Wrestling legend Verne Gagne, 82, reportedly fought with a 97-year-old man who later died. Both men had dementia.
If you grew up in Minnesota in the 1950s and ’60s, you remember Verne Gagne as the king of old-school professional wrestlers — burly guys in little shorts and big boots who tossed each other around in the ring and into the turnbuckles.
For decades beginning in the 1940s, Gagne’s feats in football and pro wrestling made him seem larger than life.
But now, at 82, with his mind ravaged by Alzheimer’s disease, he is the focus of inquiry into an altercation with a fellow resident of a Bloomington health care facility that led to the other man’s death.
Gagne and Helmut Gutmann, 97, clashed Jan. 26 in the memory-loss section of Friendship Village, Gutmann’s daughter, Ruth Hennig of Boston, said Thursday.
Gutmann, a scientist and musician who fled to the United States from Nazi Germany in 1936, suffered a broken right hip in the altercation and died about 2 1/2 weeks later.
"No one knows" what led to the clash, Hennig said. "I don’t think anyone was present when it began … or even if anything precipitated it."
She said that because of her father’s dementia, he had "no memory at all" of his fight with Gagne and "didn’t understand why his hip hurt."
Hennepin County medical examiner’s office investigator Mike Opitz said a cause of death hasn’t been officially certified.
Bloomington police are trying to determine whether to recommend charges to the Hennepin County attorney’s office, Deputy Chief Perry Heles said.
Hennig said her family has yet to discuss whether they want Gagne prosecuted. "We’re still dealing with the death on an emotional level," she said. "My mother [Betty Gutmann, who lives in the Twin Cities] is pretty upset."
Hennig said the two men had clashed previously, but she didn’t "really know any details."
She said that after her father was injured, he had come through surgery "just fine" and was receiving physical therapy. But early last week "he just stopped taking any sustenance at all. … He stopped eating and drinking," she said. He died Saturday.
Phone messages to Gagne family members were not returned. And state health officials who regulate facilities such as Friendship Village declined to comment. Kay Miller, vice president of marketing for Life Care Retirement Communities, which operates Friendship Manor, also declined to comment.
‘Not the real Verne’
Gagne, who was born in Corcoran, wrestled for the former Robbinsdale High School and the University of Minnesota, where he was an NCAA champion. In 1949, he began wrestling professionally and established the Twin Cities as the nation’s hub for the sport. He wrestled in and oversaw the American Wrestling Association, which drew dozens of the best performers for more than two decades.
Gagne played football for the Gophers in 1943, enlisted in the Marines and then returned to the U, where he was an All-America wrestler and close to the postwar football team, including Billy Bye, a player from 1946 to 1949.
Fast-forward to the recent past, when Bye would visit Gagne regularly at the Bloomington care facility.
"It has been very tough to see him go through [dementia], because this is not the Verne I’ve known for most of my life,” Bye said. "He’s one of the nicest people in the world. He did so many things for people — whether it was a charity event or a small kindness for an individual having a problem — that whatever happened, this was not the real Verne."
One accomplished life …
For most of the 1960s, Gagne was the organization’s World Heavyweight Champion.
Gagne trained many other champions, including Ric Flair, Ken Patera and his own son, Greg Gagne. Jesse Ventura, Hulk Hogan, Joe Laurinaitis (Animal) and Shawn Michaels were among the pro wrestlers who worked in Gagne’s organization and later moved to the World Wrestling Federation, which under Vince McMahon began luring stars in the 1980s.
A Star Tribune story from February 2007 details how Gagne showed up at the surprise birthday party for Shane Sinclair, a 31-year-old Sam’s Club employee with Down syndrome who considered Gagne his hero. After cutting the cake, Gagne and Sinclair went ice fishing.
To Bye, that’s the essence of his friend. "Verne was a great man," he said. "It didn’t make a difference to Verne whether you were Hubert Humphrey or a plumber … he’d shake your hand and make you feel good to be around him.
"I know it sounds like I’m talking about someone who’s gone, and I know I shouldn’t do that, but because of this insidious disease, he’s not our Verne," Bye said. "Our Verne was always larger than life, and by that I mean with his personality.”
… and another
Helmut and Betty Gutmann, who raised their family in Bloomington, moved to Friendship Village about 10 years ago, with Helmut transferring to the memory-loss section two years ago. Hennig said she believes Gagne had been in that section for many months.
Once in the United States, Gutmann served as a captain in the Chemical Warfare Service of the Army, and then spent 40 years as a cancer research scientist at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Minneapolis.
He also cherished classical music and played the violin, including 12 years with the Bloomington Symphony Orchestra. "As he was in his last days, we made sure we had Bach and Mozart CDs playing in the background, hoping that would give him some peace," his daughter said.
Star Tribune staff writers Graydon Royce and Abby Simons contributed to this report. firstname.lastname@example.org • 612-673-4482
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