The atmosphere of the state meet brings people back year after year. Watching the wrestlers compete is the main stage attraction. If you are a yearly returner, you know that fans embrace tradition and can be often found in the same spots year after year at each session. You may even begin to recognize staff, security or ushers. Seeing past acquaintances and making new friendships while sharing the passion of wrestling is also a important part of experiencing Des Moines in February. Here are a few people I had fun spending some time with at this year’s state meet.
I met Kenny Bern of Cherokee, Iowa, who will turn 90 this May. He has been attending Iowa High School Athletic Association events for 74 years. Bern is a regular at state track, basketball, football and, of course, wrestling state competitions. You can always find him sitting in the same spot, as he has a special admittance pass. It was a joy talking to Bern and hearing his stories. He remembers Delbert “June Bug” Perrin wrestling heavyweight for Cherokee. June Bug went on to play football as a guard and wrestle heavyweight at the University of Iowa. According to Bern, June Bug weighed in at whopping 165 pounds. Living close to Sheldon, Bern had another story of interest. He remembers watching the Brands boys, Tom and Terry, develop athletically: he even saw them play basketball in 5th grade. He wasn’t too impressed with their basketball techniques. Bern recalls saying back then, “They aren’t much for basketball, but they sure can wrestle!” Bern knew what he was talking about!
A staff member I met for the first time this year was Lois Johnson. She is a blue-shirt, top-of-the-ladder guest supervisor. Like a head coach, she is in charge of a certain area of Wells Fargo, coordinating the team of maroon-shirted ushers and yellow-shirted security workers. Johnson knows how manage a team. She is a Hall of Fame basketball coach who took South East Polk to the 1977 state championship. With her husband Howard, she was the first woman to officiate an Iowa district boys’ basketball game. Johnson was a five-time All-American and a Pan-Am USA team member. Her positive personality and energy makes the staff at Wells Fargo a well-oiled team-orientated operation.
One of Johnson’s experienced ushers, who wished to remain anonymous, stated that the toughest job by far is reminding people they cannot save seats. In fact, she said she has run into some very unsportsmanlike conduct and inappropriate words from fans. Sometimes she has even had to call the police. She added more issues stem from adults than the students. Her job perks include ushering concerts and, of course, watching wrestling.
Another member of the Wells team is Derek Hickey. Hickey is in his first year as the director of food and beverage at Wells Fargo. In the last issue, we attested to the thousands of pounds of popcorn, chicken and pork tenders, fries and dipping dots as among a few items he has to order and have ready to go. A team of 10 managers supervise around a 100 food servers at the Well. He says Friday is their busiest day; Saturday is the slowest because nobody wants to leave their seats during the finals. Originally a hockey fan from Michigan, Hickey appreciates the involvement of fans who drive hours from their communities to Des Moines to support their wrestlers. He has worked several places, including with the San Diego Chargers, but he says you can’t beat the quality of life that Des Moines and Iowa have to offer. In fact, Hickey calls Des Moines the best-kept secret in the Midwest.
Dan Dunham is not one of eastern Iowa’s secrets. Coach Dunham was the 1996 3A Iowa Coach of the Year and an Iowa Wrestling Hall of Fame member. This was Dunham’s 63rd state tourney. He wrestled at Sloan Wallace Junior High and West Waterloo High School. Growing up, he watched his first state meet at UNI’s West Gym. From there, he attended state meets at Waterloo’s McElroy, Des Moines Vets Auditorium, Ames Campus and back to Vets. At Vets, he coached Dubuque Hempstead to many medal winners including three-time (1997 to 1999) champion Cliff Moore who went on to win a national title for Iowa. His favorite memory of Vets was how the crowd could move around and get really close to the mats. Coach Dunham is a great person who always offers a positive compliment and continues his love for the sport of wrestling. We will see Dunham next year at his 64th state meet at Wells Fargo.
The state meet is truly one of the best treasures of Iowa. It has been a month since the finals, but people still talk about the what-ifs of past years and predict the results for next year. Friendships and acquaintances are as important as the results on the mat. No matter how you have become attached to wrestling, especially at the state meet, you can always count on great hospitality, seeing familiar faces and meeting new friends. Iowa keeps wrestling on the move!