Local museum showcases city with global recognition
By Jack Carnefix
The National Wresting Hall of Fame & Museum in Stillwater, Oklahoma, reopens. (PHOTO / GARY LAWSON)
Attendees at the first Honors Weekend in 1976 gathered around the life-size green marble statue that has resided in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame since the museum opened. Distinguished Members at the event included OSU alumni Conrad Caldwell, Cliff Keen, Rex Peery, J Robinson, Myron Roderick, Jack VanBebber and Shelby Wilson. (PHOTO / NATIONAL WRESTLING HALL OF FAME ARCHIVES)
Recognizing the greatest names in wrestling and preserving the history of the sport were the driving forces behind the creation of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame & Museum in Stillwater, Oklahoma, in 1976.
Located on the corner of Hall of Fame Avenue and Duck Street, the building reopened in June 2016 following a $3.8 million renovation that included a complete gutting and rebuilding of the interior. The museum is on Oklahoma State University property, but it operates as a private, nonprofit institution.
Since it reopened, visitors have been overwhelmed by the more modern facility that now features interactive exhibits and electronic kiosks.
“It is important to the sport and to us to be able to tell the heroes of wrestling’s stories and inspire a newer generation,” says Lee Roy Smith, executive director of the NWHOF and an NCAA champion for OSU in 1980. “With this renovation, we have the technology and ability to bring these legends to life.”
The building is home to the six gold medals and the Sullivan Award won by Oklahoma State head wrestling coach John Smith, who is Lee Roy Smith’s younger brother. The hall also features a singlet worn by OSU’s Pat Smith, the first wrestler to win four NCAA titles and Lee Roy and John’s younger brother.
OSU Head Wrestling Coach John Smith, left, Associate Wrestling Coach Eric Guerrero and Executive Director of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame & Museum Lee Roy Smith, right, view the renovated displays. (PHOTO / GARY LAWSON)
Not only can you explore O-State's legendary wrestling history, you can also see the greatest names in the sport enshrined in the John T. Vaughan Hall of Honors. The walls of the Distinguished Members Gallery are lined with the iconic granite plaques that have been presented to honorees since the Hall of Fame opened in 1976. Guests can view memorabilia as well as use electronic kiosks to see biographies and photographs of the 180 Hall of Fame members.
OSU has 35 Distinguished Members, more than any other college. The Charter Class of 1976 included OSU’s Fendley Collins, Edward Gallagher, Art Griffith, Cliff Keen, Rex Peery, Myron Roderick and Jack VanBebber. Former OSU coaches Gallagher, Griffith, Roderick, Tommy Chesbro and Joe Seay are all Distinguished Members as are current head coach John Smith and associate coach Eric Guerrero. Other Distinguished Members include Pat Smith, OSU Olympic gold medalists Doug Blubaugh, Kendall Cross, Frank Lewis, Kenny Monday, Bobby Pearce, Yojiro Uetake, Shelby Wilson and Jack VanBebber.
Although OSU alumni Jess Hoke and Dr. Melvin Jones did not step onto the mat for the Cowboys, they are both Distinguished Members for their contributions to the sport. Hoke founded Amateur Wrestling News in 1956. The first national publication devoted to wrestling, AWN had a monumental impact on wrestling's growth across the country and remains America's oldest and most respected wrestling publication.Jones earned his doctorate degree at 24 and became the youngest full professor at OSU four years later. When Roderick took the dream of a Hall of Fame to him, Jones organized a corporation and raised $600,000, making good on his promise that the building would be delivered debt-free. Many see Jones as one of the biggest reasons that the Hall of Fame exists.
OSU alumna Krista Graff, National Wrestling Hall of Fame & Museum state chapter director, plays an interactive video in an exhibit. (PHOTO / GARY LAWSON)
The life-size green marble statue creates an awe-inspiring entry to the Distinguished Members Gallery. The statue is a copy of the classic Greek artwork The Wrestlers by Cephisodotus, located in the Uffizi gallery in Florence, Italy.
The Hall has sections to recognize former wrestlers who have achieved success off the mat (Outstanding American) or who have overcome almost insurmountable obstacles (Medal of Courage). There are also awards to recognize outstanding officials (Meritorious Official) and individuals who have impacted the sport but not as a wrestler or coach (Order of Merit).
The Hall of Fame has the largest collection of wrestling artifacts and memorabilia in the world and displays some of it in the Paul K. Scott Museum of History section. The new set-up allows the memorabilia to be changed, exhibiting different items throughout the year.
Visitors are encouraged to take pictures throughout the museum, including on medal award platforms from the 1984 Olympics and the 2015 World Championships. Interactive exhibits feature wrestling moves, a glossary of terms, high school facts and information about United States presidents who wrestled.
“There have been 13 U.S. presidents who have wrestled, with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln being the most prominent,” says Lee Roy Smith. “Many presidents said they took up wrestling to be able to stand up to bullies.”
OSU alumnus Jack Carnefix, National Wrestling Hall of Fame & Museum operations manager, helps promote the new exhibits. (PHOTO / GARY LAWSON)
One of the most popular new features is the opportunity to watch NCAA Championship matches from the 1930s to present day.
Visitors can choose matches by year, wrestler or school, allowing them to watch some of the most exciting moments in wrestling on a big screen. Many of these videos are not available to the public except at the Hall of Fame.
The William S. Hein Library section of the museum has wrestling books from around the world and historical documents.
The diversity and accessibility of the sport continues to be highlighted through exhibits featuring women, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Native Americans and Latino Americans.
The United World Wrestling Hall of Fame area features an electronic kiosk with photographs and biographies of inductees as well as memorabilia from international honorees.
There is also a visitor lounge with a window mural of a wrestling match from the 1960 Olympics, contested outdoors in the Forum in Rome, Italy.
“There’s something for everyone,” says Lee Roy Smith. “For the person who doesn’t know a thing about wrestling, we provide interesting facts and information to help educate. For those in the wrestling community who are very knowledgeable, we give an opportunity to dig a little deeper. When you visit the museum, you will sense not only the hallowed ground for those enshrined in the Hall of Fame, but also the passion of our donors who support this institution,” he adds.
In addition to Smith, the Hall of Fame employs OSU alumni Jack Carnefix, operations manager; Maghan Cawlfield, office manager; Krista Graff, state chapter director; and Lindsey Hammer, front office coordinator and OSU graduate student. OSU students Sarah Bildstein, who is completing her master’s degree, and undergraduate Emma Wilson, whose great uncle is Olympic gold medalist Shelby Wilson, also work at the museum.
The Hall of Fame is open 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. The museum is also open prior to home football games, wrestling matches and basketball games. Visit www.nwhof.org or call 405-377-5243 for more information.
More stories like this are available for members of the OSU Alumni Association. STATE magazine is a benefit of membership in the OSU Alumni Association. To join or update your membership go to orangeconnection.org/join or call 405-744-5368.
Published by STATE Magazine Editor Elizabeth Keys, Winter 2016, Volume 12, Number 2
Uploaded on December 1, 2016