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When Life came to Oklahoma State wrestling

Life: February 27, 1939 issue
Imagine the buzz in the wrestling community if one of the most popular TV news programs or non-sports websites came to your college campus for a major story on your school's wrestling program.

Well, 78 years ago last week, that happened, as Life magazine -- one of the nation's biggest newsmagazines at the time -- came to do a photo shoot of some of the wrestlers and legendary head coach at the nation's leading college wrestling program of that era, Oklahoma State, which claimed three individual titles and the team championship at the 1938 NCAAs. One month later, a dozen photos of the Cowboys and coach Ed Gallagher appeared in the February 27, 1939 issue of the popular magazine.

How big a deal was this? At the time, Life magazine -- published by Time, Inc., which now produces Sports Illustrated and People, among other publications -- was a weekly magazine showcasing photos of major news events, as well as images of Hollywood stars, athletes, politicians and other newsmakers, and amusing pics that would now go viral on Facebook or Instagram. In its glory days, Life had a circulation of over 10,000,000 readers, a significant percentage of the population back when the U.S. had approximately 132,000,000 residents. (Life magazine is no longer published weekly, but produces special issues to commemorate major events.)

Let's take a look back ...

Wrestlers ready to strike a pose

In late January 1939, Life magazine sent photographer Bernard Hoffman to Stillwater to take photos of the top college wrestling program in the nation. Armed with multiple cameras -- and countless rolls of film and flashbulbs -- Hoffman spent at least two full days on campus, with most of the photo shoot taking place at the just-opened fieldhouse that is now known as Gallagher-Iba Arena.

"Bernard Hoffman, ace cameraman of the magazine, arriving on the campus late Tuesday evening, spent nearly all day Wednesday posing and snapping Gallagher and his grapplers, who took to the posing and demonstrating with the aplomb of a bunch of prima-donnas," the Daily O'Collegian -- the school's student newspaper -- reported in its Jan. 26 issue.

"Altogether Hoffman must have snapped several hundred pictures with one or the other of his three cameras, while Gallagher put his national champions through their paces, holds and counters."

The article -- titled "Gallagher and Aggie Wrestlers Snapped by Life Magazine Ace" -- went on to report that Hoffman took three snapshots of each pose, usually using two cameras.

One month later, featured in the pages of Life

Four weeks later, all that hard work on the part of photographer Bernard Hoffman, Ed Gallagher, and his wrestlers were revealed in a three-page story in the February 27, 1939 issue of Life titled "'Gibraltar of Grappling' Produces Another Great Oklahoma A&M Team."

Those three pages featured just over a dozen photos of Oklahoma State wrestlers working out and demonstrating holds ... all under the watchful eye of Ed Gallagher, long-time head coach of the Cowboy mat program.

Coach Gallagher and the Oklahoma State wrestlers in a ring
The opening two-page spread is dominated by a large, attention-getting photo of a dozen or so pairs of bare-chested wrestlers, wearing trunks, demonstrating holds in a raised wrestling ring while coach Gallagher stands in the corner of the ring, observing the action.

Considering what the wrestlers are wearing -- and where they are working out -- the image looks like it could be from a present-day WWE training camp. However, back in the 1930s, grapplers at Oklahoma State wore wool trunks without shirts (this was decades before the NCAA approved singlets for college wrestling) ... and they competed in a roped-off wrestling ring, raised a couple feet off the floor, like those we associate with boxing or pro wrestling. (Some other colleges, including Indiana University, and University of Iowa, placed ropes around the mat which was placed on the floor.) The NCAA banned wrestling rings in the early 1940s.

The opening paragraph of the brief article describes the image:

Coach Gallagher demonstrates a move on Joe McDaniel
"The ringful of struggling, squirming youths in the picture above is the wrestling squad of Oklahoma Agricultural & Mechanical College [the school's name until the late 1950s]. Every afternoon these rugged young muscle-men take orders from a wiry little Irish coach named Ed Gallagher, who has earned the name "Gibraltar of Grappling." Pushing and tossing each other around the ring, they grunt and groan and, like the wrestler to the right, sometimes suffer pain. They and their coach have brought fame to Oklahoma A&M by giving it the country's best wrestling teams, which in 22 years have won 125 meets, lost only five. This year, when the national tournament is held March 17 at Lancaster, Pa., Oklahoma seems sure to win, becoming intercollegiate champion for the tenth time in twelve years." (Life was right; the Cowboys won the team title at the 1939 NCAAs at Franklin & Marshall, tallying nearly three times as many team points as runner-up Lehigh ... and three individual champs: Joe McDaniel at 121 pounds, Stanley Henson at 155, and Johnny Harrell at heavyweight.)

McDaniel and Henson are featured prominently in the Life magazine photos. McDaniel is shown in a two-photo sequence where Gallagher uses him to demonstrate a further-arm and leg roll. (Gallagher was a multi-sport athlete at Oklahoma State in the early 1900s, but never wrestled.) Henson, a three-time NCAA champ, is visible in a half-dozen photos, including one where he puts teammate Clay Albright in painful-looking body-scissors with a double bar-arm.

Lasting legacies ...

A couple elements from that Life magazine photo-article live on today. The site of the photo shoot, originally called the 4-H Building, had just opened. Nicknamed "the Madison Square Garden of the Prairie", the nearly half-million dollar fieldhouse hosted its first wrestling event on Feb. 3, 1939: a dual meet with Indiana University, one of the top programs in the nation at the time. Back in 2001, the building -- now named Gallagher-Iba Arena -- was expanded and upgraded ... but the original wood basketball floor installed in 1939 is still in place, ready to be covered with wrestling mats.

Stanley Henson is also still around. The retired surgeon and sports medicine pioneer celebrated his 100th birthday in November 2016. A couple weeks ago, Henson returned to his alma mater to be presented with the Gallagher Award, an annual honor given to a former Cowboy wrestler who "exemplifies the spirit and leadership eminent in the tradition of champions."

Sadly, coach Edward Clark Gallagher died less than 18 months after Life magazine came to Oklahoma State. Gallagher passed away in August 1940, after returning from a hunting trip. He was just 53 years old. He had battled Parkinson's disease -- a disorder of the central nervous system that affects movement, often including tremors, that affected Muhammed Ali, actor Michael J. Fox, and approximately one million other individuals in the U.S. -- for about a decade. Gallagher's funeral was held in the fieldhouse that had been named in his honor before his death.

Under Gallagher, the Cowboys lassoed a 138-5-4 overall record for an amazing .952 winning percentage (a greater win ratio than most all-time great college mat coaches can claim). Gallagher coached 22 wrestlers to earn 37 individual national championships; seventeen of his Cowboys wrestled in Olympic competition, with three winning gold medals. A substantial number of his wrestlers went on to serve as high school and college wrestling coaches.

Sixty-five years after his death, Gallagher was named one of three "Best Wrestling Coaches" in an online poll of wrestling fans for the NCAA 75th Anniversary Team honors in 2005. (The other two coaches so honored: Iowa State's Harold Nichols, and University of Iowa's Dan Gable.)

Life magazine's three-page tribute to the "Gibraltar of Grappling" and his Oklahoma State wrestlers wasn't the last time the photo-magazine visited a wrestling room. Over the years, Life did a number of photo shoots involving U.S. amateur wrestlers, including images of the matmen of Mepham High School on Long Island, New York ... Michigan State's Merle and Burl Jennings, twin two-time NCAA champs (1941, 1942) ... and the "Dream Team" of Cornell College, the smallest school to win an NCAA team title (1947).

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Gilgamesh (2) about 2 years ago
As always, thanks for the excellent and informative piece Mark.