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September 27th, 2012
Bartee Haile: Villain in the ring was a friend to street urchins

This Week in Texas History: A column

As September came to a close in 1932, Amarillo was still abuzz over Duke Mantell’s Labor Day rescue of two stranded hikers from the bottom of Palo Duro Canyon.

But then the colorful wrestler with a soft spot for underprivileged children often was the talk of the Panhandle town.

Born in Luxembourg in 1881, his proud parents christened their newborn Alfred Albert Joe de Re La Gardiur. Before his untimely passing ten years later, little Alfred’s dad filled his head with exciting tales of the wondrous land on the other side of the Atlantic.

The grieving widow packed her son off to a brother in Germany after the butcher promised to teach the boy his trade. Within two years, the unhappy apprentice stowed away on an English merchant ship he believed bound for the United States only to wind up in Australia five months later.

The unaccompanied minor happened to arrive Down Under, when prizefighting was all the rage. Though a few months shy of his fifteenth birthday, Alfred was strong for his age and as quick as a mongoose and soon discovered he could support himself by knocking grown men flat on their backs.

An old wrestler convinced the two-fisted youngster there was even better money to be made in tights. The fast learner proved him right, and in the process attracted the attention of Robert B. Mantell, a Shakespearean actor who became his devoted benefactor.

To show his gratitude, Alfred dropped his original tongue-twister of a name in favor of “Dutch Mantell.” And that was how he identified himself upon landing at New York City in 1900.

After bouncing around the East Coast for a couple of years, Mantell joined the Navy. Returning to civilian life in 1906 a naturalized citizen, he traveled the country wrestling all comers in his lightweight class and above when necessary. He even took on heavyweights, who outweighed him by as much as 50 pounds, without ever losing to one of the big boys in a time-limit match.

It was during this barnstorming period that Mantell first visited Amarillo. His infatuation with the “Queen City of the Panhandle” was a case of love at first sight, and from that day on Amarillo was his hometown.

Mantell realized that it was not enough to be an accomplished wrestler. So he invented the ring persona of the “villain” complete with the dirty tactics that drove crowds wild and provoked the occasional riot. Fans eagerly paid inflated ticket prices to see “The Lon Chaney of the Mat” get his comeuppance, something that rarely happened.

Dory Funk Sr., patriarch of the first family of Texas wrestling, described “Rough House” Mantell, another of his well-deserved nicknames, as “the type of wrestler who would storm into the ring smoking a cigar and as soon as the bell would ring he would shove the cigar into the eye of his opponent.”

Mantell met the minor-league baseball player, with whom he would bond for life, in 1921 under predictably bizarre circumstances. Cal Farley was in the middle of a wrestling match in El Paso, when Dutch climbed uninvited through the ropes to challenge the winner.

Two years later in Amarillo, Mantell got his wish – not once but twice. In his autobiography Two Thousand Sons published in 1987 two decades after his death, Cal Farley recalled the mayhem.

“Both ended in ugly brawls, with a cracked skull for the Dutchman and enough free-flowing blood from the pair of us to establish the sport solidly in the city’s favor. After the second meeting, we agreed it was better to be friends.”

Theirs was a friendship that paid handsome dividends not only for the two men but also for the neglected and abandoned children of Amarillo after Mantell finally took up residence in the town he had long called home.

In the beginning, he was a one-man advertising agency for Farley’s tire business and later a regular guest on his pal’s radio show. As Farley focused more and more on needy kids, in 1934 with the Maverick Club and five years later with the famed Boys Ranch, the Dutchman was first in line to lend a hand.

He also took the enthusiastic lead in organizing youth activities. He gave “difficult” boys a taste of the outdoor life at his camp in Palo Duro Canyon and drafted performers into the “Flying Dutchman Circus” that put on a show somewhere every Friday night.

A Farley, Cal’s wife Mimi, helped Mantell manage his money for the first time in his free-spending life. Taking him firmly in tow, she paid his bills and invested the rest in rental property that provided a steady income for his retirement. Without her intervention, Mantell would have wound up destitute when his wrestling days were over.

Diagnosed with terminal cancer in the fall of 1940, Duke Mantell died the next January at the age of 59. A line in his Associated Press obituary would have made a mighty fine epitaph: “He was a pal of underprivileged kids everywhere and a favorite of fans who watched him maul opponents.”

San Marcos Mercury columnist BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.

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