January 8, 2009
Waters have receded; Now museum readies a flood of memories
By STEVEN JOHNSON - SLAM! Wrestling
After flooding devastated the Dan Gable International Wrestling Institute & Museum in Waterloo, Iowa, on June 10 of last year, Mike Chapman, executive director of the museum, designed a T-shirt that read, "Wrestling teaches you how to get off your back. Old Man River put us on our back, but we’re on our feet and fighting to survive."
Consider Old Man River down for the count.
After nearly seven months of arduous labor and elbow grease, the museum will observe its grand re-opening this Friday, January 9th, just in time for the prestigious National Wrestling Coaches Association National Duals in nearby Cedar Falls.
"It’s been a long road," said Kent Sesker, marketing director for the museum, who expected hundreds of visitors from the 80 college teams lined up for this weekend’s duals. "June 10th seems like years ago, even those those memories are very fresh."
With pictures in place, display cases rebuilt, and the desk of wrestling great Frank Gotch still intact, Sesker said the museum’s staff is ready to pick up where it left off when backed-up storm waters swept through the one-story facility in the midst of heavy flooding along the Cedar River.
New walls, flooring and carpeting have been installed, and the area has been repainted. Chapman noted that a lot the memorabilia was lost to the once-in-1,000 year flood, but Sesker said the museum will be at 90 to 95 percent of its target when it re-opens.
Plenty of good stuff remains, he noted, and the museum hopes to add even more to its amateur side and the George Tragos/Lou Thesz professional wing. Sesker said several people already have stepped up to donate new items to the museum.
"We were fortunate that some of the things were high enough on the walls that they were not damaged," he said. "Unfortunately, the display cases were the most vulnerable and some were not salvageable, so you’ll see some subtle changes throughout the museum. But for the most part, it will be pretty similar for people who are familiar with us."
Everyone from heavy-hitting politicians to just plain wrestling fans pitched in the repairs, which were in large part underwritten by a grant from Federal Emergency Management Administration. Sesker said the price tag will run well into the six figures.
"The outpouring of support, monetary donations and a lot of different foundation and grants we’ve been able to take advantage of has just been tremendous," he said. "FEMA came up big with us and came up with a nice grant that helped with the restoration costs. That was very important in being able to make it back because of the sheer magnitude of what it takes to put a building of this size back together."
According to Sesker, Magee Construction Co. of Waterloo has been instrumental in the nuts and bolts of reconstruction. The contractor has been at work since early October dealing with the aftermath of a flooded, 5,000-square-foot basement and three feet of water that covered the main floor of the building.
Sesker noted the museum also got look-sees last fall from U.S. Sens. Tom Harkin and Charles Grassley, and Rep. Bruce Braley, whom he characterized as "very supportive."
Hundreds of other supporters provided donations large and small to the museum, Sesker said. "We’ve been fortunate to have a lot of great support not only within Waterloo and Cedar Falls, but within the wrestling community, nationally and even internationally. People from the wrestling world especially appreciate how important this entity is."
"This is a great event that we are bringing to the Cedar Valley, to celebrate the grand re-opening and to show our appreciation to the many groups and volunteers that helped us fight back from this natural disaster," said Chapman, who had planned last year to leave the museum he founded, but stayed on to help with the renovations.
Future events include the 2009 Glen Brand Wrestling Hall of Fame of Iowa induction ceremony on April 18 and inductions into the museum’s pro section, scheduled for July 10-11.
While neither the museum nor downtown Waterloo can ever precisely return to their pre-flood states, Sesker said the traumatic experiences associated with the flooding did have an upside -- strengthening bonds in the community and among Iowans.
"Iowans as a whole and people throughout the Midwest, get up and get done whatever needs to get done. Everybody needed help in one way or another, and we certainly fell in that category. I think the people of Iowa really showed their true colors in stepping up for each other."
Steven Johnson is a reporter and editor in Virginia and with Greg Oliver, co-author of The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Tag Teams, The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels and Benoit: Wrestling with the Horror That Destroyed a Family and Crippled a Sport (with Heath McCoy and Irv Muchnick).