An article by Mike Mooneyham
Published October 12, 2000
EDITOR’S NOTE: Bill Solowekyo passed away on Oct. 3, 2000, at his home in Charlotte. This tribute to Bill was written several weeks before his death.
Few individuals were ever more suited for a gimmick.
The image of a bear of a man aptly named Klondike Bill – dark, shaggy hair and thick beard, familiar blue jeans supported by a white rope – will forever be etched in the memory of veteran wrestling fans.
Not many knew him by his real name – William Soloweyko. He was, instead, “Klondike,” or simply “Bill,” to his many fans and friends.
Nor did many know that, despite his longtime billing from Kodiak Island, Alaska, he had never even set foot in that state, although he was born and raised in equally frigid Calgary, Canada, where he boasted the distinction of being trained in Stu Hart’s legendary “dungeon.” It was Hart, patriarch of one of wrestling’s most famous families, who gave Bill the colorful moniker that stuck ever since.
[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]The ring has been home to Bill for the past 40 years. He wrestled in it for the first 20 and spent the next 20 setting it up, taking it down and hauling it from city to city. During an in-ring career that spanned from 1959-78, he was the “Kodiak Bear,” a 350-pound behemoth who entertained fans with superhuman feats of strength, squashing the bad guys with his bear hug and big splash. His dedication and reliability earned him a permanent spot with the Crockett family and later WCW following the buyout of Crockett Promotions in 1988.
Bill may no longer be a giant of a man physically, but his heart has not diminished in size. And he’s needing every bit of that heart to battle a crippling disease that has taken away his ability to speak, eat and walk.
Stricken with Bulbar palsy, a rare neuromuscular disorder similar to Lou Gehrig’s disease, Bill is no longer able to function on his own.
His daughter, Thayne Brigman of Charlotte, says his condition worsens by the day and the prognosis is not good. She says her 68-year-old father hasn’t been able to talk in several months and hasn’t been able to eat or drink anything through his mouth since July 18. A feeding tube was inserted in his stomach in April. He is unable to cough, sneeze or swallow.
Bill, who remains at home, now uses a breathing machine next to the hospital bed in his room. His trips are limited to the bathroom or living room, with a belt placed around his chest to support him while his wife of 31 years, Adrienne, walks behind him to help guide his walker.
Brigman often reads letters and e-mail messages to Bill from old friends and fans. It helps brighten his day, she says, but she usually reads them alone the night before just to work through the emotion.
She remembers her father as having a passion for life, and a special love for friends and family.
“He liked people. He didn’t care if you didn’t have a dime in your pocket, or you had a million dollars, you were the same man. He would give you the shirt off his back – no questions asked.”
It’s difficult, she says, watching the process that has incapacitated him.
“It’s very sad. He’s skin and bones. He doesn’t like to live like this. But I know, if he were still able, he’d be running that wrestling ring forever. He’s hating not being able to do that. Wrestling is in his blood. It was the only life he knew.”
Symptoms began to surface last December when his speech became slurred. Bill’s wife initially thought the problem may have been a new set of false teeth, so he had them adjusted, but that didn’t fix the problem. “In the meantime he had been doing all these runs from here to California,” said Brigman. “He had been getting weak, and that ring work is pretty heavy stuff. He didn’t know why, and he was unsure about driving the truck.”
Upon his return Bill went to a doctor who suggested that he may have suffered a series of mini strokes. Bill returned to the road in early March in what was to be his last trip.
“When he came back, we knew there was no way he could go out and work again,” said Brigman. “His speech became slurred and it got to the point where he couldn’t even talk. This disease is so fast and rapid. He has not talked since the end of March.”
Bill was then diagnosed with the disease.
“It’s taken his muscles,” Brigman said, “and there’s nothing we can do but watch.”
Klondike Bill was one of the most recognizable names in the wrestling business during his 40-year career. Few were more reliable or dependable, which might help explain why Bill was never out of a job – from his active years wrestling to his longtime tenure with Crockett Promotions as groundskeeper at their ball park and head of the ring crew, and finally in that same position with WCW.
“He’s one of a kind,” said Sandy Scott, a longtime friend who teamed with Klondike on occasion during the ’60s. “He was a very serious competitor, yet there was a lot of fun about him. He was just nice to be around. He was a genuinely good, good guy with always a good story to tell.”
Not to mention, Scott adds, “as strong as a bull,” a sentiment shared by all who knew him.
So powerful, in fact, that Bill, a lumberjack and crane operator before turning pro at the age of 28, was featured in a number of strongman gimmicks, including pulling fire trucks, having wrestlers jump onto his stomach from the top rope and even having some use sledgehammers to break cement blocks that were placed across his chest.
Tim Woods, the former Mr. Wrestling No. 1, agreed that Bill, who became the South’s version of wrestling lumberjack Yukon Eric, was one of the strongest performers he ever encountered.
“The first time I met Klondike was in Detroit when I was just turning pro,” said Woods. “He was driving a big 1960 Cadillac special. I’ll never forget it because somebody was kidding around, and he took the back of a Volkswagen and sat it over on the curb. A Volkswagen is a rear engine car and is very heavy. He was a very powerful man.”
“We used to run a mile each night before we went into the ring and we ran a mile after we got out of the ring,” said Scott. “Bill got down to about 320, and I had him drop-kicking off the top rope. We were in Norfolk, Va., and I told him that after I made the tag to him, for Bill to come off the top rope with a dropkick. He hit that guy, and the crowd went nuts.”
“(The strongman gimmick) was the real deal,” said longtime WCW employee Jody Hamilton, a major star in the ’60s and ’70s as one of the masked Assassins. “Bill was that strong. He didn’t know how strong he really was. He was a very tenacious competitor and built like a fireplug but he was also a very agile guy. Later on when he started handling the ring crews, we’d go in these buildings that had union labor, and they’d be putting up these security rails. They would have two guys moving one of those rails, and here’s Klondike passing them with one in each arm.”
Woods, like Hamilton a former masked star, later crossed paths with Bill in the Amarillo, Texas, area, where a non-wrestling related incident in 1965 earned Bill a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. A well-known steakhouse called The Big Texan had a standing offer that if anyone could eat a 72-ounce steak within a hour, they could get the meal free. Not only did Bill eat the six-pound steak, with all the fixings, he ate a second one as well.
“I still have a newspaper article on it,” said Woods. “Nobody had ever done it. It was unbelievable. That man could eat. He had a tremendous girth, but it wasn’t fat. He was hard as a rock.”
Bill’s notoriety as a wrestler might just have been overshadowed by his longtime relationship with the Crockett family of Charlotte. Bill took over the job as head groundskeeper at Crockett Park, home of the then-Charlotte Orioles minor league baseball team, after retiring from the ring. He was the groundskeeper for several years until Scott, then booker and looking for a top-notch man to run the ring crew, asked Frances Crockett, who operated the park, for permission to use Bill on a part-time basis.
She agreed, and Bill took over the ring duties for Crockett Promotions – everything from setting up and taking down the ring to handling the lighting to constructing the cages for special matches, along with helping take the show from city to city via the ring truck. The position turned into a full-time one when the Crocketts sold the park.
“Everybody liked Bill,” said David Crockett, now a WCW TV executive. “He was one of Cal Ripken’s favorites. When we had the ball team’s reunion, the main guy Cal wanted to see was Klondike.”
“You have to think of Klondike and laugh,” added Crockett. “He was such a jolly guy. And loyal. When Bill said he was going to do something, you knew he was going to do it and never worried about it. That’s hard to find these days.”
Crockett said Bill was very special to his entire family.
“My son grew up out at ballpark riding the tractor with Bill. My nephew, Chip, rode with him constantly. Bill was like another father to him. They spent many hours on the road. Bill had decided that once he left, he was going to have Chip take over the truck. Chip’s doing it now, but he’d much rather have Bill there.”
“He was one of the most loyal and dependable guys you’d ever want to meet,” added Hamilton. “He could do anything. Technically he was very sound. If push came to shove, he could build a ring, and he could always repair them. He knew the nature of the rings he carried. Those rings have personalities like people. Every one is different.”
He kept an extremely clean ring truck, said Brigham. “He was proud of every one he ever had.”
“A guy who loved every minute of life and lived life to the fullest,” said 15-time world champion Ric Flair, who first met Bill in 1974 when he moved to Charlotte. “Not the greatest wrestler of all time, but one of the greatest people to ever be in our sport.”
“Bill was one heck of a guy,” said former partner Abe Jacobs. “He was definitely different from the average person. He was a very tough guy. You had to be tough to do what he was doing.”
Jacobs and Bill sold out the Norfolk Arena and the Richmond Fairgrounds during the mid-’60s for matches with The Missouri Mauler (Larry “Rocky” Hamilton) and The Great Malenko (Larry Simon).
“He was a lot of fun and always great company,” said Jacobs. “The guy could drive for miles and miles and miles and could stay awake after a pretty grueling match. Bill was a real tough guy in more ways than one. I’m sure he’s fighting this disease like he used to fight in the ring.”
Those who knew him well said Bill was no stranger to practical jokes.
“Bill could be ribbed quite easily,” said Jacobs, who recounted one of those incidents.
“Bill had evidently pushed the door down at his apartment in Charlotte. There was a call to Jim Crockett (Sr.) about it. When guys would get into trouble, Jim would bring them in. So he brought Bill in and told him to sit down. He told Bill that he didn’t want to hear anything like this happening again, otherwise he’d be down the road. So Bill quickly replied, `Yes sir, Mr. Jim, yes sir, Mr. Jim.’
“In the meantime, George Scott and Don Chuy had a key to Bill’s apartment. Bill was wrestling in another town that night, and George and Chuy were in another town as well. When they got back into town, they went over to Bill’s place. They knew Bill had been real scared about this and didn’t want to get into any more trouble. They went into Bill’s apartment and moved every bit of furniture around. They hid out in the parking lot and waited until Bill got back. He went to his door, put in the key, took a step inside and everything was changed around. He backed up in a hurry, closed the door, started walking around, and thought he was in somebody else’s apartment. Now he’s thinking he’s going to get kicked out for sure this time because he’s got a problem again. George and Chuy just watched and laughed as Bill kept walking around in front of the apartment, looking at the number and looking around as he walked up and down trying to get his bearings for the longest time. They finally came out and told him.”
David Crockett recalled that Bill was terrified of snakes.
“You’d throw a rope at him and yell snake, and he’d just go crazy.”
Klondike was a major draw in territories throughout the country, as well as overseas, and helped draw some of the biggest crowds ever at Charleston’s old County Hall during the ’60s. A 1967 match in which Bill seconded George Becker and Johnny Weaver against The Masked Red Demons (Billy and Jimmy Hines) and manager George “Two Ton” Harris drew the second-biggest crowd ever locally at that time, second only to a match a decade earlier between the original Gorgeous George and Angelo Martinelli.
Henry Marcus, who promoted shows in the area for half a century, recalled the time when Klondike and fellow Canadian George Scott stayed at a house Marcus had in Myrtle Beach.
“I got a call from a rather frantic neighbor,” Marcus said. “She asked me if I knew that there two men swimming on the beach. It was the middle of January, the water was freezing and she couldn’t believe it. I told her to believe it – that one of those men was from Canada and the other was from Alaska!”
Former wrestler Gino Brito recounted an incident in Vancouver, British Columbia, when Klondike was there with Tony Parisi, who passed away recently at the age of 58.
“Tony Parisi in those days had all these LPs … all the top opera singers,” said Brito. “And Klondike Bill, he’s a country guy, right? From North Carolina. So they’re there, on the 12th floor of the hotel, and Parisi’s got the record on and Klondike Bill came in and kind of looked at the box of records. He’s looking through them and Parisi says, `You like that stuff?’ Bill doesn’t say a word. He grabs the whole box of records and threw it right off the balcony. Parisi says, `What the —- are you doing? Those are my prize possessions!’ (Klondike) said, `I can get Burl Ives for $1.98.'”
“He was just a good-natured guy who helped an awful lot of people,” said Hamilton. “I know he was a good family man and very close to his grandson. He is really and truly a good human being.”
“He was a super guy,” added Woods. “He was a kind man who was well-liked and well-respected. He was in tight with the Crocketts and became part of that office. Klondike was extremely reliable and dependable. He was responsible for getting the ring to the different matches. Now that may not sound like much, but it’s a lot of work. Bill always did whatever it took. He made some unbelievable trips by himself. But he loved it and he always wanted to be around it. He never did stop. There was never a lapse.”
Woods also remembers Bill as very easygoing.
“His favorite expression was: `Let’s play it by ear.’ I heard it a thousand times.”
Bill had lost about a third of his weight when he dropped down to 220 in recent years.
“He looked different, but he really looked good,” said Woods.
Brigman, who actually is Bill’s stepdaughter, recalled how Bill and her mother met in 1967 in California, a territory where Bill made a major impact and formed literally one of the biggest teams in wrestling with 601-pound Haystacks Calhoun.
“My mother and her best friend – they were two single women – had ringside tickets and would go every Wednesday night to the wrestling matches at the San Jose (Calif.) Auditorium. They got to know the wrestlers, and that’s how my mom met Bill. Bill asked my mother out, and they started dating.”
Bill wrestled overseas for the next two years, including his second tour of Japan in 1968 and stints in China, Australia and New Zealand in 1969. Later that year Bill, who had never been married before, returned to California to tie the knot with Adrienne.
“I was around 9 or 10 when they got married,” said Brigman. “I was real jealous at the time. She was not supposed to marry anybody else. She was mine,” she laughs.
Brigman, though, said Bill became a real father to her, and she fondly remembers the days he would take her on out a family boat called the Dancing Bear.
“When my mother was working, he would pick me up and take me to the lake. He taught me how to water-ski, and we always had a real good time. He brought me up. I think the world of him and I think of him as my father. I have a son who Bill absolutely adores.”
Constant travel would take the family to many different wrestling territories during the late ’60s and early ’70s – from San Jose to Tulsa, from Dallas to Jonesboro Ga., from Charlotte to Bossier City. La., and back to Charlotte, where they have lived since 1974.
Brigman recalled that Bill once almost landed a role in a major film while in California.
“A producer wanted him to play the role of one of the hills guys in `Deliverance.’ He auditioned but didn’t get the part because they said his eyes looked too kind. We did get to pick up (actor) Ned Beatty on the way to the producer’s house.”
Bill was originally hired at Crockett Promotions by David Crockett’s father, the late Jim Crockett Sr., who was a former president of the National Wrestling Alliance and one of the most respected promoters in the business.
“I can see Dad having a lot of fun with Bill,” said David. “Bill was so good-natured.”
Most of his longtime colleagues agree that Bill would have stayed in the business for as long as he could.
“He would have never retired,” said Hamilton. “His philosophy was like mine: I’d rather wear out than rust out.”
“We would have been hauling Bill along with the ring,” jokes Crockett.