Donald A. Sayenga, an Order of Merit recipient inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1993, passed away on February 26, at the age of 84 following a long and courageous battle with cancer.
A celebration of life will take place at a later date. In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to the Myasthenia Gravis Association of Western Pennsylvania.
“On behalf of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and its Board of Governors, we extend our deepest sympathies to Don Sayenga’s family and friends,” said Lee Roy Smith, Executive Director of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. “I really enjoyed the way that Don wrote and shared history and he was one of the greatest historians that the sport of wrestling has ever known, in both folkstyle and Olympic style. He went the extra mile in researching, which allowed him to provide intricate details and facts about the sport and its evolution.
“He inspired generations of wrestlers, coaches and fans and helped promote the virtues of wrestling,” Smith added. “Current and future historians will reference his writings when telling the story of the world’s oldest sport.”
Viewed as wrestling’s foremost historian, Sayenga was known throughout wrestling for his historical column, “The Oldest Sport,” which appeared in Amateur Wrestling News from 1964 to 2014. He was chairman of the Veterans Committee of the Hall of Fame beginning with the first election of Distinguished Members in 1976 and he helped create an ancient history display that was in the museum prior to its renovation.
Sayenga was actively involved in wrestling for seven decades. He wrestled heavyweight for Lafayette College, competing in the 1956 NCAA Championships, and at the Tulsa YMCA where Distinguished Members Terry McCann, Shelby Wilson and Doug Blubaugh trained for their sweep of gold medals at the 1960 Olympics.
In the early 1960s, he helped launch high school wrestling in Florida. He began writing “The Oldest Sport” in 1964, bringing to light the little-known background of wrestling in the United States during the early days of the 20th Century. Traveling extensively as a sales executive for Bethlehem Steel’s wire rope division, he visited schools and libraries to research old-time wrestling. A long-term resident of Bethlehem, he was active in wrestling programs in the area, particularly Lehigh University where he trained with wrestlers in the upper weights for more than two decades after his graduation.
As co-founder of a summer tournament in Bethlehem for high school and open division wrestlers, Sayenga once found himself drawn into a memorable confrontation. To help avoid first-round byes, Sayenga would enter the heavyweight division whenever there was an odd number of contestants. In 1972, this practice gave him a first-round match with the mammoth Chris Taylor, a Distinguished Member of the Hall of Fame who at 440 pounds was about twice Sayenga’s size. “It was interesting, very interesting,” Sayenga recalled.
Sayenga was a two-time winner of Amateur Wrestling News’ Bob Dellinger Award, which recognizes the wrestling writer of the year, while also being a member of the Helms Hall of Fame, the Lafayette College Hall of Fame and the Citizens Savings Athletic Foundation Wrestling Hall of Fame.
He also wrote for Encyclopedia Britannica and authored, Ellet and Roebling, about suspension bridge pioneers Charles Ellet and John A. Roebling. Ellet created the Wheeling (West Virginia) Suspension Bridge in 1849, which was the first long-span, wire-cable suspension bridge in the country and the longest in the world at 1,010 feet. Roebling created the 1,828-foot Brooklyn Bridge in 1883.
Sayenga was a consultant, author, researcher and historian for two transglobal industrial trade associations – Associated Wire Rope Fabricators and Wire Association International. In 2001, he received the Mordica Medal for his efforts to document the world history of wire, and in 2010 he received the History and Heritage Award from the American Society of Civil Engineers for Washington Roebling’s Father: A Memoir of John A. Roebling.