The Death of Henry Wittenberg 3-11-10

The Death of Henry Wittenberg

I met the great and legendary Henry Wittenberg though my wonderful friend, teacher, and mentor, the late Henry Littlefield. He introduced me to him at the New York Athletic Club in the early 1960’s and I later met him 40 years later at the 92nd Street Y, when I attended a forum on Olympic champions with my great Mount Vernon buddy Alan Rosenberg, who many of you know.

I walked up and introduced myself to Coach Henry Littlefield in the AB Davis HS gym in the fall of 1961. Coach Littlefield, I quickly learned, was an outstanding collegiate wrestler for Columbia and a member of the Class of 1954. I had been at the Horace Mann School the year before, and met Gus Peterson, the long-time and elderly trainer for all of Horace Mann’s teams. Since I played three sports at Horace Mann, basketball, baseball, and soccer, I came in frequent contact with Coach Peterson, who was easily in his mid to late 70’s in 1959. I later learned that he had been Columbia’s wrestling coach from 1915 to 1945. Therefore, when I heard Coach Littlefield mention the “Peterson Roll” I asked him whether that wrestling move had anything to do with Gus Peterson. He then related to me all about Peterson’s career and his illustrious place in the history of amateur wrestling. (The roll was indeed named after Peterson!)

Henry Wiitenberg was an outstanding wrestler ay CCNY (City College) in the late 1930’s and their chief rival was Columbia. He told me that one summer he had competed in an AAU sanctioned wrestling meet, and in those days, and even up until the 1970’s, the rivalry between both athletic governing bodies was quite vicious and self-defeating. Even President Kennedy had asked former General of the Army Douglas MacArthur to intervene and bring peace between the warring bodies. I am not sure that Henry even knew that competing in this event would jeopardize his collegiate eligibility. The next year, right before the Columbia-CCNY match, Coach Peterson challenged his eligibility and he was forced to withdraw from the match and the team for the academic year. Obviously this was a bitter blow to Henry and his career.

Later on, after sitting out a year of college wrestling, he was able to compete again. Because of World War II, the Olympic Games were suspended until the Helsinki Games of 1948. Before the Olympic Trials, Henry, who had been undefeated for many, many years, seriously injured his ankle. He was really beside himself and quite concerned that he would not be able to compete. He was already 29 years old, and he felt that he may not have another opportunity. In discussing his problem with a friend and wrestling colleague, he complained that he didn’t know how to re-habilitate his injured ankle. His friend recommended that he call Gus Peterson, who was known to be one of the greatest trainers in the country. Henry told him that he couldn’t call Petersen, because he hated him and then told him about the incident that had happened many years before. The friend convinced him to call Coach Peterson and that he was sure Peterson could be of some help. Henry called Peterson, and to his surprise, Peterson was quite friendly and certainly wanted to help him with his injury. They were able to get together quite quickly. Peterson massaged his ankle daily, administered his own style of therapy and before long Henry’s ankle was in excellent shape. He competed in the trials and went on to win the Gold Medal in Helsinki.

I later spoke to Henry Wittenberg after he moved to Somers, NY. I called him after I had read a major feature on him in the Journal News and I reminded him of our earlier meetings. Henry Wittenberg was quite gracious and we had a long and memorable talk. He was a genuine upfront American hero, who fought for his ideals, was a victim of McCarthyism and always stood his ground. He will be missed by all who knew him.

Richard J. Garfunkel

1 thought on “The Death of Henry Wittenberg 3-11-10

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