I met Don Manoukian in the Fall of 1952. I was a freshman at the still-new Reno High School, and, at 13 years old the youngest kid in school. My sister (now, Marylee Fulkerson) was a Junior and a classmate of Don’s sister, Jackie (now,Powers). Don’s younger brother, Noel, was a peon-Freshman like me. We Freshmen spent time wondering if those Seniors were really going to be pushing us into the hallway lockers, as was widely rumored. (They didn’t.) In those days, First Period was “Home Room” and we all sat in alphabetical order, a natural meshing of the Manoukian and Metzker youngsters.
To say that Don was god-like probably understates the situation–he was god. He was captain of the Huskie football team, holder of the state record in the shot put, honor student and President of the student body. And – much more importantly – he would stop and talk to me in the hallways. You’ve probably heard the expression “shining with reflected glory”? Well, that was me with my Freshman friends. “Hi, Johnny. How ya doin’?” He would say. He was so kind and generous. Looking back, I can see that his reaching out was intentional.
After Don graduated from Stanford and later finished his successful career with the Oakland Raiders, he turned to professional wrestling, which was still enormously popular, especially on regional television. Don (“The Bruiser”) was the bad guy. When he would be introduced at the beginning of a match, the crowd would all boo him. We watched his matches on television and a couple of times, live. The wrestling performances were great, but the best part was the press interviews, afterward. The interviewer would almost always manage to work in a question about Don graduating from Stanford. Don had developed his own kind of thuggish patois for interviews. “Yeh, dats no big deal. Anybody c’n graduate from Stanford. No big deal,” he would say. I don’t recall that anyone really got the joke. Sports writers for the San Francisco Chronicle’s Green Sheet were spluttering about this oaf and members of the Stanford Alumni Association found it uncharacteristically hard to adequately express their displeasure. Don commented on this for a wrestling publication. “Holy Christ, it made them crazy.”
In 1983, my family planned a family-only, 80th birthday dinner for my father at San Francisco’s St. Francis Yacht Club. I had arranged for a “mystery guest speaker” – Don Manoukian. I have to add that my mother’s sister’s side of the family was (and still is) somewhat more refined and mannerly than my mother’s side of the family. Don said that he would fly down for the night and insisted that his expenses be his birthday present to Dad.
Anybody who has ever listened to a Don Manoukian program will not use the adjectives “refined or mannerly” in their description of the presentation. Don, by then, had known our family for decades and knew some juicy tidbits to bring up. His comments that evening were somewhat bawdy – and to some members of the family, somewhat shocking.
Don Manoukian was truly one of my life heros. I am so glad that I made it a point to tell him that on more than one occasion. And I’m sure that the account of that bulky football player riding his motorcycle into the Stanford library wearing nothing but a jock strap was just malicious gossip.