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On Ed Russell and Wrestling Reminiscences

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On Ed Russell and Wrestling Reminiscences
By COOPER WALKER '33

      Early in 1945-it was during the Battle of the Bulge-we were flying transport planes into Paris, bringing wounded boys back to the States. The mail, naturally, was terrible during the war, and people at home would often ask us, "Would you please take this letter to my mother in Paris?" and we'd usually do it. Well, one day back in the States, a friend, Captain Lawrence, asked a favor. His wife was a friend of Marlene Dietrich, and was trying to get a letter to her. "Would you deliver this letter to Marlene Dietrich at the Ritz in Paris?" "Hell yeah."

      Soon, there I was, having cocktails with Marlene in the Ritz Bar, and in walked fellow wrestler C. B. Alexander '26 and H. R. Fenwick '42-they were in the American Field Service and had just driven down from the front. They'd been up with the tough stuff and were the dirtiest, grimiest, scruffiest-looking guys you'd ever seen. With snide pleasure I stood up, "I want you boys to meet Marlene Dietrich." We all had a drink together, Marlene left, and the immediate impression of Marlene gave way to reminiscences with C. B. of wrestling days at Gilman with Ed Russell.* I know of no way to point up more quaintly the effect this individual sport, and its equally individual coach, had on boys fortunate enough to participate in wrestling at Gilman. The coach and the sport were virtually synonymous.

     "After a drink, or two, we walked outside," explains Cooper Walker. "Bobbie (H. R. Fenwick) found a horse-drawn cab, had a talk with the driver and commandeered the vehicle by jumping up on the back of the horse and giving him a kick in the belly. What a wonderful, wonderful night we had-with Bobbie up there astride the horse in wartime, and C. B. and I in the back. We went all over Paris, up to Montmartre, to the Moulin Rouge. How Bobbie ever got us back I don't know. They drove me out to Orly Field. Luckily, the flight was delayed and I took a shower, shook my head and got off all right. They drove right back to the front. The lines were very close. C. B. was killed that day."

      Ease your way with me, if we can, past lotus shores of nostalgia-the feel of the triceps and the inevitable query about weight; the tiers of the old gym, and the tears upon occasion; the whine of the old hand-crank phonograph before meets; "Don't know why, there's no sun up in the sky, stormy weather. .."; the dreams of drinking water when losing weight-ease with me back to some historic fact.

      Wrestling started at Gilman in 1920, according to Florence Russell, because Ed Russell had been placed as a coach of soccer and spent his waking hours figuring out a way to get indoors. In the beginning, the grappling sport in Maryland was without form. Ed saw his way to staying indoors in the winter and fashioned the Interscholastic Wrestling Association of Maryland, composed of Severn, Friends, Baltimore City College, and Gilman. The weights ran from 85 to 155 pounds.

      Great Gilman names immediately emerged from the agonies of the early mat; Stuart Janney, Winny Graham, Arthur Foster, Redmond Stewart, and Brice Goldsborough. The sport became second to football in popularity. In 1921, the interscholastics were won handily.

      Tom Lowndes was named an alternate in the 1928 Olympics. In 1928, Gilman won every weight in the interscholastics except one and took second in that. In 1929, the team scored 1951/4 points to its opponents' 111/2.

      At Princeton, Ed had been keen about wrestling, and though incapacitated for varsity competition by a severe knee cartilage operation, had served as assistant coach for two years. Princeton freshmen soon appeared on the schedule, the matches being wrestled at night early in January. The meet was a social event, with many spectators appearing in tuxedos. Absolute silence was de rigeur. Applause was restricted to the clapping of hands. In 1931, Gilman defeated the Princeton freshmen 27-0.

      Ed was short, really rather roly-poly. His most distinguishing feature was a lock of hair which he carefully stretched across an otherwise bald pate. Sometimes this lock would bend loose from the side of his head, giving the appearance of a handle on a pot.

      Ed used to delight in wrestling with the lighter boys on the squad, not full strength. (His garb was a white sweatshirt and white sweatpants with a drawstring at the waist.) He would designate the degree of effort to be used, "40 percent;' "50 percent," and thus we learned sliding sit-throughs, double wristlocks, armrolls, figure-four scissors, cradles, cross-body rides. ...

      In 1933, I had the great good fortune of being captain of the wrestling team. Without a doubt I can say that the years of struggle under mentor Ed Russell, leading up to that honor, totally influenced my life. School became a joy, not just a place for assiduous study. Had the die not been cast, my whole life might have been different.

      "I never proselytize. Never. But you must come out for wrestling next year."

      Those, perhaps, were the first words Ed Russell ever spoke to me. I did not know what proselytize meant, but I sure found out. The remark was made early in the Upper School, where I first played "guard" on an undersquad basketball team with the talented Taylor twins and Walter Woodward. Ed made the above remark after I had somehow beaten Francis Swann in the finals of the annual intramural wrestling meet, the weight-class, I think, just over 100 pounds.

      Then began an influence on me through wrestling and Latin which shaped my years at Gilman and took me as an UL ( unskilled laborer) to Hyde Bay Camp with the great Pickett clan.

      Ed's power to inspire by merely taking your left triceps between his thumb and forefinger and asking, "How's your weight today?" was akin to the laying on of hands.

      Never a pep-talk, only the creaky wind-up gramophone in the dressing room before a meet-"You, you're driving me crazy"-and you'd go out on the mat with a zeal unknown since the crusades.

      Ed's preoccupation before a meet was well-known and lovingly played upon. One Friday in the winter of my Sixth Form year-I was seated in Fisher Memorial Dining Room at Ed's left-he chanced out of a reverie to say, "Cooper, why are the boys on the wrestling team blond?"

      I replied, "That's right, Morris Emory's blond."

      "Yes," said Ed, "and Dickey Janney."

      "And, I'm blond," I said.

      "Yes."

      "And Steve Mann." (The shades grew darker.)

      Then looking at Mac Patterson, the black-shocked captain of the soccer team, I averred, "And Mac Patterson's blond. .."

      "Yes, Mac's blond."

      Then with a sudden realization, mock indignation, bulging of the cheeks, "No, he's not blond!"

      Gilman had won nine interscholastics in a row when the tournament of 1933 came around. We'd won all our dual meets, beating McDonogh 161/2-6 1/2, I believe. (Jake Classen broke his ankle in that meet at McDonogh but with encouragement carried on. Of course, Ed did not know the ankle was broken. )

      Before the interscholastics, Ed juggled weights so as to be sure, or relatively sure, of winning four of the eight weight classes. Woody Gosnell, a steady winner at Gilman, had gone on to Severn, and we figured Gilman would win four firsts, McDonogh three and Severn one.

      The banner up for the News was printed,

      "GILMAN WINS TEN IN A ROW"

      Incredibly, Woody Gosnelllost to McDonogh.

      At 7:30 p.m. on Saturday in the consolations, flashbulbs exploded on the mat around referee Tubby Miller as Herbert Smelser sought to salvage a possible victory. In the end, Gilman lost to McDonogh 27 1/2-26 1/2. Ed took the loss more philosophically than the team-or at least I think he did.

      I soon ended up teaching English at Hyde Bay Camp during summers while at Yale, suddenly on a faculty with Ed Russell, Jim Pine, Al Townsend, Miles Marrian, Jim Dresser, Herbert Pickett--the old maestros. It was both fun and awesome.

      The tutoring school was an adjunct of the camp, which had opened in 1927, the brainchild of Herbert and Emily Pickett. The many-acred facility lay at the northeast end of Lake Otsego, the area made famous by James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales. At the southern end, where the Susquehanna flows out of Lake Otsego and courses south to form the Chesapeake Bay, were Doubleday Field and the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown. Miles Marrian, Gilman's baseball coach, taught math at Hyde Bay. On Sundays he'd slip away and play semi-pro ball at Doubleday Field.

      The campers slept in World War I surplus army tents, six to each. My first year, I was counselor of a tent as well as tutor of English. What a rowdy tent I had: Billy Robertson, Frank Lynn, Walter Koppelman, Fred Levering, Herbert Smelser, all virtually my peers.

      Except for those in tutoring school, Hyde Bay campers were free to do as they chose: swim, play tennis, ride horses, sail, or just lollygag around. (Ed Russell had a wrestling facility near the shore of the lake.) But reveille, taps, and meal hours were obeyed by all.

      The "Unskilled Laborers;' boys who got their summer free in exchange for work, had built the entrance gate to the camp somewhat askew-a UL could not afford to be perfect with plumb and level, else he would belie his name-and one day found me riding through that slightly crooked gate in the Russell car bound for Cooperstown.

      Florence Russell was at the wheel; the road was dirt. About a mile on the Cooperstown side of Pathfinder, Ed came out of a reverie and asked, "Florence, where's your sewing basket?"

      (Now remember, Ed for years had been carefully cultivating several increasingly thin strands of hair, running from left to right, over his otherwise bald pate. )

      Florence replied, "Ed, why on earth do you want to know?"

      "Well, I want those scissors to cut off this damned lock. I've been wanting to do it for years."

      So, on the dusty road to Cooperstown, occurred the rape of Ed's lock.

      Back at Camp he put it in the Russell Bible, and I think it is still there to this day.

      In later years, I came to know Ed as the perennial secretary of the Alumni Association. As self-dubbed "Mister Minutes," he was annually called upon at the banquet to give his report. In this role he outshone Robert Benchley; the report would contain nothing of the minutes of the association meetings, but would have the gathering in convulsions.

      In one report he told this story on himself:

      A project of mine has been a drive for a neat campus. I've told the students that at Gilman there are three classes of people: the third class throws litter on the ground and lets it lie there; the second class picks up only the litter they themselves have dropped; but the first class picks up litter whenever they see it. Well, the other day on the grass between my house and the school I picked up a sheet of paper and on it was written, 'Greetings from a third class person to a first class person.'

      Ed Russell influenced my life in a subtle way, never articulated by me before--but urged on me to express, despite my misgivings, by the editor of this book. In the First Form of the Upper School I was a bookworm. <Walker had led Gilman in scholarship with an average of 81.96. Harrison Garrett, a Sixth Former, was second.> After I began my wrestling efforts I experienced an irresistible epiphany, a conscious desire to forego strict academe and to have some fun. A real sense of camaraderie with fellow classmates resulted. One of our schemes which caught on was starting an ice hockey team, coached by Eddie Brown, at Carlins Park. Later it switched to the Sports Center on North Avenue. While getting in time on the ice, I was successful in wrestling in my Fifth and Sixth Form years-and upon graduation I had dropped back to 12th in my class academically. <Walker won the Maryland lnterscholastics in both his Fifth and Sixth Form years.>

      Maybe, just maybe, if I had not been busted out of my academic cocoon by Ed Russell, I might not have taken up flying, thereby missing out on having cocktails in the Ritz Bar in Paris with C. B. Alexander, H. R. Fenwick and Marlene Dietrich in 1945.

      Attending Gilman 1924-33, Cooper Walker found his overriding scholastic interest in the Classics and English, as is easy to tell from the scintillating allusions to A. E. Housman and the crisp quotations from Shakespeare which he can toss off during a conversation. During his senior year, he was a member of the Literary Club, associate editor of the News, the Cynosure, and The Blue and The Gray, and vice-president of the Pnyx Debating Club. His favorite teacher/coach was Ed Russell.

      While winning awards for scholarship in the Lower and Upper Schools, Walker found time to be a four-sport athlete. He was a three-year member of the varsity wrestling team, captain his senior year; two-year member of the varsity lacrosse team; two-year member of the hockey team; and spent one year playing varsity football. Yet it was in wrestling, under the coaching of Ed Russell, that Walker flourished, winning the M.S.A. championship his junior and senior years.

      At Yale, Walker continued his studies in English. He was on the lacrosse ( captain his senior year) and wrestling teams for all four years and played intramural ice hockey. After graduating in 1937, he taught English at Hotchkiss School for two years and worked as a Baltimore Sun reporter for a year before joining the Army Air Force as a pilot in Air Transport Command. He flew in all theaters 1942-46, and worked for the Department of State 1947-48.

      Walker developed real estate 1948-60, and then started the Walker-Wilson Travel Agency. All along he has worked as a freelance writer and fine-tuned his travel skills.

      Walker was president of the Alumni Association 1955-56, a member of the Board of Trustees 1956-69, and instrumental in starting the Gilman Fund, predecessor of the Annual Fund, in 1956.

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