One of the true legends of women’s pro wrestling, Penny Banner, died Monday night, May 12, 2008, in Charlotte, NC, at her daughter’s home, after a long battle with cancer. It’s a little tough to write about Penny impartially, so I won’t try.

She was a force of nature, both in and out of the ring. We had our differences — to her death bed, she never admitted it was a worked sport — but she was one of the truly great people that I had ever met in this business. When my son, Quinn, was born, Penny insisted on sending a gift — a cute little sleeper.

Penny howled when I told her that we didn’t have Quinn’s papers in order to take him to the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Amsterdam, NY, in 2007; we wanted him to be able to poop in the U.S., but couldn’t.

There are a lot of memories from Penny from those Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame weekends in May, and the Cauliflower Alley Club reunions in Vegas.

She loved karaoke and would be up singing every night in the bar.

At her induction into the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2005, Banner was at her effervescent best. She recalled the phone call, telling her of the induction, and being instructed not to tell anybody. “That’s not what you tell a girl!” she cackled.

Lorraine Johnson, left, and Penny Banner.

“Nobody had more fun than we did on the road,” she said, a little high on wine as well as the moment.

She started off with Ernie Ladd, and kept going: “I remember stories of us going down the road with our baloney blowout, your baloney and your loaf of bread, a six pack of beer — depending on how far you went, it could have been a six-pack trip or a two six-pack trip, 200 miles or 400 miles — radio going like crazy, ‘Maybeline’ playing. Ernie Ladd got out of the car. We’d get up in the middle of the highway, ‘Maybeline, why can’t you be true?’ Red Bastien and I were coming into Minneapolis, Minnesota, probably in 1955. … Red, let’s just go jump into the lake. He said okay. We pulled off, we got out of the car, he took his wallet out of his pocket, we ran out to the pier, we jumped in the lake.”

Our friendship started in 2001, when my wife and I went to Vegas to our first Cauliflower Alley Club reunion. At the breakfast buffet, we met Penny and some of the other women wrestlers at the reunion. For some reason, Penny just bonded with us, and always remembered Meredith in our conversations and email exchanged. Perhaps it was the shared love of the martial arts.

Born Mary Ann Kostecki in St. Louis, Missouri, Penny would use her skill in judo as a starting point to a remarkable career in pro wrestling.

But her life story is even more remarkable.

“Penny is an amazing, resilient person. She went through experiences that would have crushed a lesser woman and came out all the better for them. You might expect a certain coarseness in a lady wrestler, but there is none in Penny,” said Gerry Hostetler, the co-writer of Penny’s autobiography, Banner Days.

Penny shared an early draft of her book with me, and asked for my feedback. Despite sparring over the kayfabe nature of it, she did take into account one suggestion that did get added to the narrative — her initial description of making out with Elvis Presley (a big wrestling fan) left me, well, hanging. Was there any conclusion, so to speak? Penny laughed and said that Elvis, ever the gentleman, went into the bathroom to finish what the rolling around had started.

Married to Carolinas mainstay Johnny Weaver, who died in February 2008, and with whom she had a daughter, Wendi, Banner went through tremendous ups and downs in her life.

Football great Jim Kelly and Penny Banner in 1993. Photo by Mike Lano,

When she and Weaver finally split, Banner slowly grew a real estate business and dove into the Senior Olympics as well, where she was a top competitive swimmer. She also helped out causes left and right, especially the Cauliflower Alley Club, and once she was a member, the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame as well. This summer, she was set to receive the Frank Gotch Award at the International Wrestling Hall of Fame in Waterloo, Iowa, the first woman to be so honoured.

There is lots out there on Banner’s wrestling career, so I will make no attempt to cover it all here. She was one of the early proponents of email in the wrestling communities, and regularly contributed to newsgroups and fan clubs. Her book also shares tremendous amounts about her life in and out of wrestling.

As for me, I’m just happy to have had her a part of my life, even just a little.