Wrestling great Oliver gets a hold on admission to national hall of fame

November 18, 2001|By Gregory Kane

IT HAPPENS TODAY. Sometime between three and four in the afternoon, Ray Oliver will keep his date with immortality. Around that time, at Loew's Annapolis Hotel in the state capital, Oliver will officially become a member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.

Oliver got the letter confirming his induction Aug. 28, sent by none other than Myron Roderick, a former National Collegiate Athletic Association wrestling champ and coach at Oklahoma State who heads the Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Okla.

"Dear Raymond," the letter reads. "You were nominated by the Maryland Chapter for induction into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum for your `Lifetime Service to Wrestling.' I am happy to announce the National Wrestling Hall of Fame Board of Governors has selected you for this great honor. No one deserves this honor more than you. ... Your name will be permanently displayed in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum in recognition of your years of dedication to our great sport."

What Roderick's letter fails to mention is the number of years that Oliver has dedicated to wrestling.

"For 67 years," Oliver reflected, "I've had some association with wrestling. That caught somebody's eye at the Hall of Fame. Sixty-seven years may be a little unusual."

Oliver's passion for the sport started in 1934. He, his mother and sister lived in West Baltimore during the extreme poverty of the Depression years. His family was so poor that Oliver saved the nickel his mother gave him to take the streetcar to Gwynns Falls Junior High School and walked.

"We lived on Poplar Grove Street," Oliver remembered. "1728 -- which is 12 cubed, by the way." The inductee couldn't resist the opportunity to show his love of math, which he taught for 45 years at McDonogh.

Oliver remembers the days his mother found it hard to scrounge up even the three cents it cost for a newspaper. It looked like he would continue his days in Baltimore's public schools. Then fate came a-knocking.

"I'm always amazed at the apparently little, inconsequential things that change your life," Oliver mused. "One day, by chance, a neighbor gave my mother yesterday's paper. Also by chance, there was a small article in the newspaper about a scholarship exam being given at McDonogh. My mom asked me if I wanted to take it."

Oliver did take it, and won that scholarship to McDonogh, then a military school founded with money left by businessman John McDonogh to educate poor boys just like Oliver.

School rules dictated that Oliver participate in three sports. Wrestling was one of them. By 10th grade, Oliver was good enough to reach the finals of the Maryland Scholastic Association tournament at 125 pounds. He lost to a guy from Poly.

The next year, Oliver wrestled in the 135-pound weight class but sprained his wrist the night before the MSA tournament. He wrestled at 145 pounds his senior year.

"I didn't weigh 145," Oliver said, "but it made for a better lineup. In the MSA finals, I lost to a Gilman guy I beat in the dual meet. He won an overtime split decision."

Oliver entered the Naval Academy in the fall of 1941 and wrestled three years there. After graduating in 1944 (the academy had gone to a three-year program because of World War II, instead of the traditional four-year program), he served on the battleship USS Texas and saw action in both the Iwo Jima and Okinawa campaigns. He resigned his commission in 1947 to teach math and coach wrestling at McDonogh.

Ken Horner was the head wrestling coach at McDonogh then. Oliver remembers that Horner referred to him as an associate, not an assistant, coach. The team did well for a time, retiring the Lehigh Cup by winning five consecutive MSA tournaments. But by the time Oliver took over as head coach in the mid-1960s, the run had ended.

"We took our lumps some years," Oliver remembered. "City [public] schools came on tough."

He retired as wrestling coach in 1972 and suggested that McDonogh's headmaster get someone younger. He stayed involved in the sport by organizing McDonogh's annual wrestling tournament -- named after him -- and officiating.

He showed the same intuitive sense of when to step down in math. After 24 years as head of the math department, he suggested that "a younger person with younger ideas" take over the position.

"I was strong on some things that might not be appropriate anymore," Oliver said. As an example, he recalled having students memorize the squares of all the numbers from 1 through 25.

"I used to suggest that memory is not the end-all and be-all, but it's a powerful tool," Oliver said.

Over the years, Oliver proved he had the tools for wrestling and math. He "almost fell off the couch" when he received his induction letter, but he shouldn't have.

Those folks at the National Wrestling Hall of Fame know a one-of-a-kind guy when they see one.

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