Chris Taylor exhibit in new museumPublished 9:43pm Thursday, April 18, 2013
Had Chris Taylor not died shortly after his 29th birthday, the Olympic wrestler for whom Dowagiac’s football field is named considered returning to school to become a teacher and coach.
The 6-foot-6, 400-pound-plus man known as “The Gentle Giant” (the title of a book about him written when his daughter was in sixth grade and not published until after she graduated) counseled at Fitch Camp before graduating in 1968.
In a controversial decision at the terrorism-marred 1972 Munich Games, Taylor came away with the freestyle bronze medal, losing to eventual Soviet Union gold medalist Aleksandr Medved. A Bulgarian took silver.
Last year, Taylor joined his gold-medalist Iowa State teammates Dan Gable and Ben Peterson in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum in Stillwater, Okla., with his Chieftain coach, John Lewis, attending the induction.
Taylor, the longest-running display at more than five years in the entryway to City Hall, will get his due in the new Dowagiac Area History Museum opening next month in Behnke’s former paint and floor covering store on West Railroad Street.
Lynne Lawrence met him at Muskegon Community College in her hometown, where she studied to become a gym teacher.
“One time, when the girls basketball team got to scrimmage the wrestlers, I got to guard Chris,” she said. “I turned, keeping my eye on the ball, and smacked right into him. I wrestled him a few times for fun, but it knocked the wind out of me so bad it hurt.”
She recalled innocent horseplay, which turned tragic and almost caused him to give up wrestling.
“Chris fell on his neck and broke it,” she said. “He was devastated. That young man’s family encouraged him to keep going because it was an accident. He was paralyzed from the shoulders down.”
Their 5 1/2-year marriage began on Sept. 8, 1973, with a reception at the Taylor farm, which commanded a full page in the Daily News. They roasted a hog and 12 turkeys, with enough meat left for 40 sandwiches.
Daughter Jennifer’s birth in 1975 was also front-page news.
“The hospital had no robes big enough for him,” Lawrence said, “so we decided he wouldn’t go into the delivery room. This is why small towns are so important. They took his robe, which is now in the Iowa State wrestling hall of fame, sanitized it and had it ready for him.”
Jenny, 37, a 1993 DUHS graduateis now an attorney in Chicago, though she doesn’t practice law.
She is in human resources with Walgreens. Like her father, the star softball pitcher won the All-Sports Award.
Taylor was born at Lee Memorial Hospital on June 13, 1950.
He grew up on Second Avenue, near the former McKinley Elementary School, which he attended.
“When they built Kincheloe, his mom (Vera) wanted the whole community to know Chris and not be scared of his size,” Lawrence told Dowagiac Rotary Club Thursday noon at Elks Lodge 889, which is across Riverside Drive from his final resting place.
“They asked for volunteers to go to Kincheloe, so she chose to send him to Kincheloe. I’m asked to speak every four years. I’ve spoken in Decatur, but you’re the first adult group I’ve ever spoken to,” the longtime elementary teacher said, showing that Taylor’s size 17 rings in which a quarter fits inside.
She brought Taylor’s red Iowa State letter jacket with the gold “I” — which Chris joked stood for his IQ.
He wrestled for Iowa State two years, 1972-73.
“He won nationals both years. I asked him one time why he went to Iowa State. Arizona State recruited him. West Virginia called my parents’ house. He had a sense of humor. He said he liked their letter jacket,” Lawrence said.
“He won the bronze medal at the Munich Olympics — it’s heavier than you think — when the Israelis were killed. Athletes were beginning to wear ID badges. Chris never wore one. Everyone knew who he was. He heard the shots in the morning and knew some of the men who were killed.”
Taylor’s two sisters are florists — one in Paw Paw, one in Cassopolis.
“The town helped pay for his parents and sisters to go to the Olympics, which was fantastic,” Lawrence said. “They had never been on a plane when they flew from South Bend to Detroit” to Germany, where they stayed with a farm family whose home connected to their barn.
Leading up to the Olympics, Taylor had no one to practice against except rolled-up mats because they feared injury.
Lynne found him when he passed away at 8:30 p.m. on June 30, 1979, from blood clots. Jenny was 3.
Lynne stayed in Iowa for five years, finally deciding her night job in a sandpaper factory was too much, so finished her liberal arts degree at Western Michigan.
Almost 29 years ago she married Tom Lawrence, a retired city employee and brother of Bill Lawrence, an attorney who is a former school board member. They co-own Beeson Street Bar and Grill. Their daughter, Sara, coaches Dowagiac varsity volleyball and middle school track.