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Burke to highlight history of wrestling in the Valley

Aug. 1, 2013
By G. Michael Dobbs


SPRINGFIELD – The Pioneer Valley is known for its many accomplishments in technology, but it has also been fertile ground for what was once described by ring announcers as the “sport of kings,” and perhaps no one knows more about the history of professional wrestling here than Tom Burke.

Burke, wrestling historian, writer and author will present a talk on “The History of Professional Wrestling in Pioneer Valley” on Aug. 13, at Sal’s Bakery and Cafe, 513 Belmont Ave. at 7 p.m. The talk is free.

Burke said that his interest in professional wrestling came in 1959 when he attended his first match. He told Reminder Publications he never would have thought his once casual interest would evolve into a lifetime interest.

Publishing his own wrestling newsletter and writing a one-shot comic book on the lives of wrestlers from the 1950s and 1960s are just a few of his activities within the sport.

Burke’s home is filled with his large collection of wrestling memorabilia including photos, posters and many more items.

He said in the 1970s he was able to form friendships with the late Walter “Killer” Kowalski, the Hart family and Bull Curry, all of whom recognized his passion for wrestling.

“By getting to know the guys and them getting to know me, I built up their respect,” Burke said. “I was always trying to build up the sport.”

His presentation will focus on many of the historical notes of professional wrestling in the Valley. Talking to Burke he quickly reeled off a number of interesting stories about wrestling in the area including a Catholic priest from Holyoke who wrestled under a mask locally until his superiors in the church asked him to stop. He added that Springfield College has produced professional wrestlers including current favorite John Cena.

He will also relate the story of South Hadley’s Steven Opalenick, who wrestled in the 1940s as a “heel” under the names of Steve Brady and Steve Brody but died a hero in World War II.

He said he would reveal the sport’s origins in the region at the turn of the 20th century and how wrestling was almost banned in Springfield and how it was banned at the Eastern States Exposition.

Burke said he is a friend with Salvatore Circosta, the owner of Sal’s Bakery and Cafe who regularly presents Tuesday evening discussion on local issues and history. Circosta asked Burke to put together a presentation on what Burke described as “odd and ends” of local wrestling history.

“It’s been all fun,” Burke said of his avocation.

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