West Virginia Wrestling

Who Is Leland G. Merrill, Jr.

By George A. Nedeff

Reprinted from the 1978 West Virginia State Wrestling Tournament program. Initial publication February 1978.

George A. Nedeff is a former WVU wrestling coach. He was, at the time of this article's publication, an assistant professor of physical education and supervisor of athletic facilities at West Virginia University. He has written numerous articles on the history of wrestling in West Virginia. Nedeff subsequently entered the clergy. He is a 2008 inductee into the West Virginia Chapter, National Wrestling Hall of Fame.

Leland G. Merrill, Jr. is West Virginia's first Olympic medal winner in wrestling. In fact, he may be the only one who ever placed in the Olympics from the state of West Virginia. The place was London, England, and the occasion was the 1948 Olympics. He became the recipient of the bronze medal after losing a decision to Yashan Dogu of Turkey in a 15 minute match in the 160 pound class.

One would think that anyone who placed third in the Olympics would invariably be celebrated in West Virginia wrestling circles as a wrestling great, but the very opposite is true. Very few people in West Virginia have heard of Leland Merrill. I have found him to be the most neglected wrestler to come out of West Virginia.

Although born in Danville, Illinois, in 1920, Leland resided in Parkersburg, West Virginia, during his childhood, where his parents still live, and was educated in the primary and secondary schools. He lived in Danville only the first six weeks of his life. Leland got his first taste of wrestling in the ninth grade at Parkersburg. He says that Jim Davis, a teacher at McKinley School in Parkersburg, was his first coach.

He had one week of practice for his first match against Harrisville in 1935. He was pinned in 60 seconds. There doesn't appear to be any signs of greatness for Leland in his former years as a wrestler. He was pinned by a kid named Lumpkin in his first match. He lost to Ray Bartholow of East Fairmont two times. He was also beaten by Red Manzo of Parkersburg High in an elimination match.

There were already indications of perseverance, determination, and dedication. Obviously, Leland was never a quitter! His wrestling and professional careers prove that. We must keep in mind also that he only weighed 95 pounds, but always wrestled in a class above his weight. During that time, West Virginia had only the following classes: 105, 115, 125, 135, 145, 155, and 165. Officially the 95 pound class and the heavyweight class were recognized only as exhibition classes. Consequently, Leland was wrestling in the 105 pound class, when he actually weighed 95 pounds. He was giying away ten pounds every time he wrestled. Ray Bartholow of East Fairmont, who beat Leland twice, was a "State Champion" in the 115 pound class.

Leland wrestled under Floyd "Ben" Schwartzwalder during the 1936-37 season. Coach Schwartzwalder was one of the pioneer wrestling coaches at that time and later achieved phenomenal success as a football coach at Syracuse University. Leland said that Schwartzwalder was real tough and could beat all of his pupils. Leland tells about wrestling Coach Schwartzwalder in 1941, when he was home from Michigan State. He says that Schwartzwalder could not escape him on the mat, but he was good on the mat and a counter wrestler on his feet. Leland considered him a pancake artist. Coach, Schwartzwalder was about the age of 30 and weighed 160 pounds. Leland was a junior at Michigan State University.

Leland Merrill had a great deal of respect for Coach Schwartzwalder, calling him a good psychologist. He says that Coach Schwartzwalker would tell him to shoot the legs in, tire his opponent, and go for the pin. Leland said, "I would have walked on water if he told me to." I think this illustrates the great respect and relationship that must exist between coach and wrestler.

In 1937 Leland Merrill was named "All State" in the 95 pound exhibition class, along with Piggy Barnes of Parkersburg High in the unlimited class. Leland graduated from Parkersburg High in January of 1938. He entered Michigan State University and went out for the team as a walk-on.

Little financial aid was given at that time. Michigan State University had the Jennings. twins in 1940. Both of them were two-time NCAA champions and were awarded a full scholarship to be split between them in their senior year. At Michigan State University, Leland Merrill, for three years, had two NCAA champions in weight classes below him and one NCAA champion above him. He said, "I got beat up every night in that kind of deal, but it was good for the soul." Obviously, practicing with wrestling greats like that is bound to rub off. Certainly, Leland's success had to be attributed to the great wrestlers with whom he surrounded himself.

While at Michigan State University, Leland wrestled from 1938-42. He was captain of the team in 1942. He won the trophy for the most points scored for the 1939-40 season. He was injured in the 1942 NCAA wrestling tournament and had to settle for third place. While in college, Leland only lost to Logan and Whitehurst, both two-time NCAA champions from Oklahoma A & M. Leland's coach was Fendley Collins. Oklahoma A & M (class of 1927). Leland graduated from Michigan State University in 1942.

Leland spent three years (1943-46) in the service, stationed in Europe. After an absence of wrestling for five years he entered AAU tournament in 1947, losing to M. A. Northrup in the semi-finals, placing third. In 1948 he won AAU championship in the 160 pound class, defeating Doug Lee, a five-time AAU champion, M.A. Northrup, a five-tinge AAU champion, Don Romer, AAU champion, and Schapiro, an NCAA champion. Leland only had two black marks in eight matches.

While preparing for the 1948 Olympics, Leland's wrestling partner was Henry Wittenberg, an Olympic Gold Medal champion in the 191 pound class. Wittenberg was a Silver medalist in the 1952 Olympics. Leland said that he always told Wittenberg that he would never have been a Gold medal winner if he had not pushed him. Leland said that Wittenberg was America's greatest until the 1950s. Tons Davies of Morgantown, a former Olympic official, who roomed with Wittenberg, says that he was one of the greatest wrestlers of our time. According to the 1964 Olympic Guide, Wittenberg was considered by many as one of the best in the world.

At the 1948 Olympic tryouts held in Ames, Iowa, Leland Merrill defeated Gale Mihles, Michigan State University's captain and two-time NCAA champion, Bill Smith, Olympic champion in 1952, and Jim Laroch, a member of the 1952 Olympic team. He lost a decision to Bill Nelson, a three-time NCAA champion. In subsequent matches, Leland defeated Bill Nelson twice at Lehigh University and also in London at the games.

In London, England, at the fourteenth Olympiad of 1948. Leland defeated Harry Pace of Canada, B.Y. Whong of South Korea, Franz Westergren, Sweden's European champion, and Dich Garrard, Australia's British Common-wealth champion. On the last day of the Olympic competition there were only three wrestlers left in the 160 pound class--Leland Merrill, United States of America; Dich Garrard, Australia; and Yashan Dogu, Turkey's European champion. Leland beat Garrard, but lost a decision to Dogu of Turkey in a 15 minute match. Garrard of Australia was not eliminated even though he was beaten by Leland, because had had scored two pins. Dogu of Turkey pinned Garrard in 5 minutes and won the Gold medal. Garrard won the Silver, while Leland received the Bronze.

The International rules were changed immediately after the 1948 Olympics, so that a round robin was set up. Leland's match with Garrard was used to show the fallacy of the rules. Leland claims that he would not have won the Gold medal even if he had beaten Dogu of Turkey. Dogu had pinned everybody, except Merrill. Ironically, in the 1952 Olympics held at Helsinki, Finland, Bill Smith had the same record as Leland Merrill and walked away with a Gold medal.

In retrospect, Leland said that Murl Thrush, a retired coach, and Frank Bissell, an AAU champion, convinced him to enter the Olympics. He followed their advice and went into a program of running and lifting weights and wrestling. As Leland said. "I was fortunate to possess speed, coordination, balance, good heart and lungs. My weaknesses were arms and shoulder strength and occasional lack of concentration."

In my correspondence with Leland Merrill he has brought out the following interesting points:

(1) Yashan Dogu of Turkey was age 35 when he wrestled him. He was 5-feet, six-inches tall, spent 12 years in International competition, defeated all comers in Free and Greco Roman Turkish National teams, and coached the Turkish teams in the 1950s. He later blew up to 230 pounds and died in 1960.

(2) Dich Garrard of Australia was age 39 when he wrestled him. He has been director of British Commonwealth games since then.

(3) Leland has competed in the following weight classes from 1935-49: 95, 105, 115, 121, 128, 136, 145, 155, 158, 160, 165, and 175.

(4) Except for two slightly cauliflower ears, wrestling never hurt him physically. He said it's a great sport to be recommended as a physical, mental, and intellectual stimulus.

(5) "The coaching and competition is vastly superior today than what we had," said Leland. Some high school coaches are better than the best college coaches of his era.

(6) We will never dominate the International rules.

(7) He now weighs 170 pounds, runs twenty to thirty miles per week, lifts weights, and plays handball. He feels great.

(8) He wrestled locally in New York City in 1949 until age 29. He worked out at Michigan State University and Rutgers until the age of 40.

(9) He refereed until 1961 and was head referee at NCAA tournament two times.

(10) Wrestling did a lot for him in demonstrating absolutes: (a) One must make weight; (b) A wrestler is matched utterly alone; (c) As referee, one has to be right; (Since he quit, they have "fudged" that a little), (d) To win big, one must be in shape. No one wins a tournament out of shape! (e) One must have a positive attitude. (All his losses, except one, were here.) (f) One must think! (Sometimes hard to do.)

(11) He said if he could start out as a 95 pound weakling, that there must be a hundred or more in West Virginia high schools who can do it. It takes work and requires concentration. NO LESS.

Leland Merrill's professional career is as much a success story as any of his wrestling achievements. His accomplishments are too numerous to mention all of then, but here are several:

a. He pitched semi-pro baseball in New Jersey and Philadelphia in 1946-47. He turned down offers to play pro baseball.

b. Leland graduated with honors in science at Michigan State University in 1942.

c. In 1942, he served in United States Forces for four years as a Commissioned Officer with Tank Destroyer Units in Austria. He advanced to rank of Major during the fighting. participated in four campaigns in Europe, and received a bronze star for service in action.

d. Leland was appointed Research Assistant at Rutgers University in 1946.

e. He completed master's degree in 1948 and doctor's degree in 1949 in the field of Entomology at Rutgers University.

f. He was appointed Assistant Professor of Entomology at Michigan State University in 1953.

g. In 1961. he became Dean and Director of the New Jersey Experiment Station.

h. During his term as Dean, several research centers were established and expanded.

i. Dr. Merrill was responsible for changing the name of the college to the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences in 1965.

j. Dr. Merrill and staff led the move to establish George Cook College in 1973.

k. In 1971 he was appointed Director of the Institute for Environmental Studies.

1. He has held office and membership in 19 professional or government associations.

Dr. Merrill is married to the former Virginia Gilhooley of East Lansing, Michigan. The couple and their daughters. Susan Jane and Alison Lee, live in Princeton, New Jersey. Dr. Merrill is an elder in the United Presbyterian Church. In summing up his career. Dr. Leland Merrill said, "I'm one of the luckiest guys alive. At age 57, I've been privileged to do more than I ever dreamed of as a child."

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