Douglas Haile Lee, 88, dairy farmer who won recognition as wrestler

April 20, 2004|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Douglas Haile Lee, a retired dairy farmer who dominated amateur wrestling in the 1940s and was given a top honor in the sport, died of a vascular ailment Friday at Holly Hill Manor Nursing Home. He was 88 and had lived in the Sunnybrook section of Baltimore County.

A county native, Mr. Lee took over operation of his father's farm and oversaw its 120 Holstein cows upon his 1932 graduation from Towson High School.

"Because of the farm, he worked hard and he was an extremely competitive individual," said his daughter, Joyce Lee Edington of Phoenix. "He wanted to have an extracurricular activity like wrestling, but the school didn't have one."

So Mr. Lee joined the old Baltimore Wrestling Club at the YMCA in downtown Baltimore.

"Being a farmer all my life, I was relatively strong for my size," Mr. Lee told The Sun in 1994, when he was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Okla. "My conditioning gave me an edge over most of the city and college boys."

That he was even being considered for induction came as a surprise to Mr. Lee, who said, "Quite honestly, I didn't know there was a hall for wrestlers until three years ago, when I was first nominated."

But the Wrestling Hall of Fame nominating committee knew all about the Baltimore County man they called "Farmer Lee." It received endorsements from his former teammates, opponents and younger wrestlers he had helped develop for more than 20 years at the old YMCA on Franklin Street, the Naval Academy, Gilman School, St. Paul's School for Boys and Hereford High School.

"Doug Lee was probably one of the greatest wrestlers in America in the 1940s," said Josiah Henson of Tulsa, Okla., a member of the Naval Academy Class of 1945 who was captain of the academy's wresting team and won a bronze medal at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.

"He wrestled tough, but he was also a real nice guy," said retired Navy Cmdr. C. Shuford Swift of San Diego, who wrestled at the downtown YMCA in the late 1940s. "He made wrestling a wonderful team experience."

Mr. Lee won national Amateur Athletic Union titles in 1941, 1942, 1945, 1946 and 1947. He was voted the AAU's outstanding wrestler in 1945 and 1946.

"The most amazing thing was that he won AAU titles in three different weight classes -- 134, 155 and 165," Mr. Henson said. "And even at age 32, when most wrestlers have long retired, he finished fourth in the heavyweight competition."

Friends said Mr. Lee was best known for his cradle hold, which put most of his opponents on their backs.

"The cradle is a hold that dates back to the ancient Greek wrestlers," Mr. Lee said in 1994. "But if you practice something long enough, you can perfect it, and I kind of put my personal twist on it."

His twist was to apply the cradle from a standing position, a maneuver most of his contemporaries never had seen before.

"I'd work my right arm behind my opponent's neck, catching his left arm," he said. "Then I'd grab his right ankle and double him over. Once I clamped my arms, the match was usually over."

In 1956, Mr. Lee sold his Phoenix-area farm and bought a 200-acre dairy farm in Maryland Line, where he did most of the chores himself. He sold the farm in the late 1960s and worked for Baltimore County as a surveyor.

He stopped wrestling in the late 1950s and took up racquetball.

He was twice a finalist for the John L. Sullivan Award for the nation's greatest amateur athletes.

In 1965, he was elected to the Maryland Sports Hall of Fame, which honors athletes from all sports. His plaque hangs at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Mr. Lee was a member of Fairview Methodist Church, 13916 Jarrettsville Pike, where services will be held at 11 a.m. today.

In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his wife of 66 years, the former Frances H. Piersol; a son, Douglas Edgar Lee of Annapolis; six grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.

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