Ray “Thunder” Stern, who died early Tuesday morning, March 6, 2007, at age 74, may have been the greatest of all professional wrestling’s self-made men. “The Million Dollar Man” had nothing on the success of Stern, from aviation to bodybuilding to real estate.
The title of his autobiography kind of says it all — Power of Thunder: The Rags to Riches Story of One Man’s Adventure of Fame, Fortune, Romance & Fitness (Wolff Creative Group, 1994).
Born Walter Bookbinder in Brooklyn, New York on January 12, 1933 to a cab driver and a homemaker, he grew up in modest surroundings. “We lived in a small apartment,” Stern told the Dallas Morning News in 2005. “Eight members of my extended family and I all lived there, with only one bathroom for all of us.” He developed a love of reading, especially about far-off places.
Bookbinder joined the Merchant Marines at the age of 13 under the name Paul Davis. It was there that he fell in love with bodybuilding — legend has it that Stern would carry a pair of 50-pound dumbbells in his duffel bag for impromptu workouts.
“I broke into wrestling in 1950 at age 17 in New York City, working for Rudy Dusek. The only thing bigger than wrestling in those days was Milton Berle, so I quickly became a ‘star,'” Stern told Lou Thesz’ biographer Kit Bauman. “I worked five nights a week, two of them on TV, and everyone thought I was a celebrity — except my parents. I was making $10 a match, and half of that seemed to go for travel. My parents couldn’t figure it out, how come I was this ‘star’ and wasn’t bringing home enough money to carry my share. ‘You’re a bum,’ my dad used to tell me.”
Bookbinder would wrestle for 16 years, first under his real name, and then under his mother’s maiden name, Stern. The nickname? “I became known for these spectacular aerial maneuvers in the ring,” Stern told the Dallas newspaper. “So my promoters nicknamed me ‘Thunder.'”
In California, he met Joe Gold of Gold’s Gym fame, and another well-known workout guru, Armand Tanny. They would be a heavy influence on Stern, and convince him that his riches would lie in California.
On the west coast, Stern would get into bodybuilder further, befriending other future pro wrestlers like Pepper Gomez and Fritz Von Goering. During his career, he would hold versions of the World and Tag Team titles. In the early days of Roy Shire’s San Francisco promoter, Stern would battle Ray Stevens at the top of the cards.
“I wrestled for 16 years and really can’t say why I stayed in it so long. When Claire (his second wife) and I got married, I knew that I wanted roots, a home life, so I announced that I was retiring. Then I got to looking around at my situation; here I was driving a new Cadillac with gold wire-rim wheels and wearing these sharp clothes and being treated like a celebrity, and it came to me that I couldn’t do anything that would enable me to live that same quality of life. So I stayed in wrestling another 10 years,” Stern told Bauman. “We used to sit around and laugh at the squares — you know, the people working a 9-to-5 and busting their ass for a house in the suburbs and making insurance payments and going to some nowhere place for two weeks a year in the summer. Living a routine. Ugh!”
Away from the ring, Stern was a pioneer in the health club field, and opened America’s first co-ed gym in San Francisco with his then-wife Clare, and first health club with a nursery so parents could exercise. The money he made in the fitness field allowed him to further enhance his financial situation through real estate and rental properties.
“My discipline for fitness and body building has always provided me with the competitiveness, and drive, needed for my successes,” Stern told BestAreoNet.com.
Up until recently, Stern and grappling great Red Bastien would still get together on a regular basis to workout when both were in Dallas.
The main passion of Stern’s life was flying. He first learned to fly in the early 1950s, taking two weeks’ worth of lessons in Tampa, Florida. Shortly thereafter, he bought a Bellanca Cruise Air, and when he was ready to upgrade, Stern got a Beechcraft Twin Bonanza. The planes allowed him to expand his wrestling work, traveling the continent for bouts.
“He maintains a heavy schedule of bouts on the East coast,” explained a 1961 promo for Stern in a Hillsdale, Calif., newspaper. “Wrestling one night, flying his own plane, returns in time the following day to conduct business in Hillsdale.”
“The Twin Bonanza was followed by a succession of Cessna 310s, Aero Commanders and Riley Rockets — even a DeHaviland Dove. Ray also developed an interest in aerobatic flying,” explained the BestAreoNet.com website. “He bought two Czechoslovakian aerobatic airplanes and traveled to Czechoslovakia five times to train with their national aerobatic champions. His aerobatic flying reached a level that allowed him to be named as a backup for the world aerobatic championships.”
He found a home in Dallas, and created Stern Air out of Addison Airport. The charter flight service had the ability to switch from cargo to passenger to air ambulance quickly. Stern also developed a reputation of being able to get the job done, and was called upon for difficult flights to the Middle East or El Salvador.
In 2000, Stern was honoured by his peers with the Iron Mike Mazurki Award at the Cauliflower Alley Club reunion in Las Vegas; the award was created to celebrate wrestlers who succeeded outside of professional wrestling.
In 2005, Stern received the Senator Hugh Farley New York State Awards from the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum. At the induction weekend, Stern raved about seeing old friends again, like Canadian Billy Two Rivers, whom he hadn’t seen in 51 years. “I was back talking to him yesterday like it was 51 hours ago,” Stern said.
Stern raved about the city of Amsterdam, NY, and the efforts of the PWHF. “I have been all over the world, many, many times, but the respect, the appreciation, that is being shown here to the wrestlers is beyond anything I truly have ever imagined,” Stern said. “It’s just overwhelming to be treated this way. It’s beyond anything that I could have imagined.”
He admitted that his wrestling days were well in the past, and joked about his own declining mobility. “I’ve been trying to tell my wife for eight years what a great athlete I was. ‘Oh, you’re so clumsy, you’re the clumsiest thing! You break everything in the house, you can’t get out of your own way, you’re just helpless!'” Stern said. “Red tried to help me, but she won’t believe Red Bastien. So we coming here, I hope that maybe Debi will be convinced — I’ve been telling her for eight years that I was a great athlete.”
In an email announcing her husband’s passing, his wife Debi said, “Ray will be remembered for so many of his accomplishments and his incredible spirit, drive and dedication to anything he set out to achieve. He was a very unusual man with visions and the energy and know how to make things happen. He lived life to its fullest and I am fortunate to have had the most perfect marriage for 10 amazing years to the most wonderful man on earth. Ray left pieces of himself in all our hearts. Thank you for the love and support you have given us.”
– with files from Steve Johnson