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A Walk down memory lane with Tom Burke – Brendan Higgins

by Brendan Higgins, contributing writer

When I was given the opportunity to interview Tom Burke I was beyond excited. I quickly scheduled a visit to his home in Springfield, Massachusetts. Through the grapevine I discovered he had a treasure trove of professional wrestling memorabilia in his home office. I enlisted the services of my cousin, Jim D’Amore, to serve as co-pilot for the adventure. Jim lived in Springfield as a child. We would be killing two birds with one stone, visiting Jim’s old stomping grounds, while also interviewing this iconic figure in the wrestling world. We drove up to Springfield on a beautiful spring Sunday morning. Jim shared stories of his youth and his neighborhood friendships along the ride on the Mass Pike. The two of us are no strangers to road trips together. We drove across the country back in the late 1990’s. In addition, we both grew up big wrestling fans.    

Tom greeted us at the door of his home upon our arrival. He was smiling and giving off a warm vibe making us both feel right at home. I met Tom several times over the years, but this was going to be a personal visit. I intended to wring every drop of wrestling information out of him. I was about to find out that at 75, Tom can recall and deliver a detailed story with the best of them. He said, “I was born here in Springfield on November 17, 1946. Truman was president, thank you. Raised here right through high school. Graduated in 1965. By March of 1966 I was in the Army.”

I asked Tom his first memory of Pro Wrestling. He recalled, “Ok. It wasn’t wrestling per say, it was a conversation. I was in 6th grade, and I went to mass one day. All my friends were hanging out before mass. They were all talking about wrestling on TV. I asked what time it was on and was told Saturday at 4 pm on UHF Channel 22. So, the next Saturday I tuned in and got hooked. It was the original Bedlam from Boston, Paul Bowser’s promotion. It was Killer Kowalski, Mark Lewin, Don Curtis, Pat O’Conner, Mr. Hito and Mr. Moto. I remember Hito and Moto annihilated their young opponents, wrapped them up in the ring canvas, and stomped on them. Then Mark Lewin and Don Curtis ran out to save the day.”

Tom Burke in his home office

Tom also remembered the first live event he attended. “It was a Christmas gift from my father. The date was December 29, 1959. Me and my dad went to Holyoke Valley Arena. They had wrestling matches every Wednesday night for decades, dating back to the 1930’s. The main event was The Sheik against Chief Big Heart. There was a nasty snowstorm that day so there were cancelations. Red Bastien moved up on the card to be The Sheik’s opponent. Bull Curry was also on the card. I met six of the wrestlers that night. Three of them went on to become friends. Bull Curry, Red Bastien and The Zebra Kid. I would meet the Zebra Kid again in 1967 while in the service in Germany. I never took time to come home on leave. Instead, I travelled all over Europe going to wrestling events. I had an incident at my very first show. I had to take a wicked pee. I didn’t know where anything was, so I saw a door I assumed was the men’s room, so I ran in, and it was the wrestlers’ dressing room. George Bollas (The Zebra Kid) took his boot and said, ‘get the hell out of here, kid!’ I was at another show in Cologne, Germany, and walked up to Zebra Kid and reminded him of the time he ran me out of the dressing room. We both had a laugh over it.” Bollas asked Tom what he was doing so far from home. Tom explained he was in the Army. After the show Tom was invited to go out for some beers with the wrestlers.

By this time Tom was a writer for Wrestling Review magazine. In fact, he started submitting articles to magazines and being published when he was a junior in high school. He started out writing in the world of fan clubs. Eventually he had full access press credentials for wrestling events. Tom said, “In the back of Ring Wrestling magazine, they had columns with results from different regions around the country. I was still in high school. I went to the high school of Commerce. I would go to the library after school. They had the circulation room with newspapers from all over the country. I had my little notebook, and I would write down results and news stories. One day while reading the Toronto Globe I see Lou Thesz beats Buddy Rogers for the NWA world championship. I yelled, “Oh. shit!” The librarian told me to shoosh, and they didn’t allow that language in the library. I would compile results from around the world along with local results and send them in for the magazine.

When he arrived in Germany, he wrote to magazine editor Lou Eskin to inquire if they would like an article on English wrestling because he was going to England in 1967. Considering they had no one in Great Britain covering events, they were happy to have Tom submit a story. This was the beginning of a career that saw Tom Burke publish hundreds of stories for wrestling magazines. His name would become synonymous with wrestling over the years. Tom said, “Lou Eskin sent me a press pass. That opened all the doors for me.”

I asked Tom who some of his favorites were as a kid. He said, “Pat O’Connor, because he was Irish, Pepper Gomez, Edouard Carpentier, Mark Lewin and Don Curtis. I liked all the babyfaces (good guys) as a kid, and all the heels (or bad guys) as I got older (laughing). I was always intrigued by Bull Curry and established a friendship with him in my twenties. That friendship carried on for generations including his son, Fred, and grandsons, Fred and Nick Curry.”

Tom wanted to talk about his friendship with Walter “Killer” Kowalski. As a former wrestler who knew Walter and trained at his school, I was eager to hear this part of the story. Tom recalled, “First time I met Kowalski was at a show held in the Springfield Auditorium in January of 1960. I was standing outside the arena with autograph seekers. Some of the wrestlers flew right by the fans but Kowalski signed an autograph for me and said ‘God Bless You’ before walking away. Most bad guys or heels generally didn’t sign for fans, but Kowalski was different.

The rematch that never happened.
A poster from the Tom Burke collection

He had his own agenda. In 1972, I was working for Ring Wrestling magazine. I conducted an interview with Walter in Burlington, Vermont, when he was working for Grand Prix Wrestling. At the time he was finishing up in Montreal and heading to the WWWF. I asked who his manager was going to be in New York, and Walter said he didn’t need a manager because he could do his own talking. In the end, he was managed by the Grand Wizard of Wrestling. I saw him again in the WWWF and asked if he remembered our conversation about having a manager and he laughed and said, ‘You were right Tom.’ We became good friends. He attended my sister’s wedding. He came to visit my dad when he was in the VA hospital. We had a wonderful friendship. When he opened his wrestling school, I was the first person to initiate an article on the school in Ring Wrestling magazine.”

I asked tom to share a favorite story from the past and this is what he had to say. “There are so many. One day I get a phone call out of the blue from a high school classmate. She asked me if I was still involved in wrestling. I said, “yeah”. She told me her son met a woman who claimed to be a former wrestler. I asked her name, but it didn’t ring a bell. She gave me the woman’s phone number in case I wanted to talk to her. I said what the hell and gave her a call. We had a plan to meet for an interview. Her name was Gloria Allen. I went to visit her expecting her to try and work me. We sat down and she takes out this scrapbook. The moment she took out the book I recognized her ring name. Her name was Stella Novak from the 1950s. She was known as Go Go by the other girls because from the moment the bell rang, she was on the go until the end of the match. We started talking and she asked me if I knew the Fabulous Moolah who I knew very well. When I got home, I called Moolah and she said she was trying to locate Stella and I was able to put them together.”

I asked Tom who is on his personal Mt. Rushmore of wrestling. He said, “Lou Thesz, Billy Robinson, Karl Gotch, Killer Kowalski.” I asked Tom about more modern wrestlers, and he said, “You asked for my Mt. Rushmore. Honestly, I haven’t sat down and watched wrestling in years. I will stop on it and then move on. I do like AEW from what I have seen. There is so much talking. I really can’t deal with it.” I asked Tom how wrestling has changed since he started watching and covering the sport. Before I finished the question he replied, “The magic is gone.” We sat in silence for a moment and reflected on what he said. Then Tom continued, “Back in the day you would think it was real. Even if you suggested in the back of your mind it might not be. The guys were so good they had the ability to transform you to think it’s reality. That is missing today. You get two guys in the ring today who totally annihilate each other then get up and walk away. Once the territories were gone the whole thing changed. People got bitter. Everything changes. I get that. Wrestling today totally lacks wrestling.”

I couldn’t do an interview with a true wrestling historian like Tom and not ask him for a Jimmy Valiant story and Tom delivered. “Jimmy Valiant had a fan club run by Merilea Niedzial from Berlin, Massachusetts. I was very good friends with Jimmy. The last time I saw him was at Joe Bruen’s event in East Providence a few years ago. When Merilea passed away her son sent me a bunch of her material that she had. One of the items was a photo album of Jimmy. I mailed it to him. Then when we saw each other at Joe’s event, he thanked me for the album. Jimmy and Johnny were always good to me.”

WWWF World Tag Team Champions The Valiant Brothers

I asked Tom his impression of the late great Adrian Adonis. He said, “I loved his gimmick. I thought he was on point when he was the Golden Boy.” I asked Tom if he felt Adonis should be in the WWE Hall of Fame. He said, “Yes.”

While we were sitting in Tom’s office, my eyes kept wandering around the room looking at all the wrestling history Tom has collected over the years. I asked him if he had a favorite item in his collection. He replied, “It’s hard to focus on one specific item because I have so many things. If you look on the wall you can see the poster for a rematch between champion, Ivan Koloff and former champion, Bruno Sammartino. The twist is Koloff lost the belt to Pedro Morales before this show and the match never happened. I have guests come and visit from time to time. Like you and Jimmy are here today. One time, Brian Solomon who wrote the book Blood and Fire about The Sheik was here for a visit, and he said, ‘This room is like an old-time promoter’s office.’ That was a big compliment. Then when Red Bastien was here, he said, ‘This is like Paul Boesch, east’ because of the similarities to Boesch’s office.” Tom Burke also has an extensive memorabilia collection. He began collecting items when he first started watching wrestling in the 1950s. You can do the math on that. He said, “I prefer paper collectibles. I never really got into the action figures.”

To say Tom Burke has been around would be an understatement. He has traveled the globe attending wrestling events and writing about them. Keep in mind this was all decades before the internet. Without wrestling magazines, it would have been very unlikely to have heard of any other wrestling promotions, or wrestlers, beyond the local television station that reached your living room. Unless you had family or friends who lived in another part of the country, or the world, to tell you about them. Tom shared what he saw with his own eyes. He allowed millions of people the opportunity to experience the shows, time and time again.

Tom Burke is a two-time Hall of Famer

Tom’s work did not go unrecognized. He is a two-time Hall of Fame inductee. First, with the International Wrestling Hall of Fame and a second time with the New England Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame. Both are greatly deserved.

Tom also holds frequent auctions on Facebook to allow wrestling fans to obtain some of his countless pieces of wrestling history. You can bid on one-of-a-kind wrestling items by sending Tom a friend-request on Facebook. He auctions off wrestling gems each and every week. You can also visit Tom in person by respectfully making an appointment. Simply reach out and Tom will be happy to speak with you.

Back in the 1990s I was trying to make a name for myself in the crazy world of pro wrestling. One night I was in the locker room before a show and noticed Tom Burke talking to another respected wrestling historian, Sheldon Goldberg. I went over to introduce myself. Before I could speak Tom said,” Hey Knuckles, how’s it going, kid?” That of course made my day. Tom Burke knew who I was. He was kind to me 25 years ago just like he was during my recent visit to his home in Springfield. What a class act.

Outside of the wrestling world, Tom worked for the US Postal Service for 23 years. He retired in 1990.

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Brendan Higgins, writer and author, RIPTA bus driver, former professional wrestler (Knuckles Nelson), and North Kingstown resident.

We welcome Brendan as a contributing writer to RINewsToday.

To read a story about Brendan, from our sports department, go to: https://rinewstoday.com/knuckles-nelson-waking-up-from-the-wrestling-ring-to-the-yoga-mat-john-cardullo/

To read all stories by Brendan, here, go to: https://rinewstoday.com/brendan-higgins/

Higgins is the author of “Waking Up: From the Wrestling Ring to the Yoga Mat”

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