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Baby Boomers: Verne Gagne - a Minnesota icon

Verne Gagne passed away on April 27 after spending a number of years in a Minnesota health care facility, but spending the last years of his life with his daughter and her husband.

Verne Gagne passed away on April 27 after spending a number of years in a Minnesota health care facility, but spending the last years of his life with his daughter and her husband.

He was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease that may have been brought about by many head injuries incurred in the many years of professional wrestling.

But Mr. Gagne was not just another professional wrestler. To baby boomers he was much more.

In the early days of TV, networks found that both professional wrestling and boxing were made for television. Just point the camera at the ring and you had a show. And the biggest showman we would see in Minnesota was the heavyweight champion, Verne Gagne.

The champion went to Robbinsdale High School where he excelled in baseball and football, and in wrestling he went on to win the state championship.

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Gagne went to the University of Minnesota and was named to the All-Big Ten Team in football. Coming back to the U of M after a few years in the Marine Corps, Gagne went on to win two NCAA titles in wrestling. He went on to become an alternate on the 1948 Olympic wrestling team.

He was drafted by the Chicago Bears football team, but decided to go on to follow the money and become a professional wrestler. (Before the late '60s and '70s, many professional football players had other jobs, but the owner of the Bears said no to Gagne doing both football and wrestling.)

I met Verne Gagne a few years ago when I worked at Sibley Station. As soon as he entered the room you knew he was someone special. He wore a white suit and, of course, had that big smile that he wore in those many years as a wrestler on TV.

Without hesitation I went up to him and held out my hand, hoping for a handshake. Looking larger than I thought he would be, he extended his big hand and right away we started up a conversation.

I told him I wanted to show him a collage of pictures we had in the back of the room. The pictures showed the heavyweight boxer Mohamed Ali in an exhibition, going against a professional wrestler from Walker. In the background was Gagne acting as a referee.

"Ali hit the wrestler with a hard left jab and the wrestler got mad and put Ali over his knee," Gagne said. "I yelled at the two of them, 'It's only an exhibition.'"

I found it very easy to talk to the champion.

As a youngster I attended wrestling matches that came to my hometown, and I watched the matches on TV - they were a weekly event. I knew at the time that they weren't real, but one could see that Verne Gagne was not only a knowledgeable wrestler, but was physically up for the challenge.

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I told this to Gagne and we talked about the old days of professional wrestling in Minnesota. It was not a long conversation, but I was impressed that he would give me the amount of time that he did.

In 2005, the Minnesota Historical Society asked the citizens of Minnesota to name 150 persons, places, things or events that promoted real, lasting changes within or beyond the borders of the state. Verne Gagne was one of those who was chosen by his fellow Minnesotans.

He was not chosen by just wrestling fans, but by people throughout the state who believed that Verne Gagne was a good representative of the state of Minnesota.

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