By Aayush Shrestha
From professional wrestling to athletic training at Albion College, from bouncing for nightclubs to fighting in World War II, Walt Swyers did it all. Swyers, 91, died Oct. 16. Reporter Aayush Shrestha interviewed him last spring for an assignment in Advanced Multimedia Journalism. We’ve adapted Shrestha’s work for this piece. – The Editors
Walt Swyers was born in a small coal mining village in Northwood, Ohio. His house was situated amidst several power plants. Growing up, Walt had one older brother who was 20 years older than him and one older sister who unfortunately passed away at a relatively young age. His brother went on to get his masters from Stanford University, Calif.
Walt joined the military in 1938 when World War II was stirring up. Initially he signed up as a horse cavalry in the military base at Illinois, but after four months in the cavalry, he was moved to second infantry. His serial number was 7031817, which he proudly recalled to his last days.
At that time, a lot of soldiers were being transferred to Kansas but, for Walt, that was the last place he wanted to go. “I had Milwaukee to my left and Chicago to my right and both places had great beer. Why would I want to leave?” he explained with a chuckle.
Once the Second World War broke out, Walt was transferred to Iceland right away. However, when Roosevelt declared war on the Axis forces, he and five of his friends were asked to pack their stuff the next morning. They boarded a ship with no clue as to where they were headed. Luckily for Walt, he didn’t have to go to Sicily, Italy where battle was extremely heated and casualties for the U.S. army were in excess of 8,781 men. Towards the end of the war, Walt carried out his duties in Africa and served as a combat trainer back in the U.S. camps.
In the mid 1940’s Walt went back to something he was really passionate about – wrestling. As a young kid he wasn’t the strongest. “In school there was a kid who always whipped my ass,” he complained. But one summer he went home with one of his friends whose dad used to be a good fighter. He worked hard and improved on his physicality and boxing attributes (this, of course, was before he joined the army). The next time any bullies tried to fight him in school he “ripped them apart.”
“I loved it,” he claimed with a grin on his face. “Every time we fought, the Principle and Super Intendant of my high school watched us from the Veranda and cheered us on. Everyone was on my side though.”
Although boxing was his biggest asset, professional boxers did not make enough money. This prompted his switch to professional wrestling where competitors comparatively had a slightly higher income. Walt was placed in the Columbus, Ohio league where he debuted as the original “Masked Marvel” – there have been many ever since. His wife watched him wrestle on TV before they ever met – coincidence or destiny?
Walt moved to the city of Albion in 1966 as he got a job as an athletic trainer at Albion College. According to him, Albion College was a much different place back then when there were keg parties every week and only two individuals were designated as Campus Safety. “During the 60’s, Elkin Isaac and I were really good buddies, and the two of us pretty much ran this place,” he claimed. Elkin Isaac was the Athletic Director back then. During his stint at Albion, he became good acquaintances with Dr. Norris and Dr. Vulgamore as well.
Walt worked as an Athletic trainer for 29 years here at Albion College, and for his commendable work, he was inducted into the Albion College Athletic Hall of Fame in 1996. After that he was certified by the National Athletic Trainer’s Association (NATA) – a major honor for professionals in his field. He credits his wrestling career for preparing and training him to be an athletic trainer.
On the 22nd of September, Walt got married to Caroline Swyers on the day of Homecoming. He wanted to get married during half time of the football game but Mrs. Swyers refused.
Walt and Caroline met for the first time on Halloween. She dressed up to go out and “experience the nightlife” with her first daughter, when Walt worked night shifts at the club as a bouncer. Apparently her daughter played cupid and initiated their interaction. Needless to say, they hit it off and got married. Mrs. Swyers recalls that the first thing she thought of when they talked was that “he is a foreigner from Ohio, and he talks funny.”
On his 70th birthday, Walt was forced to retire from athletic training because that’s what the rule articulated. This hurt him because he was extremely passionate about his job and he really loved working with young kids. In an attempt to keep interacting with the youth, Walt purchased Spectacle Lake (now the location for the annual Senior Barn Party) and established a shooting range. He taught gun handling along with hunter safety to youngsters for a total of 35 years, and during his time he taught up to three generations. People came all the way from Detroit and Canada to attend his CCW classes. Walt was also the town Santa for approximately 30 years.
At the young age of 91, Walt was still going strong. Every morning he woke up and did his own exercise. He still ran the CCW classes and carried a gun on his belt wherever he went. “I never thought I’d reach 91,” he said. “But all you’ve got to do is take good care of yourself and exercise and keep yourself busy.”
Last October, Walt was subject to some health complications. He had to be transferred to Kalamazoo after a worrying heart attack. When the doctors told him that surgery might be too risky, he told them “to heck with it” and came back to his humble abode here at Albion. He denied care from Hospis too. His nurse was really impressed by his will and ability to exercise and by his commitment to physical therapy. “That man knows more than what I know,” she stated.
Mrs. Swyers was his nurse and she drove him around. About six months ago, they purchased a 70 inch TV. “After all those years of wrestling, fighting in the war and bouncing night clubs, I never thought I’d be sitting in my living room in front of a huge colored TV,” he exclaimed.
Every Friday Walt went to Cascarelli’s in downtown Albion and ordered a diet coke, just to relive the old days. He made sure he came to every Albion football home game including the homecoming game on Oct. 12, where he stood the whole game and cheered for the Brits.
Four days later, on Oct. 16, Walt sadly passed away.
He lived an amazing life, inspiring many lives along the way. Although he is gone, the story of the “Masked Marvel” will be told generations from now. Throughout his 91 fulfilling years, nothing slowed Walt down. He truly was a man of steel.
Photos by Aayush Shrestha and courtesy of Walt Swyers.