Once A Jayhawk, Always A Jayhawk: Mike Elwell
“Spontaneity is a meticulously prepared art.” — Oscar Wilde
– – –
Think of how you blow out a candle.
Bend down, put your face near the flame, purse your lips and if you expel a rapid-enough, steady stream of air at the precise location – the flame vanishes.
Every once in a while though, the fire is stubborn. Don’t fib and say you’ve never tried to blow out a candle that fights back.
You know how it works. You blow the first time and the orange ball changes its shape and clings to any nanometer of wick it possibly can to stay ignited.
It’s a rather spontaneous sparring match. Each wiggle back-and-forth representing a new chapter, a new daunting task much different than the previous in the battle of relevancy.
To the flame, it’s simple. Give in and simply become a line of smoke, drifting toward the ceiling eventually disappearing for good. Or, every so often, retaliate and keep the radiating, warming presence alive.
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When Kansas wrestling resurfaced in the 1960s, the head coach from the era isn’t able to recall the exact year or pinpoint a definitive answer as to why the sport discontinued, but the memories vividly live on in the minds of those who were involved.
Today, there are few traces other than recollections of a time that has all but disappeared. (Old) Robinson Gymnasium, the place that first gave life to Kansas’ wrestling team, lost its only and final match with a wrecking ball in 1967.
At its resurgence in 1962, the team was seen as 27 wrestling “leftovers.” After complications with (Old) Robinson’s wrestling room, as was common in the era, they were forced to find a home in a decrepit corner of Memorial Stadium and eventually in a comparably upscale nook and cranny, underneath the bleachers on a cement floor in the third-tier of Allen Fieldhouse, they wrestled.
Not many would know that now. Years of modernization and expansion rendered those locations to memory. With what seemed to be one quick gasp of air, wrestling vanished, leaving so little as a roster, a handful of photos and a Xerox-copied 1965 yearbook page to prove its short existence.
Instead, what keeps it alive are hours of stories – rather memories – fleeting from the consciousness of men journeying through their 70s. They don’t always match up, depending on the person or the day. As time goes on, we don’t remember exactly what happened. What we do remember though, becomes what happened.
Over half a century later, it doesn’t matter why it was disbanded. The stories, memories and lives of the people it brought together are what need to be preserved from going gently into that good night.
Lining Beach Drive outside of shops in St. Petersburg, Florida are benches. One bench in particular called, ‘Drag Queen with Armadillo Purse,’ looks fancier than most. Its patron is what really catches people’s eyes.
Seated on the left end of the metal bench is a woman wearing a green dress with heels, a sun hat and sporting an armadillo purse. Beneath the hat, attached to the woman’s neck, is the head of an alligator. Behind her, a tail the diameter of a python dangles and drapes to the concrete.
A must-have photo opportunity for locals and tourists alike to sit on that bench, snuggle up toward the alligator woman and smile.
Be careful not to get too close on a hot, sunny Florida day though. She can be dangerous.
– – –
Mike Elwell duels the chance of being forgotten every single day. No, his goal isn’t for people to remember him as one of the first when wrestling returned to Kansas – those days are as far removed as a drip of molten-plaster from a sculpture – but as a person who seizes the whimsical, spontaneous opportunities life unfolds.
Nearly 54 years have passed since Elwell, a senior political science major with ambitions of attending law school, received what he thought to be a prank call. Bob Lockwood, gymnastics coach and multi-talented longtime Kansas professor, was on the other end of the line.
“Mike,” Lockwood said. “How much do you weigh?”
“Who the heck are you?” Elwell quipped.
“I’m the gymnastics coach, but we have two outstanding Kansas football players that we want to come to the University of Kansas. Phil Doughty and Gary Duff,” Lockwood said. “They’re both championship wrestlers and they won’t come to Kansas unless we have a wrestling team.”
Elwell paused and thought, ‘What does that have to do with me?’
“Well,” Lockwood said. “We told them we had a wrestling team – but we really don’t and we have a match tomorrow night with William Jewell.”
“Bob, I think I weigh 138 pounds right now,” Elwell said.
“Well, that’s okay,” Lockwood said. “Can you wrestle 128 tomorrow night?”
“Are you kidding me?” Elwell asked.
Let’s take a moment, pause and think here.
Elwell hadn’t wrestled since graduating from high school four years prior and was 10 pounds over the weight class Lockwood needed to fill with 24 hours before a match.
Most people would have hung up the phone.
His life is defined by these spontaneous, humorous and sometimes deadly stories that will continue to be topics of discussion or icebreakers years from now.
“No, I’m not kidding you,” Lockwood said. “Otherwise we are going to forfeit the weight division. You can go over to the old Robinson gym and put on a wetsuit and run around there. I’m sure you can drop 10 pounds.”
So, what will come as no surprise, Elwell miraculously cut the weight, went out and grappled with his opponent for three rounds – nine minutes – and gained Kansas two points.
“Mike was essential,” Lockwood later said. “I think he was the only guy I had in that weight class.”
Had he not found Elwell and cashed in on his open attitude about wrestling again, Lockwood would have been between a rock and a hard place.
He went to athletic director Arthur Lonborg in the fall of ’61 seeking approval for the athletic department to fund the men’s gymnastics team as a member of the Big Eight Conference.
“Yeah, I’d like to have a gymnastics team,” Lonborg told Lockwood. “But, we have to have a wrestling team before we can do gymnastics.”
As soon as the words were uttered from Lonborg’s mouth, Kansas had a wrestling team with a brand-new head coach in Lockwood. To be ready to compete in the spring semester, Lockwood was frantic to find men to fill the weight classes.
In that phone call Lockwood urged Elwell onto the team with a few promises – a varsity letter, some sweat pants he would have to return, and most importantly – his life.
“He promised me that I would live through it instead of getting killed,” Elwell said.
There was a time, however, that promise looked to be in jeopardy.
Aside from the football players – who actually won matches – the squad Elwell was a member of consisted of some ragtags wanting to prolong their wrestling careers and have fun.
This all worked out against smaller regional schools like William Jewell and Central Missouri, but when it came time to face the blue-bloods of the sport in these United States; Iowa State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, to put it simply as Elwell did, “We weren’t very competitive. I remember the fraternity wrestling team down there at Oklahoma State could have beaten our team.”
For the most part, surviving a match was a guarantee for Elwell. Lockwood recalls him to be a fair wrestler, long-armed, wiry, hard-to-pin and intelligent.
None of that mattered when it came time for Elwell to face Yojiro Uetake though. Elwell dials up memories of that day in Stillwater, half-a-hundred years ago distinctly well.
“I remember going to Oklahoma State and they had 10,000 people watching wrestling,” Elwell said. “I was seeded last in the weight division and I drew this kid named Uetake.”
As it turns out, Yojiro Uetake is as legendary in Oklahoma State wrestling lore as the state’s red dirt. From 1963 to 1966 he never lost – posting a 58-0 record with three individual Big Eight and national titles for the Cowboys. Sound impressive?
Uetake – a 2015 Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame inductee – was for eight years the best 130-pound wrestler in the world, claiming gold medals in the ’64 and ’68 Olympics.
So on that day, in front of 10,000 people, wagers were being taken amongst his teammates if the scrawny kid would live to tell about the match, and if he managed to do that, how fast Uetake would end the bout by pinfall.
“I think the longest anybody bet was a minute,” Elwell laughed and said. “Some were even into 20 and 30 seconds.”
Elwell didn’t emerge victorious from the mat that day, but he did manage to live through the encounter and outlast any of the bets that were taken.
“I think I lasted one round,” Elwell said. “I could hear their coach talking to him and he said, ‘You don’t have to worry about this guy, just take him out,’ which he quickly did. It was fun to say I lost to the guy. He won Gold in the Olympics.”
Even in defeat that first season wouldn’t change anything that happened. It was a lifelong privilege to be included on KU’s wrestling team.
“I never regretted that experience at all,” Elwell said. “It was a great experience and I would do it all over again.”
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After he hung up his wrestling attire from KU, whether he returned those sweat pants or not, he still received the varsity letter Lockwood promised him and a K-blanket.
He did in fact attend law school after receiving his undergraduate degree, and successfully completed his term in law school and went out to work in the Douglas County attorney’s office.
In what almost seemed too structured and drawn-out, Elwell became a district attorney and eventually a district judge in Douglas County. He unknowingly and unfortunately walked into a job in law enforcement in Lawrence at the worst possible time.
On April 20, 1970 everyone seemed to have an issue they were violently protesting. African-Americans were taking arms about inequality and radicals were protesting an unjust war in Vietnam. It only made things worse that Lawrence, Kansas, was the only place in the Midwest where all of these causes could mesh and melt together, causing an uproar.
“It was a weird time because you had a strange mix of people,” Elwell said. “You had the hippies up on campus. Then you had the black militant group. There were people with guns shooting at each other. Then you had the drug culture. All of them ended up mixing up with parts and pieces.”
Just as he recalls the humorous and funny stories of his wrestling days, Elwell remembers the time he spent as a public servant even better.
“That’s when the student union burned down,” Elwell said. “There were a lot of bombings in Lawrence. There was a bomb placed in the entry to Summerfield Hall and it actually blew a young lady out the window. Somebody threw a big jug of acid through the district judge’s front window at his home.”
Almost as an escape from the realities of the world, Elwell began to pay more attention to his friend Duke’s woodworking talents. As time went on Duke developed a shake in his hands – the early onset of Parkinson’s Disease.
Gradually, the disease took enough of a toll that Duke could no longer do the detailed carving that was necessary to support himself with the art work.
On a whim and in typical Elwell fashion, he suggested they try to make molds and cast some art in bronze. That way it would be easier for Duke and it would be a lasting venture.
“I knew nothing about it at the time,” Elwell said. “I had a little out-building so I just built a foundry from scratch. Even then, I still didn’t know anything so I blew it up a couple of times before I learned some of the things not to do.”
As Elwell put it, “There have been multiple disasters,” where the bronze work fights back.
Animals are what he enjoys carving and putting on display. Yet, of all the animals and their typical defense mechanisms of biting, scratching, stinging or trampling it’s always a burn that leaves victims jumping away from the art.
One day, Elwell was conducting a burnout of a mountain lion he had been working on to finalize the mold of the shape. The problem was, the cougar had a big, long tail that wouldn’t fit in the furnace. Needing to finish the job, Elwell instructed a bearded-man helping him to hold the tail over the flame.
“When the wax caught on fire it flared up and caught his beard on fire,” Elwell said. “He was running out the door with his beard on fire and he knocked the tail off the mountain lion. All I can think is, ‘Well you (screwed) up the mountain lion,’ as he’s outside patting his beard, which was on fire. He could’ve cared less about the mountain lion, but all I could think about was it’s going to be harder than hell to put the damn tail back on.”
Eventually, everything was repaired and Elwell got a grip on the finer points of casting and started casting Duke’s work so he would be able to go to shows and sell bronzes instead of wood. It all worked out pretty well.
“Duke is deceased now,” Elwell said. “Over the process of time people started coming to me asking if I would cast work for them – which I did. I built up kind of a regional clientele and at one point I think I had almost six employees in the foundry.”
Elwell would travel to art shows and trade pieces with other artists, soon accumulating so many sculptures he needed a place to store them. He bought Abe & Jake’s Landing overlooking the Kansas River in downtown Lawrence with the intention to turn it into a sculpture garden.
His pieces, especially the “drag queen with the armadillo purse,” were extremely popular in the Lawrence community until about five years ago when he moved them to St. Petersburg to retire.
Despite moving most of his artwork halfway across the country to retire in Florida, a piece of Elwell will always remain in Lawrence. The KU Visitor Center on the University of Kansas campus proudly brandishes one of his masterpieces – a Jayhawk.
– – –
Until the bench is moved or the sun quits rising, the drag queen in St. Petersburg will continue to be a fond memory or icebreaker. The benches and sculptures aren’t really mementos to pass down the line. That’s what his K-blanket is for. It’s a small piece of a larger spontaneous, whimsical puzzle of his time in Lawrence.
The sculptures, they’re visual representations that say, “Don’t take life too seriously. Try to find the humor in things.”
“I bet probably 20,000 people have had their picture taken on that bench,” Elwell said. “They’ve sent pictures to their relatives and put it on Facebook. It’s funny I have even seen a lot of women sitting on the thing on match.com.”
They’ll be okay sitting on Elwell’s bench and capitalizing on an odd photograph. That was his goal. He went out on a limb to build items that last and can’t be easily ignored or blown out with one swift gust of wind.
It doesn’t matter when it is. Ten, 20 or 30 years from now, on a hot day, you still may not want to get too close to the drag queen on the bench on Beach Drive in St. Petersburg.
No, she won’t bite, but she’ll burn viciously with a vicarious flame – impossible to extinguish – of the memories of a wrestler, attorney, judge, proprietor and artist.
A man who was Once a Jayhawk and Always will be.