The Post-Journal

Thurnau To Be Honored At SWCS

Former Wrestling Coach To Be Added To Wall Of Fame


When P.J. Wendel was a senior at SUNY Brockport in 1992, the Golden Eagles won the NCAA Division III wrestling championships at the College of New Jersey.

Furthermore, the 1988 Southwestern Central School graduate earned personal acclaim when he finished fifth in the 275-pound weight class, which was worthy of All-American status. As part of that recognition, Wendel received a certificate from the NCAA.

As important as that award was to him and his family, Wendel didn't grab a hammer and a nail upon his return to his Lakewood home and hang the framed memento from the wall.

Former Southwestern wrestling coach Walt Thurnau amassed 297 victories in a career that spanned more than 30 years.
Former Southwestern wrestling coach Walt Thurnau amassed 297 victories in a career that spanned more than 30 years.
P-J file photo by Scott Kindberg.

Wendel, who has been coaching 19 years, including the last five as the head coach at Falconer Central School, knew what he was going to do with it.

It was a no-brainer, really.

So on awards night at SWCS later that spring Wendel presented his All-American certificate to Walt Thurnau, the Trojans' legendary former coach and a man who has served like a second father to countless wrestlers for decades.

"The first person I wanted to give it to was Walt,'' Wendel said. "My foundation in wrestling was because of Walt. Without that foundation, (the All-American honor) wouldn't have happened."

So, consider that framed certificate a figurative snapshot of just one life touched by a man universally loved and respected.

"I'm getting chills (talking about him),'' Wendel said.

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The bleachers in the gymnasium at Southwestern Central School should be full on Wednesday night. The Trojans will take on Randolph in a non-league match at 6:30 p.m., but it's what's planned before the action even begins that has SWCS wrestlers past and present especially excited.

That's when Thurnau becomes the first Southwestern coach to be inducted into the school's Wall of Fame. According to athletic director Kevin Salisbury, the honor has been given in the past to individual athletes who have won state championships, been named first-team All-State or to teams that have won state titles.

Not surprisingly, Thurnau is breaking new ground.

Heck, he has been doing it since he began coaching wrestling at SWCS in 1966, and others outside the Southern Tier have taken notice.

Last September, Thurnau, who coached 17 state qualifiers and two state champions while posting an overall record of 297-97, was inducted into the Upstate New York Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame at the Double Tree Hotel in East Syracuse. The honor came just one year after being inducted into the Western New York Wrestling Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

''He's a big part of Southwestern athletics,'' Wendel said.

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Tom Langworthy, SWCS Class of 1999, is now the head football coach at Jamestown High School, but it's clear that the lessons he learned while wrestling for Thurnau have left a lifelong impression.

"Outside of my family, Coach Thurnau has had a larger influence on me than anyone else in my life,'' he said. " He could be tough on you, he could joke with you, he could laugh with you and he could share sorrow with you. The common denominator about Coach Thurnau is that no matter what, we all knew how much he cared for us.''

Sure Thurnau's numbers and honors are impressive - he led the Trojans to two Section 6 Division 1 championships and a Class B-2 title, and was named the Southern Tier Coach of the Year and Post-Journal Coach of the Year once each before retiring in 2002 - but it was the life lessons that Langworthy most values.

"What I take away most from Mr. Thurnau are the ways he modeled how to be a good man,'' he said. "He was consistent, loyal, authentic, humble, honest, focused, intense and fun to be around.

"He did things the right way - in the classroom, in athletics and in his personal life."

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Mark Sleggs has taught math and coached basketball, soccer and golf during his more than 25 years at Southwestern. He, too, has membership in the Walt Thurnau Fan Club.

"Walt and I coached during the winter season and really got along well and supported each other,'' he said. "He showed me that your example as a coach was not the main thing, it was the only thing that mattered.''

Sleggs also saw Thurnau regularly outside of school because they became neighbors and friends.

"He always showed me that life truly was a team sport. As great a coach as Walt is, he is an even better husband, father, grandfather and friend. I see that first-hand whenever our paths cross. For all who coach or have coached at Southwestern, Walt teaches us all it's not what you achieve, it's what you become.

"Walt stands tall - because of just that - in our community."

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Wendel is a newly elected member of the Chautauqua County Legislature, representing District 18. Much of his interest in politics dates to when he took American history from Thurnau in high school.

"He truly taught at every level - in the classroom, in athletics, across the board,'' Wendel said. " It's amazing the things we learned from him. He's so proud of the people he's helped mold and shape, and he doesn't take any credit."

The credit comes due on Wednesday night, so let me offer a suggestion:

If you have a connection to Southwestern wrestling, why don't you make plans to be at the ceremony honoring Thurnau.

If you have a connection to wrestling of any kind, why don't you make plans to be there, too.

And if you have no connection to wrestling, but want to honor a man for his character and integrity over generations, why don't you make plans to be there as well.

"There is a special brotherhood of Southwestern wrestlers because we can all share the privilege and honor being coached by Coach Thurnau,'' Langworthy said. "I feel very blessed to have had him as my coach."

The "Wall" awaits.

"If anybody deserves it,'' Wendel said, "it's him."

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