Henson, Harkness: NCAA champs 100 years young

Harvard NCAA champs Jesse Jantzen and John Harkness

The two oldest living NCAA wrestling champions -- Oklahoma State's Stanley Henson, and John Harkness of Harvard -- each celebrated their 100th birthdays last week.

Henson, a three-time national champ for the Cowboys (1937-1939), turned 100 on Wednesday, Nov. 30, the National Wrestling Hall of Fame announced on social media that day. Harkness, who won his title at 175 pounds at the 1938 NCAAs, also reached the century mark that same day, according to his bio at the Archinform website.

At least one website has claimed Henson is the oldest living NCAA champ in any sport. If that statement is true, that would mean that Harkness would also share that distinction.

In addition to becoming NCAA wrestling champs nearly 80 years ago, both men served during World War II -- Henson in the Navy, on board the USS San Francisco in the Pacific, Harkness, in the American Field Service as an ambulance driver on the battlefields of Europe. What's more, both mat champs went on to successful professional careers beyond the sport -- Henson in medicine, Harkness in architecture.

Stanley Henson

The son of a man who labored in the oil fields of Oklahoma, Stanley Willard Henson, Jr. first made a name for himself on the wrestling mat at Tulsa Central High School, a nationally respected prep wrestling power of that era. While at Tulsa Central, Henson won two Oklahoma high school state titles. He was coached by Art Griffith, who later became head coach at Oklahoma State from 1940 to 1957. (Griffith later said that Henson was the best wrestler he coached at Tulsa Central, which is saying a lot, as the coach tutored eight future NCAA champs during his time at the high school.)

Stanley Henson
Henson then headed west to Stillwater to wrestle at what was then called Oklahoma A&M for the all-time great head coach Ed Gallagher. As a Cowboy, Henson posted a near-perfect 31-1 record, with 12 pins. He was a three-time NCAA champ, winning the 145-pound crown at the 1937 and 1938 NCAAs, then the title at 155 in 1939. Henson was named Outstanding Wrestler at the 1937 NCAAs, the first sophomore to earn that honor. He was also one of the wrestlers featured in a 1939 Life magazine photo-spread for the Oklahoma State wrestling program.

Charlie Mayser, legendary coach at Iowa State in the 1930s, said, "(Henson) is positively the greatest wrestler to come along in generations, and I've seen some of the best." The Cyclone coach later said, "That Henson -- he's just not human!" Contemporary wrestling historian Mike Chapman said this of Henson: "All the old-timers I talk to consider him -- without exception -- one of the top four or five wrestlers of all time."

After five years as a physical instructor and wrestling assistant at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Henson attended medical school at University of Maryland and trained at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. for four years before moving to Fort Collins, Colo. to work as a surgeon, becoming the first doctor to perform open-heart surgery at the local hospital. In addition, he was a pioneer in the field of sports medicine. He still resides in Colorado with his wife of more than 75 years, Thelma. Henson was welcomed into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1978.

John Harkness

John Cheesman "Chip" Harkness was born in New York City, the son of an architect. The younger Harkness wrestled at Harvard University, becoming that school's first NCAA mat champ in March 1938 when he defeated Marshall Word of the University of Oklahoma for the 175-pound title. (In fact, Harkness was Harvard's only NCAA champ until 2004, when Jesse Jantzen won the title at 149. Harkness was present in St. Louis to see Jantzen crowned champ; the two of them posed for photos.)

John Harkness
The same year Harkness won the national title, the Crimson captain also claimed the EIWA (Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association) title. He was named the EIWA's Most Outstanding Wrestler at the 1938 championships.

In 1945, John Harkness and his wife Sarah P. Harkness were among the founding partners in the formation of The Architects Collaborative, a major architectural design firm based in Cambridge, Mass. Among their most famous works included the Pan Am Building (now MetLife) in midtown Manhattan; CIGNA insurance company headquarters in Connecticut, the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Federal Building in Boston, and the U.S. embassy in Athens, Greece. Although most of The Architects Collaborative work was in the northeast U.S., they also designed a number of school and university buildings throughout the world, including the Harvard Graduate School, the University of Baghdad, and two school buildings in Columbus, Ind.

Harkness was welcomed into the EIWA Hall of Fame in 2014. His wife and business partner preceded him in death in 2013 at age 99.

UPDATE: As stated in the comments below, John Harkness died two days before reaching his 100th birthday. Here is the link to InterMat's tribute to the first Harvard mat champ:


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henson9999 (2) about 5 years ago
Two more facts about Dr. Stanley Henson merit mention:

First, Dr. Henson beat every man he ever wrestled. His 33-1 record does not mention that his only loss was a referee’s decision against Bill Keas of Oklahoma when his should was dislocated and he refused to end the match. He later beat Keas to avenge the only loss of his career, an overall career that also included his undefeated career as Oklahoma high school state champion for both years he wrestled (he missed one year due to injury). More impressive, in his entire career no wrestler ever scored what we would today call an offensive point on Stanley Henson (i.e. he was never taken down and never put on his back). Even Kees could only escape in the referee’s decision that he won. The only thing you could do with Henson was escape. One of his opponents, however, once remarked to me that “even if you escaped, he took you right back down.”

Henson invented the move which today we call the modern cross ankle pick (or the head and heel, as he called it) and he could take down an opponent of any size, including the upper weights at Oklahoma A&M (aka Oklahoma State) and the defending NCAA champion that he beat off the team his sophomore year to win the 142 lb. spot in the lineup for Oklahoma A&M. His senior year Henson went up a weight class so his friend could wrestle on the team and still won the NCAA title, weighing in light enough to make the lower weight class that year had he so desired. At a roundtable discussion years later, someone asked Harold Nichols what was his luckiest moment in wrestling and he said “when Stanley Henson went up a weight class and I won the class he left behind.”

I should mention that Stanley Henson was my uncle. I rolled around with him and with my father (an Olympic medalist) when I was younger and eventually wrestled at Harvard in the early seventies. At that time John Harkness still occasionally came into the Harvard wrestling room and worked out with us and I was able to roll around with him as well. He was unbelievably good and only because some might think that Harvard was not up to the standard of the traditional powers has he not been more appreciated for the outstanding wrestler that he was. He was actually present when Harvard got its second NCAA Champion years later with Jesse Jantzen (whose performance, together with that of Harvard’s third NCAA Champion J.P. O’Connor-- plus the subsequent NCAA team performances of Cornell and Penn -- should provide persuasive evidence as to how tough Ivy League wrestling actually is).

I am proud to be perhaps the only wrestler who can boast that he rolled with what are now the two oldest NCAA wrestling champions (and the oldest NCAA champions in any sport, according to my research).

Josh Henson
Harvard ‘72
All-Ivy 134 lbs.
henson9999 (1) about 4 and a half years ago
John Harkness passed away two days before his 100th birthday in the home he designed in Vinalhaven, Maine. Harkness was a noted architect and one of the founders of The Architects Collaborative, a renowned firm whose collective approach, inspired subsequent generations and “became a sort of godparent to Boston architecture,” Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell wrote in 1995, when the firm closed after 50 years. “Numerous other firms were started by architects who’d learned the ropes at TAC.”

matwriter (1) about 4 and a half years ago
Josh, Thank you for sharing this sad news about the passing of John Harkness, esp. so close to the century mark! Interesting that it took the Boston Globe so long to be informed of his death; his Wikipedia and Archinform listings both have him as being alive.