PULASKI – Jim Richie can recall going from farm to farm to cultivate talent for the Pulaski wrestling team in the 1960s.
Richie, the young coach of the fledgling squad, knew he had his work cut out for him to convince area farmers to let their sons come out for the team since his practices cut right into chore time.
“Those were the pioneer years of building the program,” Richie said.
Harvey Lasecki was one of the farmers that needed a little extra convincing from Richie and his coaching staff to be sold on the sport.
But the Hofa Park resident grew to love wrestling and saw the impact it was having on his family, particularly his oldest son, Gerald, who became more than a pioneer for the squad.
Lasecki, better known as Jerry to his peers, was the heart of the Pulaski wrestling team during those formative years and helped set a strong foundation for future success.
“The Eveready battery, he created it,” former Pulaski assistant coach Don Hartman said of Lasecki. “I think he impacted us more than we impacted him. He has such a remarkable attitude and outlook on things. It’s just incredible. We take credit for nothing. Jerry is a self-made person.”
Lasecki, 67, will be the recipient of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame’s Medal of Courage this year. Richie surprised the 1972 Pulaski graduate with the announcement of the honor last Thursday during Pulaski’s alumni night.
It was an emotional moment for Lasecki, who has used a wheelchair since overcoming polio at the age of 5.
“I never got to wrestle on the mat,” said Lasecki, who was a team manager in high school. “It was just the dedication of making my brothers and my classmates wrestle better.”
Lasecki’s teammates didn’t want to disappoint him.
“He was just always there,” said Bob Brusky, a 1972 Pulaski graduate. “Anybody who was on the mat wrestling, you could see it in Jerry’s eyes, his face, he was on the mat wrestling with you.”
Lasecki’s brother, Greg, added: “He’s been a great inspiration to anyone that knows him. He always took care of everybody’s uniforms or their stats on the mat. He took care of it all. He was just a guy you could rely on. He was very supportive of the team. He knew exactly what was going on, because when I went to practice, he was at practice, too.”
Lasecki had an abundance of adept people to teach him the sport. After all, he experienced a golden era for Pulaski when it featured four future inductees to the Wisconsin Wrestling Coaches Association’s George Martin Hall of Fame on its coaching staff during the 1970-71 season with Richie, Hartman, Emil Kuhn and Joel Kind.
“He was an inspiration to all of us that this young man would have that kind of an upbeat attitude,” Kind said.
Lasecki took an interest in wrestling when his brother, Larry, a 1970 Pulaski graduate, became the first member of his family to take up the sport. Lasecki can recall his father taking the family out for hamburgers as a treat after the team won.
Although Lasecki was the oldest of eight children in his family, he was behind in school for his age because of the years he spent splitting his days with physical therapy and school as a child while attending Howe Elementary School in Green Bay. Doctors felt his maximum life expectancy would be 40 years.
His disability nearly led him to attending a private school during his high school years. However, Lasecki’s father was instrumental in getting him enrolled into public school at Pulaski because he didn’t want him to be treated differently than any of his peers.
In a time before disabled transportation was readily available at schools, it took individuals like Emil Ripley, a middle school teacher, driving Lasecki to school and back to make that goal possible.
“I’m blessed, big time,” said Lasecki, who managed the books at the Pulaski Chase Co-Op for over 30 years before retiring. “My dad wanted me to get into a regular school. When I got polio and got sick like that, it took him hard. But he made me hard and tough because here I am today.”
Lasecki is still inspiring others.
He uses a wheelchair-accessible van to take veterans to appointments at Veteran Affairs Hospitals across the state. He also speaks at the Rawhide Boys Ranch in New London with Richie’s son, Gary, who overcame a traumatic brain injury and received the Medal of Courage two years ago.
Richie, who resides in Rice Lake, continues to draw strength from Lasecki as he battles cancer and undergoes his 150th treatment this week.
“He’s been exemplary his whole life, and he’s been a real motivating force for me as well,” said Richie, who was the head coach at Pulaski for 16 years, leading the team to 12 conference titles and two state runner-up finishes.
“Wrestling got him to belong to something, and he felt like a part of it. Gerald said that gave him so much self-courage and the initial drive. That is exactly what has driven him.”
Lasecki believes wrestling is a sport that rewards those that are willing to put the work in.
He is a testament to that.
“It’s what you want to make of it,” said Lasecki, who will received the Medal of Courage on April 9 at the Rock Garden in Howard.
“I didn’t think I would be getting a state award now for wrestling. It’s pretty dang impressive in my book.”
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