KVACEK email@example.com_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2003-12-11 published
Pint-sized scrapper 'liked wrestling more than eating'
Stellar career in the ring was marred only by the near-miss loss of an Olympic medal
By Tom HAWTHORN, Special to The Globe and Mail Thursday, December 11, 2003 - Page R11
He was a Regina stonecutter who used his strength to good effect in the wrestling ring. Vern PETTIGREW, who has died at 95, was an athlete whose career was marred only by the near-miss loss of an Olympic medal.
Competing for Canada, Mr. PETTIGREW finished in fourth place in the featherweight division of the freestyle-wrestling competition at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. The 28-year-old stonecutter with a chiselled physique had dominated his Swedish opponent when the match suddenly ended with Mr. PETTIGREW disqualified for using an illegal hold. The Swede went on to claim the bronze medal, while Mr. PETTIGREW spent the next 67 years contemplating the unfairness of a verdict that denied him Olympic glory.
"One call made all the difference," he told The Regina Leader-Post in 1996. "You can't quarrel, but it was terrible. It was a legal hold, but they said it was illegal. I could have been standing on the podium, but you can't cry about it."
Even before the devastating verdict, Canadian wrestlers had expressed their unhappiness with the officiating at the tournament.
The team felt European officials, versed in the more rigid dictates of the Greco-Roman discipline, were unfamiliar with the rules of freestyle, or catch-as-catch-can, wrestling. For instance, the Canadians relied heavily on leg holds, only to discover the judges did not award points for the manoeuvre. Canada claimed only one of 18 freestyle medals awarded at the 1936 Games, a bronze for Joseph SCHLEIMER, a lightweight from Toronto.
Mr. PETTIGREW retained his amateur status after returning from the Games, continuing to dominate his weight class in Canada. He stepped away from the mat as a competitor in 1940, having won five national championships. He was also known as an eager participant in exhibition matches, willing to take on all comers.
"I liked wrestling more than eating," he once said.
John Vernon PETTIGREW was born on March 30, 1908, in Durham, Ontario He moved with his family to Biggar, Saskatchewan., two years later, before settling in Regina in 1919.
Wrestling was perhaps a natural sport for a pint-sized boy born as part of a baker's dozen brood of PETTIGREWs. He learned the formal rules and tactics of the sport at the old Young Men's Christian Association in Regina, "a stinkin' Y with a pool as big as my kitchen," he told the Leader-Post.
Wrestling was conducted in a small basement room reached by a long flight of stairs. "It was never washed. No wonder we got big scabs on our knees."
He claimed his first Dominion featherweight crown in 1933 and dominated his weight division in Saskatchewan, where he won 10 provincial championships.
He was accompanied on the long journey by train and ocean liner to Germany in 1936 by fellow Regina wrestler George CHIGA. A 210-pound (95-kilogram) heavyweight, Mr. CHIGA dwarfed his featherweight friend, who weighed closer to 134 pounds (61 kilograms).
One of the more memorable experiences in the athlete's camp was Mr. PETTIGREW's first viewing of that science-fiction dream called television. He also met the great American track athlete Jesse OWENS, whose humility and friendliness in trying circumstances Mr. PETTIGREW never forgot. Like many of the athletes, however, Mr. PETTIGREW remained unaware of, or unconcerned about, the intentions of the Nazi regime, for which the Games were a propaganda exercise.
A first-round victory over Karel KVACEK of Czechoslovakia impressed Canadian Press correspondent Elmer DULMAGE, who wrote that Mr. PETTIGREW "gives a pretty fair imitation of lightning."
The Regina wrestler defeated Marco GAVELLI of Italy and Hector RISKE of Belgium, but was pinned at two minutes, 13 seconds of a fourth-round match by Francis MILLARD of the United States. The controversial disqualification against Gosta JONSSON of Sweden eliminated Mr. PETTIGREW from the medals. Kustaa PIHLAJAMAKI of Finland won the featherweight gold, while Mr. MILLARD took silver and Mr. JONSSON got bronze.
Mr. PETTIGREW retired from wrestling not long after joining the Regina fire department in 1939. He retired as battalion fire chief in 1973. He then worked part-time at a local funeral home, which years later would handle his remains.
Mr. PETTIGREW, who died in Regina on October 29, leaves a daughter and two sons. He was predeceased by his wife Jean; by his eldest son, Robert; and by all 12 of his siblings.
In all the years since leaving Berlin, he never quite overcame the sense that he had been robbed of a chance for an Olympic medal. "It always bugs you," he said.
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