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.