Stanley Henson at the age of 100 at the NCAAs
Stanley Henson was a giant in amateur wrestling ... and in life beyond the sport.
No, he wasn't a bulky, towering heavyweight. Henson started wrestling in junior high at 75 pounds, and completed his collegiate career at 155, standing 5'10". But his accomplishments on the mat -- and long after he hung up the trunks -- made him a larger-than-life figure of great achievements in his century of life.
Stanley Willard Henson, Jr., M.D. died Wednesday, Jan. 30, at age 101 in Colorado, where he had resided for more than 60 years.
Born on November 30 -- Thanksgiving Day -- in 1916 in Jackson, Mich., Henson became forever known as "Junior" to his family.
The youngster who excelled at yo-yo and kitemaking turned his sights on the oldest and greatest sport. Henson was a two-time Oklahoma high school state wrestling champ, who then became a three-time NCAA champ for Oklahoma State in the late 1930s, widely heralded as one of the greats of that era ... and of all time.
But Henson's life was much more than wrestling. He served his country with honor in World War II ... was a renowned surgeon ... an outdoorsman ... a husband and a father.
Stanley Henson, wrestler extraordinaire
Stanley Henson launched his legendary wrestling career during the Great Depression in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
"I started wrestling as a 75-pounder in junior high school," Henson told wrestling journalist Jason Bryant in a Mat Talk Online Podcast interview conducted when the legendary Cowboy was 98 years old. "I took a year off wrestling. Went out for tumbling. Wasn't good at that."
When Henson enrolled at Central High School in Tulsa, he met Art Griffith, head wrestling coach ... one of the coaches that forever changed his life, and the man he said "was the one to teach me skills."
"Mr. Griffith saw me working out in the gym. He asked me to go out for wrestling."
"Didn't make the team that first year."
Stanley HensonHowever, Henson more than made up for that by winning two state titles in Oklahoma ... first at 95 pounds as a sophomore, then at 115 pounds as a senior, where he won Outstanding Wrestler honors. (Henson missed an entire year due to a broken arm.)
Henson then headed west to Stillwater, to what was then called Oklahoma A&M (Agricultural & Mechanical) College, now Oklahoma State University, to wrestle for Edward Clark Gallagher, who had been head coach since the end of World War I and built the nation's dominant college wrestling program (despite never having wrestled).
Henson won three NCAA championships -- at 145 pounds in 1937 and 1938, and at 155 as a senior in 1939. He was the first non-senior to be named Outstanding Wrestler at the Nationals, winning that honor as a sophomore at the 1937 NCAAs.
In his three seasons as a starter for the Cowboys, Henson compiled a near-perfect 56-1 record, with 12 pins. (Up until about 1970, NCAA rules prohibited freshmen student-athletes from wrestling varsity ... which included Stanley Henson.)
That one loss was to Bill Keas of arch-rival University of Oklahoma, a loss which Henson later avenged.
During that Bedlam Series dual meet, Henson had moved up a weight class -- to 155 pounds -- for the sake of the team.
Here's how Stanley Henson described the match to Oklahoma State's Posse magazine in a 2013 interview:
"Bill Keas was a big, tough, muscular guy. The first time he and I wrestled was down at OU. It went to extension period, and he had more riding time than I did, so he won that match. The next week Mr. Gallagher called me in and said, 'Well, I thought you were a 155 pounder, but I think you're 145. You'd better wrestle 145 from now on.'"
"I said, 'Coach, I told you at the beginning of the year I'd wrestle anywhere you want me to, but with one exception. I want Bill Keas again when they come up here. I want to stay at 155.' And I did ..."
"I remember I just decided I had to do something to win that damn match, and just grabbed old Bill and did what I call a whipover and just whipped him right over on his back ... but in doing so, I dislocated my left shoulder."
While time was called, trainers were able to reduce his shoulder, and set it back in place. He told coach Gallagher that he wanted to continue to wrestle.
"I didn't think I could take him down again, so I knew that I had to ride him. He won the toss and chose to take down in his period, and I just rode him as tight as I could. I kept him just smothered the whole match.
"Then it was my period down, the last period. I remember he got down on my left side, and I just did a sit-out, a turnover, and he had about two seconds time advantage on me and I had all three minutes on him. So I won that match." (Note: Today's point-scoring system was not in place at the time Henson wrestled.)
Josh Henson, Stanley Henson's nephew who wrestled at Harvard, told InterMat, "Henson was never taken down and never put on his back. He never had an offensive move scored upon him in his entire college career and was unscored upon, except for escapes that he allowed."
How did Henson become such a dominant force in amateur wrestling in the 1930s?
More than one source has described Henson's "incredible strength" and "superb physique." Both of those attributes were gained not from the weight room but from rugged work the oil fields of Oklahoma. His father was a general contractor who put his son Stan to work when he wasn't in school, carrying heavy steel girders and pipe to help build oil derricks throughout the Sooner State.
Here's a handful of other surprising aspects of Stanley Henson's career at Oklahoma State in the late 1930s:
Beyond the Cowboys ... in addition to his three NCAA wrestling titles, Stanley Henson was a champ at the 1937 Pan American Exposition and twice an AAU national champion.
Sadly, Henson wasn't able to wrestle at an Olympics. The 1940 and 1944 Games were not held because of World War II.
What others said about Stanley Henson, the wrestler
Art GriffithStanley Henson was widely recognized as being one of the all-time amateur wrestling greats ... by those who saw him in action as a wrestler at Oklahoma State, as well as by more modern historians, athletes and coaches.
Henry Wittenberg, 1948 Olympic gold medalist, saw Henson wrestle at the 1939 NCAAs and said, "I had never seen wrestling like that ... He was just so good and so slick. He was definitely one of the greatest technique wrestlers of all time, maybe the best."
A number of individuals who witnessed Henson in his wrestling prime were coaches of that era.
One coach who saw Henson in action day in, day out was Art Griffith, his high school coach. Years after retiring, Griffith said that Henson was the best wrestler he coached at Tulsa Central, which is saying a lot, as the National Wrestling Hall of Fame coach tutored eight future NCAA champs during his time at the high school.
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!"
Henson was a force to be reckoned with, even while wrestling with one arm. As mentioned earlier, Henson dislocated his shoulder in 1937, an injury that plagued him the rest of his career. During a European tour in fall 1938, Henson badly reinjured that shoulder in a dual meet featuring top U.S. AAU wrestlers vs. Hungary. To make it possible for Henson to wrestle during the 1939 collegiate season, his arm was strapped to his body ... forcing the Cowboy to wrestle one-armed. That did not escape the attention of University of Illinois' head coach H.E. "Hek" Kenney. According to a profile about Henson written by wrestling historians Dan Sayenga and the late Jay Hammond for the epic 2005 book "The History of Collegiate Wrestling," after a dual meet between Oklahoma State and the Fighting Illini, Kenney said that Henson had enough ability with one arm to defeat anyone in the country. (During the 1939 season, Henson -- now a senior -- was undefeated, claiming his third NCAA title.)
One of the referees at the 1939 NCAAs was "Swede" Umbach, long-time coach at the now-defunct wrestling program at Auburn University. At that time, Umbach claimed that Henson was the greatest wrestler he had ever seen. Decades later, Umbach said, "That statement is still true. Stanley is still the greatest!"
Port Robertson, legendary coach at cross-state rival University of Oklahoma, once said he thought Stanley Henson was the best collegiate wrestler he had ever seen.
Even future coaches who saw Henson in person were impressed. Prior to taking the helm as head wrestling coach at Iowa State in the early 1950s and serving into the 1980s, Harold Nichols wrestled at the University of Michigan, where he won the 145-pound title at the 1939 NCAAs. Nichols said, "Stanley Henson was the best wrestler I had seen. ..." He added that Henson "was head and shoulders above the rest of us." (What's more, Nichols is reported to have said he would not have been an NCAA champ if Henson had not moved up one weight class to 155.)
Stanley Henson still holds a place of honor among many "in the know" within the modern era.
"Stan Henson of Oklahoma State is considered to be the greatest collegiate wrestler of the pre-World War II era," is how historians Dan Sayenga and Jay Hammond opened their profile of the Cowboy mat star for Hammond's "The History of Collegiate Wrestling" book.
Amateur Wrestling News magazine declared Henson to be the best wrestler of the 1930s.
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."
In his 2010 listing of the top 15 all-time great college wrestlers for WIN Magazine, Chapman ranked Henson No. 8, stating, "Some 'old timers' say Stan was the best pure wrestler ever ... Henry Wittenberg, 1948 Olympic champion, told me he had never seen such skilled wrestling. Henson was so slick that people often overlook the fact that he was also very strong (from working in the Oklahoma oil fields) and mentally tough."
In the days since Stanley Henson's passing, a number of individuals have shared their recollections.
Wrestling historian Arno Niemand, author of the book "Dream Team '47" about the season that tiny Cornell College of Iowa surprised traditional mat powers to claim the team title at the 1947 NCAA championships (back before there was today's three NCAA Divisions), had met with Henson in his home in the past couple years. Niemand described Henson as a man of many, diverse accomplishments beyond wrestling. "He had a civil engineering degree from Oklahoma State. He then went to medical school, and became a doctor who performed a number of miraculous surgeries. He was also a tremendous outdoorsman who was a 'fourteener' -- someone who had climbed all the Colorado mountains of at least 14,000 feet," Niemand told InterMat. "Stan is credited with developing what was then called the 'head and heel' -- now known as the ankle pick. He also was a successful coach, working alongside Ray Schwartz, a protégé of Gallagher, at Navy, coaching his brother Joe, who was an Olympic bronze medalist (in 1952)."
Two of the Smith Brothers -- Lee Roy and John, both Oklahoma State mat alums -- also weighed in on Stanley Henson's passing.
Lee Roy Smith, Executive Director of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, located within sight of Gallagher-Iba Arena where Henson wrestled as a senior, said, "We are saddened to hear of Dr. Stanley Henson's passing. He was a magnanimous human being and will always be considered among the greatest collegiate wrestlers of his era and in NCAA wrestling history. He served in the Navy in World War II and returned from the war to forge a renowned career in medicine as a surgeon and leader in sports medicine. He led a wonderful life and will be missed."
John Smith, long-time head coach of Oklahoma State wrestling, shared his personal memories of a fellow Cowboy mat great of another era.
"A lot of our wrestlers in the last four or five years got to meet Stanley Henson, and each time we met him it was a special moment for all of us," said John Smith. "He was a great part of our program's legacy, and the last living wrestler that I know of that wrestled under Coach Gallagher. He had great memories of Coach Gallagher and always told me great stories and how highly he thought of him, and that motivated me as a coach.
"I had the opportunity to visit Dr. Henson and share stories during our trip to Northern Colorado earlier this season, and it's a memory I will cherish for the rest of my life. While it is unfortunate that he's gone, he has left some great memories for all of us and a great legacy. Our hearts are with his family today."
A life beyond the mat
Based on on-the-mat accomplishments alone, Stanley Henson's life and career was incredibly impressive. However, there was so much more to Henson than his success in wrestling.
After leaving Oklahoma State, Henson headed east to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, where he became an assistant to head coach Ray Schwartz. When the U.S. got pulled into World War II, Henson answered the call by becoming a commissioned naval officer, serving onboard the U.S.S. San Francisco in the Pacific.
During the war, Lieutenant Stanley W. Henson Jr. served as a gunnery officer on one of the most decorated ships of the U.S. Navy, the illustrious heavy cruiser USS San Francisco (CA-38). He fought in the invasion of Lingayen Gulf, and the battles of Formosa, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. His military honors included Combat Action Ribbon, Philippine Liberation Medal (1 Bronze Star), Philippine Presidential Unit Citation, Navy Occupation Medal (Asia Clasp), Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal (4 Battle Stars), and the World War II Victory Medal.
Once his service in World War II was complete, Henson pursued his dream of becoming a surgeon by attending medical school at University of Maryland ... then trained at the renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. for four years. In 1956, medical degree in hand and just shy of his 40th birthday, he and his wife had decided to head west to Colorado to establish a surgical career in Fort Collins that lasted more than four decades.
According to his obituary in The Coloradan, many of the surgeries that Henson performed "were his own creative solutions to extreme trauma, restoring physical skills and abilities which might otherwise have been lost. Over the years he became chief of medical staff and chief of surgery at Poudre Valley Hospital, and was a member of the hospital board. He always advocated securing equipment, expertise, and practices that would enhance patient care in Northern Colorado."
Dr. Henson authored or co-authored 18 articles in major medical journals. He also wrote and lectured about sports medicine. Finding no history of medicine in this area, Stan researched and authored "History of Medicine in Northern Colorado." In 1998 Dr. Henson was named "Physician of the Year" by the Larimer County Medical Association.
Henson wasn't all work and no play. According to his obituary, "While at the Mayo Clinic, Stan made time to teach (daughters) Janine and Michele how to fish. (Sons) Stan and George learned fly-fishing from their Dad along the streams of Colorado and Wyoming. He was a passionate and expert fly-fisherman, and somehow, always seemed to have more luck than anyone else. He climbed all 54 of Colorado's 14,000' peaks, even making it up five of them in two days, at age 75!"
Dr. Stanley Willard Henson, Jr. is survived by four children -- Janine Robberson of Bend, Ore.; Michele Carey-Strebel of Newport Beach, Calif.; Stanley Henson III of Southern California; and George Henson II of Blanca, Colo.; along with 2 grandchildren, 4 great grandchildren, and a great-great grandchild. Henson's wife of 78 years, Thelma, passed away in November 2016.
Speaking of family ... Stanley Henson was the first of five national champions in his family, including his brother Joe Henson of Navy (undefeated in college competition) ... his brother-in-law Tom Burnell of Oklahoma State (a teammate of Henson's) ... his nephew Jeff Henson of Michigan, national prep champion for the Hill School in Pennsylvania (undefeated in high school competition) ... and nephew Josh Henson, All--Ivy at Harvard and national AAU champion in Greco and Sombo (undefeated in U.S. Sombo competition). According to Josh Henson, "the Oklahoma Henson family is the only American family with a national champion in every major style of wrestling practiced in this country, including high school scholastic and collegiate folk style, international freestyle, Greco-Roman and Sombo."
Stanley Henson, in his own words, about ...
... how he came to the Naval Academy and served in the Navy:
"Ray Schwartz had been our assistant coach under Mr. Gallagher when he got that job at the Naval Academy," Stanley Henson said in a 2013 interview for Oklahoma State Posse magazine. "He wanted me to come up and be his assistant."
Henson took the assistant coaching job at the Naval Academy, despite being a few hours short of graduating from Oklahoma State.
While on the staff at Annapolis, Stanley Henson coached his younger brother Joe who was there as team captain. Like Stanley, Joe Henson never lost a match in college. Navy was undefeated in dual meet competition the entire time that the Henson brothers were at the Academy, according to Joe's son Josh Henson. Joe Henson went on to win the bronze medal in the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games and become the first American ever to beat a Russian in the Olympics. He also later became the first international referee from the United States.
Before he could pursue medical school, the United States became involved in World War II.
"The war started when I was there, so I applied for a commission and went to sea."
Henson served as a gunner for two-and-a-half years on the USS San Francisco (CA-38), a heavy cruiser that saw significant combat in the Pacific."
"We handled the 5-inch/25 (caliber) guns on the starboard side. That was my battle station. We had kamikazes coming in at us at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Every morning and every afternoon we were shooting at 'em."
... his medical career:
In more than one interview, Stanley Henson made a comment to the effect of, "everyone seems to be interested in my wrestling career which lasted ten years, rather than my career as a surgeon, which lasted 40 years."
When asked what drew him to medicine, Henson told Jason Bryant, "My last year of college, Dr. Clarence Gallagher (son of coach Ed Gallagher), took a liking to me. He took me to a hospital in Oklahoma City. I got to watch some surgeries from the gallery. I thought, 'With my hand skills, I could do that, if I had the knowledge."
"When I was at the Naval Academy, coach Schwartz said I could go to medical school during the day and coach in the evenings."
World War II interrupted those plans.
Once the war was winding down -- but he was still on the U.S.S. San Francisco -- Henson decided the timing was right to realize his dreams of becoming a surgeon. However, he had not officially graduated from Oklahoma State, and thought he might need his bachelor's degree before entering medical school.
"Let me tell you how I got that degree," Henson told Posse magazine. "The war ended, and we were still in the Philippines. I wrote to Thelma and I asked her to apply for my degree. This was back in '45, and I hadn't been there since '39. Schiller Scroggs was the dean of Arts & Sciences, and he said I had more than enough credits and they could give me a degree. It's not in engineering, although all my credits were in engineering."
After five years as a physical instructor and wrestling assistant at Navy, Henson attended medical school at University of Maryland-Baltimore and trained at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. for four years before moving to Fort Collins, Colo. to launch his medical career.
In 1956, Henson and his wife, Thelma, came to Colorado looking for a place to live.
"When we were coming from Greeley to Fort Collins, the sun was going down behind Longs Peak and Meeker Peak," Henson told The Coloradan newspaper in a 2015 interview. "Little red clouds up over the mountains. And it was just a gorgeous day. And Thelma said, 'This is where I want to live and raise my family.'"
More than one source states that Stanley Henson was the first doctor to perform open-heart surgery at the local hospital.
"I did the first operation of nearly every kind in Fort Collins because I was the only surgeon here for a long time," according to Henson.
... the sport of wrestling:
As noted earlier, Stanley Henson's name is mentioned as being among the greatest amateur wrestlers of all time, by today's historians, as well as by wrestlers and coaches who saw him in action in person.
What does Henson say about that?
"It's nice to be mentioned," Henson told Jason Bryant. "You cannot pick out a greatest wrestler. You can't tell just by looking at them."
"If I had to pick one, it would be John Smith. He started young, was twice an Olympic champion, and is a great coach."
When Oklahoma State's Posse magazine came to interview Henson five years ago, it mentioned the existence of a booklet of advice for young wrestlers Henson put together years ago, titled "Wrestling: A Lifetime Endeavor Helping Boys Become Men." Although it features photos of Henson demonstrating wrestling holds and maneuvers, it's much more than a how-to-wrestle instructional book. Henson described the booklet's primary purpose is to instill a winning attitude, promote sportsmanship, and imparting valuable life lessons that go beyond the mat.
"When you step on a wrestling mat, you are all alone," Henson wrote. "There is no teammate to help you. you win or lose by how well you have prepared, and how much you really want to win. Life is like that."
"Wrestling teaches you to compete according to a set of rules; rules that help you through your life. Ideally, wrestling should teach you to win graciously when you win, and if you lose, to lose like a gentleman."
Coach Ed Gallagher working with Stanley Henson
... his legendary coaches:
Stanley Henson was blessed to have two future Hall of Fame wrestling coaches as mentors: Art Griffith at Tulsa Central High School, and Edward Gallagher at Oklahoma State.
"There's no question about it, those were the two greatest coaches in the whole world," Henson told Oklahoma State's Posse magazine in 2013. "But they were different. Coach Griffith's contribution to me was discipline. It was discipline to train, discipline to work hard, discipline to do everything. Art Griffith was the best in the world at that, and he really went over the technique of wrestling a whole lot more than Mr. Gallagher did. When I was there, Mr. Gallagher would get us all together early on in the year and go over various maneuvers, and then we'd walk through that a time or two without any resistance. Then we'd add a little resistance until you got the thing ingrained in your mind. And wrestling became a reflex. I talk about that a lot. Wrestling has to be a reflex. If you have to think what to do you're one step behind. If you have to think what your coach wants you to do, you're two steps behind. and so you have to do it over and over and over again until it becomes a reflex."
A measure of Henson the man: Caring for coach Gallagher
As a senior at Oklahoma State, Stanley Henson was named captain of the 1939 team. Beyond the honor and prestige of that title, Henson served as a personal assistant to his coach, Ed Gallagher, who was dealing with Parkinsonism. (Some, including historian Arno Niemand, have said that Henson served as de facto coach that year.)
Here's how Henson described his relationship with his coach in an unpublished memoir. (Note that he -- and other Cowboy wrestlers -- always referred their coach as "Mr. Gallagher" not because the coach demanded it, but as a sign of respect and love.)
"Mr. Gallagher had Parkinson's disease, which is a progressive nervous disorder, characterized by rigidity of the arms, a shaking tremor of the hands, a partial facial paralysis, and a walk leaning forward as though to propel himself. He had stopped driving his car, and he could hardly talk ... When we shook his hand before going out to the mat, we would take hold of it carefully and gently. It seemed so fragile."
"Mr. Gallagher had trouble caring for himself because of his illness. During my senior year, I was captain of the team. I drove him in his car. I roomed with him on trips and dined with him. When he ordered a meal, I would order the same thing. I would then cut the meat in small pieces, butter the bread, put his glass straw in the milk, and then just exchange plates with as little fanfare as possible.
"He accepted it without comment. How it must have hurt, but he never complained. He knew we all loved him.
"Mr. Gallagher was a sweet and gentle little Irishman who had us mesmerized without him or us even knowing it. As one of his wrestlers said, 'He made us wrestle better than we could.' You just couldn't lose for him."
Edward Clark Gallagher coached one more season at Oklahoma State. He passed away in August 1940 at age 53. He had been out hunting in Colorado, became ill, and was hospitalized in Oklahoma City where he died of pneumonia. Art Griffith, Henson's coach at Tulsa Central, was then named head coach of the Cowboys, a position he held until health issues forced him to retire in 1957.
Stanley Henson"Henson was one of the last direct links to Ed Gallagher as a wrestler," historian Arno Niemand told InterMat.
"I would describe Stan Henson as a true American hero," Niemand continued. "He was soft-spoken and modest, but proud of his achievements."
Henson's obituary described him as being "bigger than life, a man of high moral character, from the Greatest Generation. The list of his achievements in every endeavor was over-the-top. When asked how he did it, he replied, 'Aim high, set goals, stay focused, and keep moving.'"
Stanley Henson was laid to rest in his adopted home of Fort Collins, Colo. on Monday, Feb. 12, 2018.