I’m definitely not enjoying writing these stories about the passing of Clearfield wrestling greats. But there’s more sad news along those lines.

Sam Harry, 89, passed away on Saturday, June 4, at his home in Harrisburg. He led a full and productive life, but he will always be known for his semi-accidental fame: He was the first of 1,382 PIAA wrestling champions.

In 1938, PIAA decided to conduct its first formal statewide wrestling championship. The WPIAL, District 1 and District 3 had begun championships a few years earlier and other PIAA districts had added enough schools with wrestling to make a state tournament feasible.

As it happened, Harry was a sophomore at Clearfield in 1938, just four years after the late Arthur J. Weiss Sr., who passed away less than a month ago at the age of 102, had established a wrestling program at Clearfield. Harry also happened to be at the lightest weight, 85 pounds.

Harry was one of 78 wrestlers representing 27 schools at the first state tournament, according to “The History of the PIAA Wrestling Championships,” co-authored by Norm Palovcsik of Lock Haven and Mike Smith of Newport.

Harry pinned his first two opponents. His opponent in the finals, Jerry Spence of Grove City, did not wrestle a match in order to reach the finals; Spence receive a first-round bye, then won by forfeit in the semifinals. Despite that, Harry won the seven-minute match with Spence, matches that, if not decided by a pin, were decided solely on riding time; there was no uniform point-scoring system in place until 1941.

At that moment, Harry’s legacy was established. He was not only the first PIAA wrestling champion, he was the first of a state-record 40 from Clearfield, a record that is being gradually challenged by Easton (35).

It would be his only PIAA wrestling championship. In 1939, he was unable to participate in the state championships after suffering a serious burn. He recovered and qualified for states at 115 pounds. Coincidentally, so did Spence. But neither could defeat Canonsburg’s George Custer, who was the second PIAA champion when he won at 95 pounds in 1938. Custer’s victory over Harry in the 1940 finals made the Canonsburg senior the first three-time PIAA champion and one of the legends of PIAA wrestling.

The beleaguered Jerry Spence, whose state tournament losses had come to Harry and Custer (twice), would finally win his state championship in 1941, his senior year.

But it was Harry who would be forever remembered as the first name entered in the great book of PIAA wrestling history. Harry went on to win two Eastern Intercollegiate wrestling championships at Penn State, became an accomplished pilot, a successful attorney and even won a national age-group handball championship in his early 80s.

I was privileged to interview Sam at his Harrisburg home shortly after arriving in Harrisburg to work at The Patriot-News in 1985. I was writing a series of stories on the 50th anniversary of the PIAA Wrestling Championships in 1987, and one of those stories was about Harry’s initial PIAA title.

He was gracious, warm, intelligent and, of course, delighted in the fact that the story would be written by a fellow Clearfield High School graduate. I’ve since misplaced that yellowing story and cannot remember much of the specific conversation. I just remember speaking with a very kind, confident and outstanding man who had lived a full and exemplary life.

But there is one thing I do remember from that conversation. He credited wrestling and his mentor, Art Weiss, for providing much of the foundation for that fine life.

You know, not every who thrives has wrestled and not everyone who has wrestled has thrived. But I’ve found that almost everyone who has wrestled and thrived has credited wrestling for playing a major, and not a minor role, in their lives. Sam Harry was no different.

R.I.P., Sam.

  8 Responses to “Sam Harry, the first PIAA wrestling champion, dies at age 89”

  1. What a great article. I met Sam Harry at the PIAA Championships one year and was impressed with what a nice guy he was. We talked for a while comparing stories as I was from Madera and he was from Clearfield.

    RIP #1

  2. Great article Rod. Of course I remember your four articles on the 50th anniversary of PIAA wrestling.

  3. Thanks so much for a richly detailed tribute of a Pennsylvania wrestling pioneer. I understand your sadness in writing these stories, but it’s very important that the life of Sam Harry be acknowledged as you have done so well. — Mark Palmer, Staff Writer, InterMat, and College Wrestling Examiner

  4. I can’t thank you enough for writing this article. It’s an amazing story and you nailed my Grandfather perfectly. I’m glad you had a chance to know my Grandfather. If he was here today, I have no doubt he would say he was glad to have known you. Thanks again.

  5. Vic, thanks for the note. I’ve been a little remiss noting your retirement from La Salle. Please allow me to take the time to salute your outstanding coaching career. Who would have thought a Mo Valley kid would end at one of Philly’s top private schools (and top public schools, for that matter). Great job. Clearly, we’re proud of what you and your teams have accomplished.

  6. Tom, your memory is way better than mine, God bless you. How’s Jeff doing?

  7. Mark, many thanks. And may I extend my thanks to you for the work you’re doing for wrestling while writing for the Examiner. It’s no small task to write nationally on any subject, let alone wrestling. Great job.

  8. Jason,

    First, my condolences on the passing of your grandfather. I know he had quite a battle with the cancer that took his life and he fought it with the quiet dignity that was his hallmark.

    I only met your grandfather that one time, but he left a very clear impression on me. People often put their best foot forward when a member of the media comes around, but it was clear to me that your father was absolutely genuine. The bottom line is you can’t fake character. Your grandfather never had to; he had it in abundance.

    He was clearly proud of being the first state wrestling champion, but he was much more proud of family, his post-college accomplishments, etc. He knew that his initial state title was, to a degree, a happy accident, being in the right place at the right time. His other accomplishments had nothing to do with good karma. It had to do with being a good man.

    Thanks for writing. My best to you and the entire Harry family during this difficult time.

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