WATERLOO, Iowa – There are four people who have been coming to the Tragos/Thesz Hall of Fame induction weekend for the 24 years the museum has been open, first in Newton, Iowa, and then in Waterloo.

So it was very appropriate that one of the four, Joyce Paustian, decided to launch her self-published book at induction weekend.

On Friday, during a rare early quiet moment on a busy weekend, she talked to SlamWrestling.net — to which she has contributed in the past — about her book, My Ringside Seat to the AWA.

It came about as a pandemic project, trying to reorganize her photo albums of wrestling photos.

“I took everything out of the photo albums, and then I took all my AWA photos, which had the most of, and I decided, I’m going to make just an album just out of those. As I started going through them, ‘Hey, I took some pretty good photos here. I should do something with these,’” said Paustian. “And I thought, ‘Oh, I remember this photo. Yeah, that was a funny story.’ So there were stories that went along with certain photos.”

The next challenge was scanning and cleaning up the photos. The organizational aspect had already been done along the way.

“I’m a natural record keeper. I know where every photo was taken. And I kept all my negatives and I would label them where they were taken,” she said. Even if it was a photo of a ring introduction, she had made note of who the opponent was that night.

Don’t expect George Napolitano photos with access into the ring.

“You can tell that they’re fan photos, because there’s a lot of ring ropes in there and things like that, but it’s still photos that I think are worthy of sharing,” she said. “That’s why I called it My Ringside Seat to the AWA because I always had paid for a seat and I had a ringside seat wherever I could go.”

Paustian’s journey as a fan follows along as the AWA, run by Verne Gagne, was a big promotion and shrunk to a small one, meaning many of the locations where she’d gone on a regular basis to see the wrestling matches stopped having them. Davenport, Iowa, was an early place, and then the matches stopped. Peoria and the Rockford, Illinois. There was a pattern. “Every town I was in, I kind of shut it down,” she quipped.

There were so many wrestlers who came through the AWA – and she essentially had a checklist to try to include at least one photo of everyone – but a few stand out because they became friends along the way. There’s Sgt. Slaughter, who wrote the foreword, Baron Von Raschke, and, most importantly, Nick Bockwinkel.

“That’s one of the lessons that I’ve learned is don’t take anything for granted. If somebody means something to you, and you enjoy seeing them, let them know and spend some time talking to them. Don’t just assume there’ll be around the next time,” Paustian preached. “I was very lucky with Nick Bockwinkel that he was around so long, and then I used to get to see him with the CAC. It was very hard writing about his death because it affected me personally. I thought about him daily. Wrestling was such a part of my life and is still.”

The personal connections could be as simple as the wrestlers knowing her by sight: “Oh, you’re the gal with the camera.”

That was different for the time. “It was not easy to be in a woman photographer because people kind of looked down on you, that you weren’t as good as the men, you didn’t have as good of equipment or that you were in it for a different reason, or that you’d get hurt and or you wouldn’t stick with it. And I really kind of had to prove myself as a photographer,” confessed Paustian.

Over the years, wanting the AWA to get more attention, she submitted photos to the magazines, but the goal wasn’t a payday. “I would send them in and sometimes they would use them and sometimes not. It depended on if it was a unique shot or not.”

More meaningful were the wrestlers who would ask her for copies of the photos, usually in exchange for an autograph. It paid off, since, “They’d remember me the next time.” As she got older, Paustian would give the guys a ride to the airport because the promoters were too busy, which was another chance to get to know them as people. (In the book she notes that Bockwinkel made sure she never had any of the true degenerate types in her car.)

Though the AWA went away, the wrestlers didn’t, and many people in general know Paustian through her trips to the Cauliflower Alley Club reunions or, especially, the Tragos/Thesz Hall of Fame weekend, where she is a celebrated lifetime member.

John Nord -- Nord the Barbarian / The Berserker -- talks with Joyce Paustian at the Tragos/Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame induction weekend on Friday, July 21, 2023. Photo by Greg Oliver

John Nord — Nord the Barbarian / The Berserker — talks with Joyce Paustian at the Tragos/Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame induction weekend on Friday, July 21, 2023. Photo by Greg Oliver

The book has personal details about Joyce’s mother and father, her brother, and friends she went to the matches with. She also shares how she met her husband, Woody, and how he was more than just a cheerleader for the project.

“Woody has got some marketing background, and he’s pretty good at computers as well. He dug into the self-publishing and learned all about what it takes,” said Paustian. “We talked about, do we really have the determination to go through with this? He said, I want you to do and even if we don’t sell 10 copies, I want you to do it for yourself, just so you can say you finished it and you have this record of your photos and your stories.’”

“That’s kind of the way I’m looking at. If I sell 100 copies, I’ll be thrilled. And really what it is, is I want to get those memories out. My story might be unique in a way that I was a photographer and that I pursued it that long. But when I talked about my memories, it’s universal; people go, ‘Oh, yeah, I remember that. That was great. I loved that.’”

Retired from the army after 35 years, first in joint munitions command, where she kept track of munitions, and then as a financial analyst, Paustian had time during the pandemic to truly work on her book. There were plenty of headaches, including a promised collaborator on the production side of it dropping out.

But My Ringside Seat to the AWA is done, and Paustian is taking orders, doing all the hustle herself. She takes payment through PayPal at joyce.paustian@gmail.com, and it is $20 USD plus $6 shipping and handling in the United States (email for a price elsewhere).

“It was a fun journey,” concluded Paustian. “I felt like I was back in it when I was writing the book and writing the memories and I hope that’s what people will feel as they read it.”

TOP PHOTO: Joyce Paustian with her book, My Ringside Seat to the AWA, at the Tragos/Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame induction weekend on Friday, July 21, 2023. Photo by Greg Oliver