One of nine children, John Franckowiak already knew what teamwork was all about by the time he became a star athlete at Lovell High School.
John Franckowiak was the sixth of nine children born to Felix Stephen and Lucille S. Bogus Franckowiak. The Franckowiaks were many, and life wasn’t easy. But athletics provided an escape for young John.
“Dad worked for the railroad for a long time,” Franckowiak said, noting that his dad was gone a lot. “He and Mom had a pretty tough life. Neither one of them graduated from high school. Both of them were from Nebraska, and our grandfather was from Poland. Mom raised us.”
Wrestling was Franckowiak’s favorite sport at LHS, but he also excelled in football, playing on the offensive line and at inside linebacker.
The Bulldogs went 3-5 in 1963 when Franckowiak was a sophomore, but the Bulldogs had a much deeper team in 1964 with a 27-man traveling squad and nearly 50 on the team overall.
“We’ve had a real good turnout this year,” coach Dean Gerke told the Lovell Chronicle in a pre-season article. “We have both size and speed. We’ll be able to field a darn good first unit and still have good bench strength in most positions. Barring a rash of injuries, we should have a winning season.”
Indeed, the Bulldogs played to a 5-4 record.
Franckowiak anchored a line that included the likes of Don Black, Roy Despain, Ken Stacy, Jon Fink, Cecil Hamilton, Bill Dickson, Bob Winland, Les Thompson, Rick Anderson, John Dalton and Paul Garritson. Ends were Dennis Larson, Ted Mickelson, Ralph Winland, Reed Robertson and Mike Unger.
The Bulldogs defeated St. Stephen’s 19-0, fell to Cody 27-6, fell to Buffalo 9-0 and fell to Lander 24-6. But they rebounded to stop Riverton 26-13, Thermopolis 25-13 and Powell 30-27 to forge a three-game winning streak. Lovell lost to Worland 31-20 but wrapped up the season with a 47-19 rout of Greybull in Lovell.
Having lost a host of seniors to graduation, the Lovell gridders went 2-6 in 1965, having only two returning senior lettermen in Franckowiak and John Black. The Bulldogs did beat Greybull 12-6 and St. Stephen’s 32-12 for Homecoming. Franckowiak was a co-captain.
“My senior year we had four kids, maybe five, who played sports,” Franckowiak said. “We had a lot less boys in our class. Probably two-thirds of them were girls.”
The Bulldogs had some outstanding wrestlers during the 1960s under coach Cliff Revelle, many of whom, including Franckowiak, wrestled in college. Franckowiak remembers Coach Revelle fondly.
“Cliff was one of my best friends. He was a really, really good friend and a real good coach for our division,” Franckowiak said. “In his later years I always visited Cliff when I came home. I just really respected Cliff as a coach and a friend, and as a teacher.”
Franckowiak wrestled on the B team as a freshman, then broke his leg ice skating at the beginning of his sophomore season, causing him to miss the entire season.
He came into his own as a junior in 1964-65 and showed his versatility by wrestling at 165 pounds, 180 pounds and heavyweight. He went 15-2 that year and won the Class A heavyweight championship.
“I got moved up (to heavyweight) to fill the team out and let someone have a spot,” he said.
The Bulldogs opened the season with a 34-18 dual victory over Greybull with Franckowiak pinning Slaughter of Greybull in the first period at 180 pounds. Lovell dropped close matches at home to Powell, 24-22, and Billings West, 28-26, but Franckowiak did his part, picking up two pins at 165 pounds.
The next weekend the Bulldogs placed fourth at the Billings Invitational, and Roy Despain pinned his way to the 180-pound title and was named the outstanding wrestler. Franckowiak was also undefeated, winning three matches to win the 165-pound title. After Lovell fell to Cody 30-16, with Franckowiak falling to Mike Stump 2-0, the Bulldogs beat Powell 23-19 and Thermopolis 34-16 with Franckowiak winning a pair. Lovell then fell to Cody 24-20 and Worland 29-15, but Franckowiak was 2-0.
The Bulldogs crushed Thermopolis 42-8 at home, with Franckowiak winning on a pin at 165, and the Lovell Chronicle listed Franckowiak as the high scorer for the season at that point with 47 points. The following weekend Lovell fell to Laurel, Mont., 30-14 but beat Lander 28-14. Franckowiak fell to his Laurel opponent but pinned Johnson of Lander, both at heavyweight.
As the state tournament approached, Lovell beat Riverton 36-16 with Franckowiak pinning Newby at heavyweight, then beat Greybull 34-14.
State tournament was in Newcastle, and the Bulldogs placed fourth in Class A with Franckowiak winning the heavyweight title and Despain taking first at 180 pounds. Newcastle won the title with 91 points, followed by Lusk with 78 points, Evanston 76 and Lovell 57. Nine teams trailed Lovell including Gillette, Star Valley, Douglas and Buffalo.
Here’s how the Lovell Chronicle described Franckowiak’s tournament: “John Franckowiak, Lovell’s ‘light-weight’ heavyweight grappler, sailed through all competition for the championship crown, despite the fact that each time he was outweighed anywhere from 30 to 50 pounds. John pinned Guyton of Buffalo in the first round and in the quarterfinal round pinned Lawson of Kemmerer. In the semifinal match John gained a 9-4 decision over Shillenn of Lusk and then in the championship bout decisioned Cook of Star Valley 5-2. John scored 16 team points in four matches.”
As a senior in 1965-66 Franckowiak was even more dominant. The Bulldogs returned eight lettermen from the previous year’s team led by Franckowiak, the returning heavyweight champ who would wrestle at 180 pounds in his senior year, the Lovell Chronicle noted. Coach Revelle expected the young squad to “develop slowly” and “gain momentum with experience.”
The Bulldogs fell to Greybull 31-23 in the season-opener, but Franckowiak pinned Dan Dalin at heavyweight. Lovell fell to Powell and Billings West the following week, and Franckowiak lost his only match of the season 6-2 to Korber of Billings West but pinned his Powell opponent, Dedman.
“That was one of my toughest matches,” he said of the loss to Korber. “That kid was really good. That was probably my most memorable match.”
Lovell then placed sixth at the Billings Invitational, and Franckowiak claimed the 180-pound title with three wins. The Bulldogs fell to Cody twice during the first weekend of 1966, one match in each town, then fell to Worland 47-5 with Franckowiak getting the only pin for Lovell.
The Lovell grapplers finally got a dual match win, beating Thermopolis 28-15 as Franckowiak picked up another pin. Lovell tied Laurel 22-22 with Franckowiak pinning his man in the first period. Lovell then tied Lander 20-20 and fell to Riverton 26-20 in Fremont County, then closed out the regular season by topping Greybull 28-19 and Thermop 23-19. Franckowiak picked up a 16-0 win and a forfeit.
The Bulldogs finished seventh out of 14 teams at State, and Franckowiak won the 180-pound title, pinning all four of his opponents: Boltjes of Kemmerer in 1:25, Phillips of Thermop in 1:27, Dean of Star Valley in 1:54 and Thompson of Newcastle in 4:49 to finish the season 16-1, recording 67 points on the season.
Why the success?
Asked about the key to his success, Franckowiak said he was blessed with natural ability.
“It was something I was good at,” he said. “I worked at it, and I made weight every week, but I think it was just natural ability.
“I think my strength was my ability to control (opponents). Most of my matches didn’t last very long, and most of my wins were by a pin – 90 percent of them.”
Franckowiak said wrestling was different in the 1960s, noting, “Today’s wrestling is more like freestyle wrestling. Back then it was more traditional. Now it’s all takedowns and you ride really high. I don’t know how those kids succeed, but they do.”
He said he enjoyed his high school wrestling career, adding, “I was never one to compliment myself or worry about my record. That’s just not who I was. I was never one to keep track of that stuff.
“My home life wasn’t the greatest, so I used it (wrestling) to get away. It made me feel proud of who I was. I worked at that ability I had to get me out of the house. It was just something to get me away from the everyday parts of life.”
Franckowiak was voted the LHS student body president as a senior, earned the Danforth Foundation Award and the L Club Scholarship and made the Interscholastic Honor Roll for Wrestlers in 1966.
Jeff Pearson of Lovell said that, beyond Franckowiak’s athletic success, he was just a good person, noting, “I thought John Franckowiak was the nicest guy in high school.”
As his high school career ended, Coach Revelle talked to Franckowiak about wrestling in college, and he was awarded a scholarship to wrestle at Trinidad State College in Colorado, where he placed sixth at 177 pounds in the NJCAA National Tournament in Worthington, Minn., in 1967.
“Trinidad was a good experience,” he said. “There were really good wrestlers at that level from places like Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and Colorado. You learn to lose.”
He was planning to wrestle again his sophomore year, but he got drafted into the U.S. Army in early 1968 and was trained at Fort Benning as a communications specialist. He said he was stationed for 2½ years with an Air Force communications team at McDill Air Force Base in Tampa, headquarters of the Strategic Air Command. During that time he got to travel the world and visit places an American can’t go today like Tehran, Iran. His team set up communications systems in advance of ground forces.
He attained the rank of staff sergeant and was honorably discharged in March of 1971.
Franckowiak moved home to Lovell and worked for the Lovell Clay Products brick and tile plant in Lovell and helped to manage the Uptown Motel with his then wife Peggy (Withem). He also helped to organize the Jaycees community service organization in Lovell.
In February of 1973 he moved to Lakewood, Colo., and began a career with the Coors Brewing Co. in nearby Golden. He started as a general brewery worker but moved into the fermenting department and became a yeast specialist. He rose to become a senior specialist, supervising a team.
He retired in 2010 after 38 years with Coors and eventually moved to Littleton. He has one son, Zac, and two grandchildren, Neva, 11, and Evan, 8. He said he has returned to Lovell several times over the years, mostly for class reunions and funerals but added, “I like Wyoming. If I didn’t have any kids here I’d probably move back there. I enjoyed my high school time in Lovell.”
By David Peck