An uplifting visit with Killer Kowalski
JASON CLEVETT - SLAM! Wrestling
|Killer Kowalski on Friday, August 1st. Photos by Jason Clevett
When I first set out to the Everett Nursing and Rehabilitation Centre in the Boston suburb of Everett, Mass., the plan for this piece was an entirely different story. This was supposed to be a story about the plight of the elderly and the struggles of a legend. I went there expecting to meet a Killer. Instead, I discovered an angel. This is the story of my visit to see Killer Kowalski last week.
Having learned that Walter "Killer" Kowalski was in a nursing home, unable to walk and unable to find a doctor to operate, I took time out of my holidays in New England to make the effort to go see him and his wife Theresa.
I'm met at the door by social worker Mary Quinn, an instantly likeable woman who has been kind enough to set up a sit down with the Kowalskis. She carries with her a huge stack of mail for Walter, a daily occurrence since a story on him ran in the Boston Herald on July 28th. We chitchat about Walter for a few minutes until Theresa Kowalski walks into the room, full of spunk and energy. By contrast, the man who once tore off Yukon Eric's ear looks shockingly frail as he is wheeled in on a hospital chair. His coal black hairpiece is gone, which adds to his age. The initial appearance is deceiving however, as when I shake his hand he gives me the once over, and the sparkle that appears in the eye of every old timer who starts to figure out in their mind the best way to stretch you.
Theresa asks my name and where I am from. When I tell her Canada, her first question is, "Do you know any doctors that will operate?"
"It has been hard because of his knee. They were wrecked years ago from the wrestling but he was always able to stand and walk. Back in March I could see he was walking a little wobbly, and I got him a walker but he didn't want to use it. We were in a restaurant and he fell down. I got him into the car and got him home and he fell again and his legs slid under the bottom of the bed and scraped them up and he got an infection from that. I took him to the Massachusetts General Hospital and he saw two or three doctors there and I could tell by looking at them they were scared to do his knees. I think its not only just because he is 81, but because he is famous if he died during surgery it would be in all the papers."
She took her husband to nine different doctors, she says, all of which said there was nothing they could do, due to Kowalski's age and pacemaker.
"The last one I thought that he was going to do it. The second time we saw him he walked in with a big smile and said that he wasn't going to, I was so mad at him I didn't even talk to him. One of my lawyer's 85-year-old mother had knee surgery, and I contacted her doctor. He called me back and said, ‘I had a look at the X-rays and there is nothing I can do for him.' It's not fair, and he isn't the only one, there are other older people who could use surgery to help them get on their feet and they won't do it because they claim they worry about the anesthesia. Well, why doesn't some smart guy change the anesthesia and invent one that is safer?"
When the mail comes in every day, the first thing Theresa does is scan the names in hopes of seeing "Dr." or "MD."
"No Doctors?" she asks Quinn.
"No doctors, I looked."
The flood of fan mail, and in fact this story, comes from the article "Killer Kowalski wrestles with mortality" that ran in the Herald.
"I was reading the paper and I was so upset about not being able to find a doctor, there was a column called ‘Inside Track' written by two women, and they had a contact number," she said. "So I contacted them and told them about Walter, and they said they wrote a gossip column and they didn't want to include it there but could have a regular well-known reporter call me. He did and we talked for about an hour and then he sent a photographer here to take pictures."
As Theresa explains this, Mary opens up some mail and finds a picture of Walter, showing it to him.
"You know that guy?" she asks.
Walter isn't speaking much today, his voice a gruff whisper.
I ask Theresa, 79, to tell me the story of how she and Walter met.
"I saw all these wrestling t-shirts on the wall at a friend's store, Jack's music store. I saw the pictures and said I didn't know any of them except Killer Kowalski and Bruno Sammartino. He told me that Walter's school was across the street, and was going to take me over but a customer came in so he sent over and told me to go to the second floor and tell them Jack sent me. He is 6'7" and much taller than me and was so nice to me, wrote a nice thing on a picture for me. The day after he did that I bought him Polish music -- I knew he was Polish but didn't know he liked classical music -- as a thank you gift. He thought that was really nice and asked me out to dinner."
Theresa was a wrestling fan from her youth, when she would attend matches at the Boston Garden with her father.
"I had four brothers who had asthma and couldn't go, couldn't handle the smoke, so my father would take me to the wrestling and boxing. I didn't like the boxing but I liked the wrestling. Coming out of the Boston Garden one time I ran ahead of my father and ran right into Andre the Giant. He was so nice he apologized to me! Walter says he was a wonderful guy. One time he said to Walter in the ring ‘bodyslam me' and Walter said ‘what are you crazy?' But he put his hand under Andre, and the sucker did a cartwheel and made it look like Walter slammed him. He did the same thing with Hulk Hogan."
WRITE TO KILLER KOWALSKI
Send a card or letter to Walter Kowalski at the Everett Nursing Home, 289 Elm St., Everett, Mass. 02149
The two moved in together shortly after meeting in 1998. Theresa had outlived two husbands, including one who was given two weeks to live by a doctor who advised her to put him in a home. She refused, providing him around the clock care in her home, where he lived comfortably for another two years. Walter however was a confirmed bachelor.
"I knew he had been a bachelor all his life. We were driving home from a restaurant we both liked in May 2006 and he said, 'I think we should get married in a church' and I almost drove off the road. I really didn't expect that. On June 19th we got married at St. Peters church in North Reading."
It is understandable how difficult and frustrating it is to be Walter "Killer" Kowalski. Here was a man whose entire life had revolved around being an athlete, being able to move and compete, forced into a hospital by knees that no longer supported him.
"It is very difficult, I know him and he is having trouble sleeping. He is 6'7" and they don't have a wheelchair that is big enough [so] they have to custom order one. He has been a strict vegetarian for over 53 years so it is hard to meet his diet here. I told Walter, 'If we don't find a doctor here to do your knee, I am taking you to Canada.'"
Kowalski was born in Windsor, Ontario and perks up when Canada was mentioned, speaking briefly about Detroit being across the river. He asks me what city I am from, and when I say Calgary he replies, "The Hart Family treated me like a member of the family."
"I've been to Canada twice and I like it up there," recalled Theresa. "We've been to Windsor, Ontario and WWE brought us to Toronto at the SkyDome, he was doing autographs for three days. When he was autographing people were taking pictures of them and he was flipping them off. When they had the wrestling match we were going up to it and people started yelling, ‘Killer, give us the finger' and he did and they cheered."
"You did that? A sweet man like you?" Quinn jokes. Walter just grins.
Many of Walter's former students from his school, now closed, have also contacted him and visited.
"He had to close his wrestling school in 2003 because the owner of the building sold it, and he decided it wasn't worth opening another one at his age. What he did instead was the fella who owns Chaotic Wrestling, Jamie Jamitowski, asked if he could use his name on the school. On the door it says Killer Kowalski school of pro wrestling. We used to go up to North Andover on Sundays, but they stopped running classes then because the trainers had young kids and their wives were getting mad because they weren't home on weekends," she said. "One fellow is supposed to come tonight. Another guy, he is 6'10" and works in Southern California as a stuntman. He flew down and stayed for three days. More of the famous wrestlers haven't contacted us yet, I am surprised Triple H hasn't contacted us yet -- he trained him. I don't know where Perry Saturn is. Bruno Sammartino has been calling a lot but his wife is sick so he hasn't come down, I have to give him a call."
Theresa sits with some of Killer's mail.
Those who have not been able to visit have paid respect through mail, which is an important part of Kowalski's daily routine, says Quinn.
"Every day we get stacks of mail from well-wishers remembering him. Everything seems to point to him not living up to the name Killer. He is very sweet. They remember a specific match or saw him on TV or he was their hero. Some of them are very touching. We spend a couple of hours a day going through it, I read some to him, Theresa reads them to him, it does really brighten his day. The cards and letters help. I think the most important thing is to keep Walter's spirits up. Somebody who has been as active as him his whole life now has to sit, he can't be active and physical, it is difficult and he is getting a little depressed."
Theresa makes a point of asking I specifically mention the staff at the nursing home, and Quinn in particular.
"You have to mention her she is a wonderful, wonderful lady."
Quinn is momentarily bashful. "I am just trying to help you, the man has given so many people so much pleasure it is our duty to help."
"I love when we read the cards to you how you smile when they talk about the old matches, like the one at Fenway Park," Quinn tells Walter.
"It was Bruno and me. The only match ever at Fenway Park, in 1969," Walter recalled.
Theresa and I continue to talk about how Chaotic Wrestling is planning a fundraiser to help cover medical expenses, and that the Mayor of Everett had contacted the home expressing interest in declaring "Killer Kowalski Day." Mary asks Walter if he was doing okay, and then burst out laughing.
"I asked him if he was tired and he said, ‘No, I am just listening to the big mouth,'" she says of Theresa.
"Hey I resemble that!!" she replies in mock indignation as Walter smiles. "He used to do all the talking but now I do."
A special souvenir to remember the trip.
All too soon, my time is done. Walter has nodded off a bit on occasion, and as hard as it is to leave, I've taken nearly an hour of their time. We snap some pictures, and Theresa makes sure I leave with an autographed photo. "To Jason. A True Champion," she writes above Walter's signature. She gives me a big hug and thanks me for taking the time to come speak to them. But trust me, the honor is mine. I thank them, and prepare to leave. As I am about to step out, Theresa calls out my name, and stops me to ask if I am Catholic. I tell her I am not.
"Oh well, I am going to give you one anyway," she says, reaching into her purse and giving me a small guardian angel pin -- the same one that Walter wears on his shirt every day. It's a small token, but one that means the world to me -- I wore it on the collar of my shirt the rest of the trip and will continue to do so.
"God bless you," she said as she gave it to me. I do consider myself blessed to have spent some time with this incredible woman, so strong while giving voice to her husband, and for being in the presence of a legend. I hope they took something out of my visit, I know I did. All to often we forget about wrestling's past, until the legends of yesteryear are only an obituary. This story is not a eulogy, but a tribute to Walter Kowalski in life, as I met him just over a week ago.
August 9, 2008: Outlook for Killer Kowalski improved
Killer Kowalski Photo Gallery
Killer Kowalski in our Canadian Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame
Killer Kowalski results archive
The rest of Jason's vacation in Boston was a little more normal -- museums, whale watching, Cape Cod -- and a side trip to New York City for the Ring of Honor show.