By David C. Peters
Eighty years ago, four Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College student wrestlers took their winning ways to an international wrestling tournament in Europe. They missed a semester of classes, but they had an adventure of a lifetime and an educational experience that none of them would ever forget.
During the 1930s, the OAMC wrestling teams under Coach Edward Clark Gallagher, a Distinguished Member inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in the Charter Class of 1976, dominated the nation with 74 wins, two losses and two ties, eight national championships and two second-place finishes. Gallagher believed his wrestlers needed more international experience. From 1924 to 1936, 16 OAMC wrestlers competed in Olympic preliminaries and games. His wrestlers won three gold and one silver medals, but he thought they could have won even more with additional exposure. After all, he was coaching some of the most exceptional wrestlers in the country.
The U.S. National Wrestling Team, set to compete against Sweden, Hungary and Germany at the international match, was made up of winners of each of the Olympic weight categories at the 1938 AAU championships. Joe McDaniel, a Distinguished Member inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1979, captured first place at 123 pounds, and his “clever wrestling” was a feature of the tournament. Stanley Henson, a Distinguished Member inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1978, competing at 148 pounds, and freshman John Harrell, wrestling at 191 pounds, were also crowned champions.
During the summer of 1938, McDaniel invited Henson and Harrell to join him in his hometown of Sulphur, Oklahoma, to train for Europe. They ran five, six or more miles daily and spent hours on the wrestling mats. Although they were dramatically different physically, they all benefited from the experience. Harrell, who had just turned 19, learned many of the wrestling holds and maneuvers Henson and McDaniel had been perfecting for years, becoming one of the quickest men in the higher weight classes. McDaniel and Henson also benefited in learning how to wrestle with someone stronger than they were. In order to maintain their weights, McDaniel and Henson followed strict and healthy diets. Harrell’s father was just happy that someone else had to feed him. At times, other Oklahoma A&M wrestlers joined their summer camp in Sulphur. That summer, Henson eloped with his college girlfriend, Thelma Burnell; they would remain married for over 75 years.
In the fall of 1938, the trio of OAMC wrestlers headed for New York City. They drove the Harrell family’s Buick sedan and even turned the long drive into a training opportunity. Whenever they stopped for gasoline, the two passengers would use the restrooms first, then start running east along the highway. The designated driver would then use the restroom, pay for the gas, head out and pick up the two runners. After arriving in New York City in mid-September, they put the Buick in storage and boarded a Swedish luxury cruise ship, the MS Kungsholm, for an eight-day voyage to Sweden.
Sweden’s athletic authorities covered participants’ costs, including those incurred getting to New York.
National AAU wrestling chairman George M. Pinneo traveled with the seven-member team. In addition to the Oklahoma trio, the team included Francis Millard (134 pounds), Walter Jacobs (158 pounds), Albert Crawford (174 pounds), and Clifton Gustafson (unlimited heavyweight). Millard, who received the Lifetime Service to Wrestling award from the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2005, had competed in the 1936 Games in Berlin.
The American wrestlers arrived in Sweden’s port city of Gothenburg before traveling by train 270 miles to Stockholm. In Stockholm, they were treated like royalty and stayed in a first-class hotel. McDaniel, Henson and Harrell made quite the impression with their cowboy hats and cowboy boots.