Aerial view of the Dowagiac campus

Dowagiac's Olympic wrestler recalled

02/19/2014 - 11am
Lynne Lawrence and Student Wearing Big T's Coat

Had Chris Taylor not died shortly after his 29th birthday, the Olympic wrestler Dowagiac named its football field for considered returning to school to become a teacher and coach.

He had just returned from a week conducting his own wrestling camp.

The 6-foot-6, 400-pounder known as “The Gentle Giant” (the title of a book about him) counseled at Fitch Camp before graduating in 1968.

Amid controversy at the terrorism-marred 1972 Germany summer Olympics, Taylor won the freestyle bronze medal, losing to Soviet Union gold medalist Aleksandr Medved.

“Munich was when Israelis were killed. Athletes were beginning to wear ID badges. Chris never did. Everyone knew who he was. He heard the shots in the morning and knew some of the men who were killed,” according to his widow, who attends Southwestern Michigan College.

In 2012, Taylor joined his gold-medalist Iowa State teammates Dan Gable and Ben Peterson in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum in Stillwater, Okla., with his high school coach, John Lewis of Chicago, witnessing his induction.

Almost 35 years after his death, displays at Dowagiac City Hall and Dowagiac Area History Museum chronicle his career.

Lynne Lawrence is at SMC renewing her teaching certificate after retiring four years ago from two decades with Benton Harbor Area Schools.

Lawrence met Taylor at hometown Muskegon Community College while studying to become a gym teacher.

“What he got out of junior college was me,” she said Feb. 18 in the Student Activity Center theatre in the Charles O. Zollar Building, surrounded by magazine articles, including Sports Illustrated and People, and with his medal, his Iowa State varsity jacket and size-17 rings (a quarter fits inside) students could wear.

“One time, when the girls basketball team scrimmaged the wrestlers, I got to guard Chris,” she said. “I turned, keeping my eye on the ball, and smacked into him. I wrestled him a few times for fun, but it knocked the wind out of me so bad it hurt.”

Taylor amassed a 51-0 mark at Muskegon. In class, “He got better grades than I did — and I studied,” she said.

He wrestled for Iowa State’s Cyclones two years, 1972-73.

“He won nationals both years. I asked him one time why he went to Iowa State. Arizona State and West Virginia recruited him. He was a practical joker. He said he liked their letter jacket,” Lawrence said.

Friday night Hilton Coliseum dual meets for Big Eight Conference action with Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Oklahoma or Oklahoma State meant wrestling before 12,000 people.

In 1972, Taylor beat out Heisman Trophy winner and Nebraska running back Johnny Rodgers for the Big Eight trophy.

Fans drove such distances that if an opponent lacked a heavyweight, Taylor would put on an exhibition with his sparring partner.

“He always took time to sign autographs for kids,” she said.

Their 5 1/2-year marriage began Sept. 8, 1973, with a reception at the Taylor farm which commanded a full page in the Dowagiac Daily News. They roasted a hog and 12 turkeys, with enough meat left for 40 sandwiches.

Daughter Jennifer’s birth in October 1975 made front-page news.

“The hospital had no robes big enough for him,” Lawrence said, “so we decided he wouldn’t go into the delivery room. But they took his robe, now in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame Dan Gable Museum in Waterloo, Iowa, sanitized it and had it ready for him.”

A bearded Taylor wrestled professionally, traveling as far as Japan and missing their first anniversary and their daughter’s first birthday.

Jenny, a 1993 DUHS graduate, became a human resources attorney and lives in Chicago. Like her father, the star softball pitcher won the Chieftains’ All-Sports Award.
Chris was born to Jim and Vera Taylor at Lee Memorial Hospital on June 13, 1950.

He grew up on Second Avenue and attended the former McKinley Elementary School.

Taylor’s two sisters became florists, one in Paw Paw and one in Cassopolis.

“The town helped pay for his parents and sisters to go to the Olympics, which was fantastic,” Lawrence said. “They had never been on a plane when they flew to Germany, where they stayed with a farm family whose barn connected to their home.”

Lynne found him when he passed away at 8:30 p.m. on June 30, 1979, from blood clots. Jenny was 3.

“Big T” is buried at Riverside Cemetery in Dowagiac.

“He had a short, full life,” she said, “lived the way he wanted.”

Lynne stayed in Iowa five years, finally deciding her job in a sandpaper factory was too much and finished her bachelor’s degree at Western Michigan University.
Thirty years ago in May Lynne married Tom Lawrence. They have a daughter, Sara.