On the evening of December 15, 1995 I stood beside Helen Hart in a place where she had virtually never been: inside the ropes of the Stampede Wrestling ring. We listened together as more than 5,000 Calgarians rocked the storied Stampede Corral with waves of cheers. And we watched from just a few feet away as a rich sampling of Stampede’s greater and lesser lights from years past — Dory and Terry Funk, Leo Burke, Moose Morowski, Angelo Mosca, Gil Hayes, Tor Kamata, Brian Pillman, John Helton, Dan Kroffat and more — streamed into the ring to add their best wishes to Stu Hart at the huge wrestling event that officially marked his eightieth birthday on that night.
“Helen, when we first met going on 40 years ago, did you ever imagine you and I would end up in a wrestling ring together?” I jokingly queried, as the cheers and the handshakes washed over Stu. And in the delightfully nonplussed manner that she often exhibited, Helen allowed that she certainly hadn’t imagined any such thing, adding “…and I’m still not sure just what I should do in here, even after all these years!”
The quiet sense of humour, the gentle wit and self-deprecating manner, were so typical of the true heart of the Hart household. Helen’s innate dignity, her warm and effusive personality, exerted its gentle charm and persuasion equally on legendary boxing champions, ruggedly individualistic wrestlers, businesses seeking trade or pressing for payment, jaded sports editors, and the wide range of others who crossed her path.
Her genuine graciousness to all who entered her home — and there were so many, for Hart House has for 50 years been a people place — or whom she met in Calgary or on visits to some of North America’s premier wrestling venues with Stu, sticks vividly in many minds and hearts. Helen had a wonderful ability to make old friends or new acquaintance feel “special”. She combined an attentiveness in conversation and a sincerity in her gaze, and a small gesture or a few well-chosen words, to make each meeting with her that extra bit more memorable.
To remember Helen is to recall as well her deft handling of many major and minor problems of the sometimes abrasive personalities on Stu’s talent roster. To marvel at her solo juggling act in running the business end of Stampede for some 40 years: payrolls, taxes and accounts, immigration clearances and talent scheduling, publicity and advertising, arena rentals and commission problems, complaints and concerns and a myriad of secretarial duties, along with an occasional frantic long-distance call from a local promoter demanding, “where are the wrestlers, it’s 7:15 and nobody’s here yet!” To be amazed at her ability to lovingly raise a dozen children in the midst of ever-ringing phones. Helen handled it all, and more often than not transformed potential chaos to a semblance of order.
And there are the special personal recollections. Helen’s wonderful New York accent, still present after more than 50 years so far from the place of her upbringing, and the precise diction of her speech. Her loving touch on the arm of her burly “Buff”, or her fingers gently patting down a stray cowlick of his hair, so spontaneous and unself-conscious as we reminisce about the people of the old Stampede days. Her companionable presence during those early-morning Calgary Stampede breakfasts of the ’60s and ’70s, where Stu’s and Helen’s introduction to the crowds prompted cheers equaling those for Hollywood celebrities and world champion cowboys. And her trips to the kitchen at 2:30 in the morning, to bake up just one more tray of chocolate chip cookies to crown an after-show Hart House buffet for the whole Stampede Wrestling crew, at the promotion’s relaunch in April 1999.
That warm, wonderful voice is stilled. That loving touch is gone. But the memories will keep Helen Hart forever in so many hearts and minds.
Rest well, dear friend.
Bob Leonard has been associated with Stampede Wrestling since the mid-1950’s, as a photographer, ring announcer, referee, promoter and publicist. Bob and legendary TV announcer Ed Whalen are likely Stu and Helen Hart’s longest-serving associates.