Johnny Weaver was buried yesterday in Forest Lawn East Cemetery in Mathews NC. Ironically, he was buried less than 15 yards from where another legend of wrestling was laid to rest 16 years ago, his friend Gene Anderson.
I had never been in a funeral procession for someone in law enforcement before. One of the lasting memories I will have of that day was topping each hill on the way to graveside and seeing stretched out before me a line of seemingly endless patrol cars with blue lights flashing, slowing winding through Mecklenburg County, on their way to see Johnny laid to rest. It was a jolting reminder that a brotherhood of officers had lost one of their own. And they were there in force to say goodbye.
Many in the wrestling community had come to say goodbye to Johnny as well, great names in the business spanning generations, much like Johnny’s long career had touched so many generations of wrestling fans. Those that were there either at the family visitation or the funeral included wrestlers Ivan Koloff, Abe Jacobs, Sandy Scott, Don and Wally Kernodle, Rene Goulet, Nikita Koloff, Tony Romano, Bill White, Jim Nelson, Belle Starr, Jim Holiday, Rick McCord, George South, and Mike Weddle. Also present were wrestling broadcasters Bob Caudle and Rich Landrum, referees Tommy Young and Stu Schwartz, and a member of the family that ran wrestling in the Mid-Atlantic territory for over 50 years, Jackie Crockett. There were certainly others who I didn’t know or did not recognize or I may have forgotten. I apologize to them for not including them here. And of course, one of the biggest names ever in the business was there, supporting her daughter and her family, the gracious Penny Banner.
An hour or so before the long procession to Mathews, a service began which both mourned the death but also celebrated the life of Johnny Weaver. Johnny’s daughter Wendi had asked Don Kernodle to speak. Don and Johnny had been friends for Don’s entire career in wrestling which began in the early 1970s, but they had been best friends in the years that followed after their wrestling careers had ended. Don gave a quiet, emotional, gut wrenching eulogy. Breaking down several times, he shared what it had meant to him to know and love Johnny Weaver almost all of his life. “Have any of you ever loved someone before you even knew them?” Kernodle asked. “That is what it was like for me with Johnny Weaver. I loved him as child growing up watching wrestling.” In those few words, Don summed up what it was like for many of us as both fans and friends. “And then getting to know and working with Johnny was cool in other ways, too. Not only was Johnny one of the greatest wrestlers ever, he was married to the greatest woman wrestler ever, Penny Banner. And their daughter was a champion at horse riding. This was a championship family.” Don spoke about what a professional Weaver was through his entire career, always on time, always dressed in coat and tie, and what an example that set to everyone.
As most of you know, Johnny’s career in the wrestling business ended about the same time Ted Turner bought the Crockett family wrestling business. Faced with a forced career change, with his priorities now on benefits and securing a pension, something the wrestling business had never provided, at 53 years of age he became the oldest ever rookie in the Mecklenburg County Sherriff’s Department. But as his Captain later told us, he was tougher, stronger, and in better shape than some officers half his age.
Captain Mike Smith spoke last about Johnny in what was one of the most moving eulogies I’ve ever heard. His words were all at once thoughtful while honest, funny and then heart –breaking. We laughed and we cried. Captain Smith was Johnny’s boss on the force. He spoke very bluntly about what the day was like for him when Johnny unexplainably hadn’t shown up for work, something that just never happened, because Johnny Weaver never missed work and was always on time. It was a gripping account that told of a difficult trip through morning rush traffic, blue lights on, and then the cold feeling in his gut when he arrived at Johnny’s house and saw the telling looks on the faces of his fellow officers. He spoke of Johnny in recent years dealing with the insecurities of aging while trying to pass the rigorous physical tests required to remain on the force, and how inspired he was to run beside him during one of those tests. He told stories of prisoners who wanted to test the legendary wrestler to see if the old guy still had it in him, and how a few that did lived to regret it. Many in the department had grown up watching Johnny wrestle and were big fans, too. One of the best moments was lamenting the loss of one of Johnny’s great skills he brought to the department, that ability of wrestlers who spent 365 days a year for decades riding the roads from town to town to know the best way to get anywhere. Johnny knew all the back roads and shortcuts, and knew the best places to eat along the way. The department, he joked, would now have to buy maps of North Carolina, South Carolina and several other surrounding states because their friend and brother that had led them along all those the back roads was now gone.
And Wendi Weaver; what a warm and gracious lady, clearly devastated by the sudden loss of her father, yet greeting everyone after the burial with heartfelt thanks and hugs and that same warm smile that was her father’s.
It was an emotional day for everyone: for the family of course; for those officers who had worked with Johnny for 19 years at the Mecklenburg County Sherriff’s Department; for the wrestlers, several of whom had wrestled with and against Johnny in Mid-Atlantic Wrestling since back in the 1960s; and for friends, some life-long and others like me that, similar to Don Kernodle had loved Johnny long before they had the privilege to call him a friend.
Back in November of last year, just a little over three months ago, Johnny and I sang “Turn Out The Lights, the Party’s Over” together at a surprise birthday party several of us had thrown for him. It is a memory I will treasure for the rest of my life. And just as Captain Smith had also alluded to as he said goodbye to Johnny, the lights are now dark, but the light that Johnny brought to all our lives will shine brightly forever.
- Dick Bourne
February 21, 2008