Kirk Douglas (second row, second from left) was a member of the St. Lawrence University wrestling team
Kirk Douglas was a man of many achievements: a star of over 70 films, nine Broadway plays, and nearly a dozen TV programs ... as well as author, producer and 2011 recipient of an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in film. However, few may know that the man who played a professional boxer and a Roman slave-turned-gladiator in movies was once a college wrestler who, decades later, was welcomed into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Okla.
Douglas died Wednesday, Feb. 5 at age 103.
Born Issur Danielovitch in Amsterdam, N.Y. in December 1916, the man who became Kirk Douglas was the only son of illiterate Russian immigrants. He discovered acting by performing in high school plays. He also found time to compete on his high school wrestling team.
After graduating from high school, Douglas hitchhiked north to St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., where he was admitted and given a college loan, according to his 2,000-word obituary in the New York Times which said "his rugged good looks and muscular intensity made him a commanding presence in films like 'Lust for Life,' 'Spartacus' and 'Paths of Glory.'"
In a 2015 interview with what is now HuffPost, the actor said that "chutpah" and "$164 that I could put towards tuition" made it possible for him to enroll at the college in far northern New York State during the depths of the Great Depression.
The future Hollywood icon wrestled as Isadore Demsky and worked as a janitor to meet school expenses.
"He credits wrestling for the discipline and physical fitness necessary to perform his vigorous acting roles," according to Douglas' National Wrestling Hall of Fame biography. He was welcomed into the Stillwater, Okla. Hall as an Outstanding American in 1992.
In 1980, Kirk Douglas was welcomed into the St. Lawrence University Athletics Hall of Fame.
"An outstanding wrestler for four years as an undergraduate Kirk Douglas led an active campus life in addition to his athletic endeavors," according to his St. Lawrence Hall of Fame biography. He was also a member of the school's German Club, and, no surprise, participated in drama productions on campus.
"Undefeated as a senior wrestler, he was president of Thelmo, Chairman of the Campus Council, Chairman of the Freshman Orientation Committee and listed in Who's Who Among American College Students as a senior."
In addition, Douglas was elected president of the student body in his junior year, a first for the St. Lawrence campus.
Douglas graduated from St. Lawrence with a bachelor's degree in English in 1939. The University also awarded him an honorary degree in 1958.
Kirk Douglas' impact at his college alma mater is still felt decades after he arrived on campus.
"Kirk Douglas has been transcendently generous to St. Lawrence University and remained committed to his alma mater and our students throughout the decades," said St. Lawrence University President William L. Fox upon learning of Douglas' death. "Kirk knew that diversity made St. Lawrence and the world stronger because of his own background and experiences. Every Laurentian can certainly say, 'I am Spartacus.'"
In 1999, Kirk Douglas and his second wife Anne established the Kirk Douglas Scholarship at St. Lawrence University to help young people from backgrounds similar to Douglas' during the Great Depression. They increased the scholarship substantially as part of the Campaign for Every Laurentian with an additional donation, bringing the total to $7.5 million. According to the school, the Kirk Douglas Scholarship is specifically meant to promote diversity on campus by giving awards to underrepresented students who excel academically.
Kirk Douglas' college alma mater had repaid his generosity. In 2014, St. Lawrence University named its newest building and residential facility Kirk Douglas Hall. Appropriately, the residence hall also includes the popular Spartacus Café.