won on riding time."

A very full plate his sophomore year

In the 2003 book A Turning Point, Hugh Peery was very disclosing in discussing his time at the University of Pittsburgh. "My sophomore year, 1951-1952, was the hardest. I was trying my darndest to get into Pitt's pre-dental program the following year; I was wrestling and trying to win the NCAAs; and also attempting to make the Olympic wrestling team. I was constantly making weight and totally engrossed with my studies so that I might be accepted into the pre-dental program." (Hugh had wanted to be a dentist since seventh grade.)

The elder Peery son continued, "I achieved all three goals that year, but it was probably a mistake going for the early dental program. It was just too hard, along with all the wrestling. I could have put off the dental program for a couple years."

At Hugh's first NCAAs in 1952, held at Colorado A&M in Fort Collins, he was the top seed in the eight-man bracket at 115 pounds. After drawing a bye in the first round, Hugh shut out Ted Bredehoft of Cornell College of Iowa, 4-0. In the semifinals, the Panther defeated fourth-seeded Richard Meeks of the University of Illinois, 6-3. He then won his first national title with a convincing 13-6 win over Will Howard, the third-seeded wrestler out of the University of Denver.

Hugh Peery (Photo/1953 Owl Yearbook)
After winning his first NCAA title, Hugh Peery made the U.S. Olympic wrestling team, traveling to Helsinki, Finland to compete. He won two of three matches, but, as with that bitter loss in college his sophomore year, the one loss in the Olympics is what has stayed with him more than a half-century later.

"I felt that I was screwed by the judges in my match against the Russian," Peery is quoted in A Turning Point. "It was my third match and I thought I had it won. I never turned the guy, but I took him down, oh, maybe 15 times, but I was never awarded any points by the two Eastern bloc judges. I lost on a split decision and ended up in sixth place."

"My father was very intent on my being on the Olympic team," Hugh Peery told A Turning Point authors Moffatt and Olesen. "After going over to Europe and competing in the Olympics and having a bad experience there, I came home and told Dad, 'Never tell me again what I have to do.' Actually, if I had won a gold medal at those Olympics, I probably wouldn't have wrestled any more. I already had won an NCAA championship and with an Olympic gold, what else was there?"

Coming back from Olympic disappointment

Despite the disappointment from the 1952 Olympics, Hugh Peery continued wrestling.

Junior year, Hugh, his dad and his Pitt teammates traveled halfway across Pennsylvania to Penn State, site of the 1953 NCAAs. Again, Hugh was the No. 1 seed among a dozen wrestlers in the 115-pound weight class. In the opening round, Hugh faced a familiar foe in Illinois' Richard Meeks, this time getting a 9-4 win. In the second round, Hugh defeated Art Helf of Franklin & Marshall, 6-2. The semifinals saw the Panther demolish Ed Dawkins of Ursinus, 11-1. In the title bout, Hugh Peery scored a 5-1 win over Bob Christensen of Northwestern to win his second national crown.

Hugh Peery shared some of his memories from his second NCAA tournament with A Turning Point authors Jamie Moffatt and Roger Olesen, saying his first match of the event vs. Meeks was the most memorable. "I had wrestled him before and was pretty sure I could beat him. We got into a scuffle at the edge of the mat, and I got mad at him. My dad was coaching me and got made at me. It wasn't a tough match; I think I pancaked him for five of my points. But Dad wanted me to win the Outstanding Wrestler award, and he thought my outburst at mat side cost me." (At the 1953 NCAAs, Outstanding Wrestler honors went to Frank Bettucci, 147-pound champ from Cornell University.)

As a senior at Pitt, Hugh Peery won all of his regular-season matches, then claimed the EIWA (Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association) title at 123 pounds. (It was the first year Pittsburgh had competed in the conference.) At the 1954 NCAAs held at the University of Oklahoma, Hugh was again the top seed in the 11-man 115-pound bracket. He got off to a powerful start, pinning his first two opponents -- Kansas State's Joe Landholm, at 3:55, and Auburn's Robert David, in exactly four minutes. In the semifinals, Hugh had the one close match of three years of NCAA tournaments, edging Iowa's Terry McCann, 6-5, to advance to his third straight title match. As in past years, the Panther had a fairly easy championship bout, scoring a decisive 9-2 win over Charles Ofsthun of the University of Minnesota to claim his third consecutive NCAA title, joining his dad Rex as a three-time national collegiate champ.

Dan Gable with Hugh Peery (Photo/TheMat.com)
That was the end of Hugh Peery's competitive wrestling career.

After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh's Dental School in 1956, Hugh Peery wanted to join the Navy. He served as an assistant coach to family friend Ray Swartz at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis for a couple years, but, as he told A Turning Point authors Moffatt and Olesen, that, unlike his father, "I recognized that coaching was something I really didn't want to do as a career."

Instead, Hugh Peery realized that nearly lifelong dream of being a dentist. He established his practice in the Pittsburgh area, where he worked in his chosen profession for 51 years before retiring about two years ago at age 75.

Hugh Peery was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame as a Distinguished Member in 1980 -- the same year as his younger brother Ed. They joined their dad Rex, who had been welcomed into the Hall as part of its initial class in 1976.

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