Remembering Johnny Winterholler

Our readers will notice the reference to Johnny Winterholler in this week’s “From Our Files” column.

David Peck
David Peck

The news item from 1964 notes that the former Lovell resident – a 1940 University of Wyoming graduate and athletic great — had been named to Sports Illustrated Magazine’s Silver Anniversary All-American football team.

Although Winterholler is known as one of the greatest athletes in the history of both Lovell High School and UW, the SI award was given not just for football superiority but also for “the pursuit of rounded human values in which athletics and education are joined.”

I bring this up because I want our young people, and those who have moved to town in recent years, to know the great man our gym at LHS is named for.

Johnny moved to Lovell in 1932 with his parents, Carl and Marie, who were Russian immigrants, and excelled in sports at LHS as an all-state football and basketball player before graduating in 1935. Then it was on to the University of Wyoming, where he was a rare four-sport letterman in football, basketball, baseball and track.

He especially excelled on the gridiron, basketball court and the diamond at UW. In basketball he led the Pokes in scoring and was an all-conference selection for two years. In football, he led the Cowboys in rushing in 1939 and was an honorable mention All-American pick. And in baseball he was all-conference for three years and led the Pokes in home runs and batting average in 1939. Baseball may have been his best sport.

Former Wyoming broadcaster Larry Birleffi, who went to school with Winterholler in the 1930s and covered Wyoming sports for decades after that, wrote in 1985 that Johnny was the greatest athlete he had ever seen at the University of Wyoming. He could literally do it all.

But as great as Johnny’s athletic success was, his greatest triumph was his indomitable spirit that allowed him to survive World War II, the horrifying Bataan Death March and nearly three years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.

Although he had earlier been offered tryouts by the St. Louis Cardinals and the Boston Red Sox and had a chance to coach in Evanston, Johnny joined the Marines in 1940. He was serving in the Philippines in 1942 when Corregidor fell to the Japanese. He was captured and interred at Cavite, marched to Manila, taken to Upper Luzon, shipped to Mindinao Island and forced to march 30 miles to Davao. In all, he spent 34 months as a prisoner of war in horrible conditions.

Many POWs died from abuse and malnutrition, and severe malnutrition eventually broke down the great athlete’s body. A hematoma pressed against his spinal cord and caused paralysis from the waist down. One of the greatest athletes in Wyoming history never walked again. He was eventually freed in February of 1945.

Johnny married his hometown sweetheart, Dessa Tippetts, and they settled in Lafayette, Calif., where Johnny helped organize wheelchair basketball, raised a family and managed a doctor’s office.

The University of Wyoming hosted Johnny Winterholler Day in 1964, and Lovell honored him in June of 1985 when Bob Negro organized a grand tribute to veterans — from members of the famous Flying Tigers squadron, of which Lovell’s own Henry Gilbert Jr. was a member, to Smith Shumway, who was blinded during World War II.

The highlight of that very special Mustang Days celebration was naming the Lovell High School Gym in honor of Johnny Winterholler, who made the trip with Dessa from California for the festivities. Johnny was the parade marshal and spoke at the dedication ceremony, along with Congressman Dick Cheney and Birleffi, among others.

In 1993 Johnny was inducted into the University of Wyoming Athletics Hall of Fame as part of the Hall’s inaugural class, and his plaque can be seen in the concourse of UW’s Arena-Auditorium to this day. He died in 2001.

Johnny Winterholler was a true American hero who inspired others to be the best they could be, whether as their college or high school teammate, comrade in arms or living symbol of what it means to never, ever quit.

Johnny had tremendous spirit, a great will to persevere and an incurable positive attitude. Asked by Birleffi if he regretted what happened to him in the war, Johnny replied, “I never think of what might have been. I was just happy to return home alive and in one piece.” He spoke of the many blessings he had experienced, despite the paralysis.

Calling anyone “the greatest athlete” is always subject to debate, but Johnny Winterholler inspired others on and off the playing field, displaying great courage during his life. And that rare combination is why our gym is named for this great man.

I just thought we could all use a little reminder from time to time as we enter the Lovell High School Johnny Winterholler Gymnasium for games.