In the world of professional wrestling, where all the world is a stage and Shakespearean tragedies appear inside the ring and out, G. Bill Wolfe was always a supporting character. 

His father, William “Billy” Wolfe, was a professional wrestler turned promoter who would elevate the sport of women’s professional wrestling from the carnivals to the arenas. While passing through Kansas, promoting his then-wife Barbara Ware, he met a 5-foot-3 single mom waiting tables who demanded Wolfe train her as a wrestler. Mildred Bliss became Mildred Burke, arguably the greatest women’s champion of all time. She would also become Mrs. Billy Wolfe, a title that was more about business than romance. 

George William “G. Bill” Wolfe was just a kid when Billy met Millie. Born on February 22, 1922, G. Bill was only seven years younger than his stepmother. As a teenager, his father put him to work driving the champion from show to show. In time, G. Bill would also become her lover, carrying on an affair that was no secret to his father. 

Not that his father objected. Billy Wolfe, Sr., was known to carry on numerous affairs with the other lady wrestlers, women who were eager to move up on the marquee and possibly usurp Burke as champion. 

G. Bill fell in love with Burke, but when he confessed that love to his father, the elder Billy Wolfe laughed at him. How would it look for the great Billy Wolfe to divorce Mildred Burke and allow his son to marry her? What would that do to the senior Wolfe’s image? And did G. Bill really believe she loved him in return?

The affair between the son and the champion ended after a September 1951 car accident left him in a full-body cast. While his lover recovered quickly and resumed her travels, G. Bill spent countless hours gazing at the ceiling, lamenting his lot in life. 

No. He would never marry Burke. Even if his father would allow it, he became convinced she would not love him back. The son turned against his lover. He became part of his father’s conspiracy to unseat her as champion by any means necessary. 

In those days, as with today, professional wrestling title changes were decided in back rooms rather than by true, athletic competition, but a title could be taken by force if that champion were to be challenged by a true threat. Enter June Byers, a tall, powerful Texas woman trained by Billy Wolfe for one purpose: to take Burke’s title by force. 

Once he was fully recovered from the accident, G. Bill went from a supporting character in Burke’s story to a supporting role in the tale of Byers. Byers and another lady wrestler named Nell Stewart were named officers in a new corporation founded to promote women’s wrestling in the United States. Now divorced from Burke, Billy Wolfe, Sr., married Stewart. His son married Byers, a consolation prize for being the faithful son. 

After he fully recovered from the accident, G. Bill went on the road with Byers and her valet, a young lady who had quietly become the legal ward of his father just a few years ago. His wife now the champion, G. Bill became her pitch man, just as his father did for Burke. 

“Feel her biceps. Feel her shoulders. That’s solid muscle.” 

He had the pitch down pat. He’d learned from the best. But his heart was no longer in it. 

G. Bill coped with his bitterness the way many men of his era did. He turned to the bottle. Alcohol consumed him, and while his drinking mercifully never led to another accident, the situation became too much for his new wife to handle. Byers made the tough decision to commit her husband to a treatment center. 

Byers did what she could for him. Her teenage assistant Betsy Ross did more. Deep down, the young lady was secretly in love with G. Bill. She was ashamed of this fact, knowing he was married to her mentor, but she could not help it. He was a supporting role in the life of Burke, Byers, and even his own father. But G. Bill Wolfe would be the central figure, the touchstone for young Ross and four of her children for the rest of their lives. 

Betsy Ross. Photo courtesy Chris Bergstrom and the Wolfe family.

Becoming Betsy Ross

You can’t blame Billy Wolfe for keeping it a secret. Everyone still remembered the tragic tale of Janet Wolfe. The teenage girl desperately wanted to be a professional wrestler, and with her mother’s blessing, Billy Wolfe became Janet Wolfe’s legal guardian. 

In one of those all-too-rare-yet-not-rare-enough moments, Janet Wolfe collapsed at ringside during a tag team bout. She would never regain consciousness, and her death would become a turning point in the fortunes of women’s wrestling in general. 

It wasn’t enough to keep Billy Wolfe from taking on another ward at the tender age of 15. Billy received a call one day from a man named Leland who had found himself in a desperate situation. Leland’s wife had left him, abandoning him to raise 14 children on his own. 

Leland wasn’t in a place where he could raise so many children. He was looking for places to send them, including a Catholic boarding school where his teenage daughter Betsy had already spent time. 

One day Leland saw an ad in the newspaper. It was the same ad Billy Wolfe had run for years, looking for young, single women who wanted to become professional wrestlers. Leland called the number. 

“I don’t know if she’d want to wrestle,” said Leland, “But she’s really smart, and she’d be great working in an office.” 

Billy didn’t just hire Betsy. He adopted her as a ward. Betsy went to work in Billy’s Columbus, Ohio office. She got to know everyone from Penny Banner to her aunt, Billy’s daughter Violet Viann. She became best friends with Karen Kellogg. 

“I remember Karen coming to the house when I was little,” says Mickie-Mae Johnson, the oldest child of Betsy and G. Bill Wolfe. “I remember her being kind of an unhappy person, but she loved playing with us. She was fun to have around and fun to play with.” 

Betsy did not hit it off with Burke. She found Burke to be rough around the edges, but Burke was already in the midst of her split from Billy. 

Byers, on the other hand, was warm and welcoming. When Betsy met her for the first time, she had stars in her eyes. “She never had an unkind word to say about June,” says Betsy Wolfe, the youngest of Betsy and G. Bill’s children. 

Taking on the name of Betsy Ross, the young teen went on the road as Byers’ valet. She helped June get dressed, walked to the ring with her, and held the champion’s robe and belt at ringside. She assisted Byers away from the ring as well. 

Betsy Ross at ringside with the champ, June Byers. Photo courtesy Chris Bergstrom and the Wolfe family.

Betsy also started training to become a wrestler. “It was Grandpa Billy’s idea for her to wrestle,” says Johnson. “She was too young. She was only like 15 at the time.” 

“She was still too young when she started wrestling professionally,” adds Betsy Wolfe. “She was 18 three years in a row while she was on the road.” 

Billy gave Betsy her initial training but soon handed her off to Byers. She became Byers’ practice partner on the road, which meant she took a lot of hard bumps from the champion. 

“Mom said June kicked her ass on a regular basis,” says Betsy Wolfe. 

Yet unlike many of Byers’ contemporaries, Betsy never had a cross word to say about her. 

“I think a lot of that was sour grapes,” says Betsy Wolfe. “Everyone wanted to be the champion. They didn’t get to be. June did. My mom loved June. She’d have put up her dukes if anyone tried to put June down.” 

Byers taught Betsy how to fix her hair and makeup and helped her shop for the right clothes. She taught Betsy how to pose for promotional photos. Her youngest daughter has a photo of Betsy Ross dressed in one of Byers’ outfits, posed exactly how she taught her. 

“If you look at my mom’s wrestling photos, she looks just like June because she poses the same way June does,” says Betsy Wolfe. 

Billy asked Betsy Ross to bleach her hair, and Betsy agreed. The day after she went blonde, Betsy was scheduled for a photo shoot. When she woke up that morning, all her hair was on her pillow. 

Betsy was horrified, but Billy calmed the girl down. “Take the photos,” he said. “We can fix it.” 

Fix it they did. Betsy Wolfe has a colorized version of her mother’s first promotional photo. When they touched up the image with color, they added in blonde hair, making it look like her hair was pulled back in a bun. 

The “fixed” image of Betsy Ross after her botched hair bleaching. Photo courtesy Betsy Wolfe.

“She was the Marilyn Monroe of the ring,” says Betsy Wolfe. “She was ranked a few times, but she never went very far because she quit and started having babies with my dad.” 

Byers was ringside for one of Betsy’s most memorable moments in the ring. “I can’t remember who Mom was wrestling,” says Betsy Wolfe, “But the girl went off script and getting rough. June was sitting ringside in a strapless dress, her hair and makeup perfect, a mink draped over the back of her chair, just dripping with jewels. She was on the edge of her seat, screaming at this other girl. 

“My mom was wearing these wire hoop earrings. I don’t know why. But the other girl grabbed one and yanked it, ripping it right through her ear. June screamed at my mom, ‘Kill that girl!’ My mom socked her right in the jaw and knocked the girl out. June took her out for steak after.” 

A Forbidden Love

While Byers was enjoying her title reign and Betsy was finding her way, G. Bill was struggling. Unable to deal with his addiction. Byers made the difficult decision to commit G. Bill. She checked him into a hospital for treatment. Betsy chose to stay by his side. 

When it comes to alcoholism, all the treatment in the world can’t help someone who isn’t willing to help themselves. Having hit rock bottom, G. Bill made some tough choices of his own. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous. He became a born again Christian. He took both commitments very seriously, remaining loyal to AA and his faith in Jesus for the rest of his life. 

Byers was already contemplating divorce before G. Bill began his recovery. She’d met Sam Menacker, and she was ready to move on. Still, Betsy found it hard to talk to her mentor, her idol, about her feelings for G. Bill. 

But Byers was no fool. She could see the way Betsy looked at G. Bill, the way she tended to him during his recovery. Prior to the divorce, Byers sat down with Betsy. 

“I’m not with him for a reason,” she said. “I don’t love him right now. And if you guys can have a life together, cool.” 

Byers gave Betsy and G. Bill her blessing to marry. She not only gave them a wedding gift, she gave Betsy a small item from one of her own fancy dresses to include in her wedding outfit. 

“They remained friends,” says Johnson. “There was no animosity between June or Mom or G. Bill. Mom was always very fond of June.” 

G. Bill was 14 years older than Betsy, but he was as in love with her as she was with him. Betsy’s family embraced G. Bill, and he had a great relationship with Betsy’s mom. 

Betsy and G. Bill. Photo courtesy Chris Bergstrom and the Wolfe family.

Betsy had been married once before, but only briefly. Her husband was a Mexican wrestler named Valentino. Their marriage was annulled quickly when it was discovered that he was already married. He returned to Mexico, where he was later accused of murder. 

Betsy also had a son before she married G. Bill. There are some in the family who believed William was Billy Wolfe, Sr.’s child, but most of the family, including William, now believe that Valentino was his father.

“William has come to believe he is part Mexican,” says sister Betsy Wolfe. “But he still sees G. Bill as his real father.” 

It’s hard to imagine that G. Bill and Betsy would not have known who William’s father was, and it’s a further testament to the man G. Bill had become. G. Bill adopted William, and that was that. 

“There’s no doubt in my mind he loved her very much,” says Johnson. “Theirs was an honest, real love.” 

Wedded Bliss

Betsy and G. Bill bought a house in Granville, Texas, across the street from a horse farm with some woods in the back. Mickie-Mae, the couple’s first child, was born August 2, 1957. She was named after G. Bill’s mother and Betsy’s mother, and her birth was even announced in a wrestling magazine. 

Betsy continued to wrestle until the couple’s second child John was born, but G. Bill never went back himself. He traded the wrestling business for the insurance business, taking a job with W. Clement Stone and selling Principal Life Insurance. 

G. Bill continued traveling, leaving home every Monday to sell insurance and, when he was able, speaking at AA meetings. But unlike in years past, he relished having a place to come home every Friday. 

Betsy made sure the house was in order at the end of each week and all the children were bathed and dressed up. It was a lot of pressure, getting the house ready for Daddy to come home, but for Johnson, it was all worth it when she saw him pull into the driveway. 

Johnson was a total Daddy’s girl. She watched her dad lay out all the cash he’d collected and record all of the transactions he conducted. She didn’t understand the work, but she was fascinated by everything her father did. 

“I watched him shave,” says Johnson. “I followed behind him when he mowed the lawn. Sometimes we’d sneak away to the ice cream shop, and he’d buy me an ice cream cone. It was my favorite food then, and it’s still my favorite. Dad always liked vanilla, so it became my favorite flavor too. He was very loving. He was everything to me.” 

Now sober, G. Bill’s beverage of choice became the grapefruit-flavored Squirt. He loved to snack on potato chips, and he barbecued every weekend. It if was raining, G. Bill would open the garage door and grill steaks inside. His favorite TV program was The Jackie Gleason Show with the June Taylor Dancers. 

“Dad even built a playhouse for us in the backyard,” says Johnson. “That wasn’t the kind of guy he was, but he built a playhouse. One of the men my mother later dated tore it down and turned it into a chicken coop.” 

Johnson also remembers her parents having a loving relationship. She has fond memories of seeing them dressed up for fancy work dinners and even Halloween parties. “They went all out. He dressed up as pirate. She dressed really pretty. I just loved when they did that.” 

Johnson also has very faint memories about her grandfather, Billy Wolfe, Sr. “The memories are fuzzy, but they’re all positive. Mom would take me to his office, and I’d entertain myself. I’d climb in his big, leather chair and spin around. My mom had tremendous admiration for him.” 

G. Bill got everyone dressed up on Sundays and made sure they made it to church on time. Strangely, G. Bill never went into church himself. He only made sure his family went to services. He never gave a reason for this, but none of them ever doubted their father’s faith. 

“The things that really changed my father were AA and God,” says Betsy. “I know this because I found a box of postcards my father wrote to my mother. I discovered the box in the basement one day. I didn’t tell my mother I’d found them, because I didn’t want her to tell me not to read them. They were obviously quite personal. 

“They were just plain postcards, without any pictures on them. He always called her Darling, started everything with ‘My Darling Little Betsy.’ They made me feel closer, like I knew him.”

G. Bill’s faith in God poured off every single one of those postcards. “He was telling her about God. He said he was praying for her, encouraging her. They were all just so sweet.” 

Tucked away with those postcards were photo strips taken of a photo booth. “There were pictures of my mom and dad together, then photos of them with William, and photos with mom and dad and William and Mickie. There were some in there with me, but they were taken after my dad had died. Finding those photos of me let me know my mom thought of me as part of her history with my dad.” 

G. Bill and Betsy with Lee Chona LaClaire and Billy Wolfe, Sr.

Grandpa Billy

G. Bill Wolfe is not the only man the Wolfe family knows in a different light. Betsy Ross always spoke very highly of her father-in-law, Billy Wolfe, Sr. For all his faults, Billy had given her a place to live, a career, and a new life when she needed one. He was the second most important man in her life, and she never said a negative word about the man. 

“That was an era where men had everything and women had nothing,” says Betsy Wolfe. “It was like A League of Their Own. He took these girls off of farms, out of poverty, and giving them a life that was fulfilling and wonderful. He gave them jewels and furs, and had them driven around in beautiful cars.” 

Betsy Ross wasn’t alone in feeling grateful to Billy Wolfe, Sr. The families of Ethel Johnson, Marva Scott, and Babs Wingo, three African-American sisters who wrestled in the 1950s, remain grateful to Wolfe for giving their matriarchs a chance to become wrestling stars. 

When their mother passed away, Betsy Wolfe and Johnson found some comfort in getting to know the ladies who worked with G. Bill and Betsy Ross. Banner, Marie Laverne, and Ida Mae Martinez all expressed their love for their mom as well as their father and grandfather. 

“Penny Banner told me Billy was great to her,” says Betsy Wolfe. “Billy took them all out of poverty. He gave them a chance to make some real money. He made them stars. She said it was the life! But all you ever hear about him is the bad stuff.” 

Banner participated in a documentary titled Lipstick & Dynamite, Piss & Vinegar: The First Ladies of Wrestling. The filmmakers interviewed Banner, Martinez, Gladys Gillem, Ella Waldek, Mae Young, the Fabulous Moolah, and others in an attempt to shed light on the past. A good portion of the documentary focused on Billy Wolfe’s sexual dalliances with many of the women he employed. It was not a flattering portrayal. 

“It was painful to hear those things about my grandpa,” says Johnson. “Those are things I just didn’t want to know.” 

Having seen Billy Wolfe’s financial records for herself, Betsy Wolfe believes there’s reason to doubt the stories about Billy short-paying the girls. “If he was dishonest about something it was about how much money he actually had,” says Betsy. “He didn’t have millions of dollars, but he made himself look like a million dollars.” 

Billy Wolfe passed away on March 7, 1963, at the age of 67. His legacy is a truly complicated one, and his grandchildren acknowledge he was a flawed man. Still, they appreciate the stories from ladies like Banner, and Johnson cherishes the fuzzy memories of a man who cherished his grandchildren. 

Sudden Tragedy

In late July, 1964, G. Bill suffered a heart attack. It was the kind of heart attack that’s now easy to treat, but not in 1964. An ambulance came to the house to transport him to the hospital. G. Bill took his oldest son William’s hand and spoke to him. 

“You’re the man of the house now,” he said. It was as if he knew he would not be coming back. 

“Dad never said goodbye,” says Johnson. “He thought goodbye was too final. When he left every week for work, it was always, ‘So long.’ The day he had his heart attack, he said, ‘Goodbye.’ I was only seven, but it shook me.” 

G. Bill was taken to the hospital, where he languished for eleven days in an oxygen tent. The children were not allowed to go into the hospital, so they’d sit in the car. Betsy would come to the window and wave so they knew where he was. G. Bill collected sugar packets and straws from his meals and had Betsy deliver them as gifts for the kids. 

G. Bill suffered a second heart attack in the hospital. “The moment it happened, my mom knew it,” says Johnson. “She knew it in her spirit. She talked to me like I was older than I was all the time, and all of a sudden, she told me, ‘I gotta go see your dad. Something’s not right.’ The hospital called and told her about the second heart attack. They told her he was not going to make it through the night.” 

George William Wolfe passed away that evening, August 8, 1964, in his wife’s arms. When he finally slipped away, it felt like the end of the world to Betsy. She was still grieving the loss of Billy, Sr., who died only a year before G. Bill. 

“The pastor came over,” says Johnson. “So did Dad’s boss, Big Ken, and my Aunt Rita. My aunt made us ice cream, and we all sat at the kitchen table. All of a sudden it hit me that my dad had died. I sat there and cried in my ice cream. My aunt took me off to bed.” 

Johnson remembers the funeral, seeing many beautiful women in high heels and pretty coats along with many men in suits. “There were so many people, some of them had to stand outside,” she says. “I remember going up to the casket and wanting to touch him and wake him.”

“Everything changed after Dad passed away,” says Betsy. “Mom was stricken. She was so in love with him. We eventually had a whole routine for when Mom would go into one of her spirals.” 

“My brother would go and get the smelling salts,” says Johnson. “I would go and get a cold wash rag. She was never diagnosed, but I’ve come to believe she was bi-polar.” 

The family’s trajectory changed, and not for the better. Betsy Ross Wolfe and her four children endured some very difficult years. They lost their house in Granville and moved into a duplex. She made some poor choices in her personal life, and she had a fifth child, Philip, with one of the men she dated. Johnson became the mother by default, caring for her siblings as well as her ailing mother. 

“She may have been on medication,” says Johnson. “I used to go to the doctor’s office to pick up some little blue pulls for her. Having lost Dad and Grandpa so close together, she kind of lost her thinking for a bit.” 

Things became so desperate, Betsy lost custody of the children for a brief time. Johnson still remembers the day her mother dropped her off. “I was crying. I didn’t want to let go of her hands, but she promised me we’d be together again. As sad as that day was, the day she came back to get us was so wonderful.” 

Fortune finally smiled on the Wolfe’s. Betsy met another man, Jim Wilson (not to be confused with the wrestler Jim Wilson), and they fell in love. Wilson would become a devoted father to Betsy’s children, and the couple would have a few more of their own.

The new man in Betsy’s life knew he would never replace G. Bill in her heart or her children’s, and he wisely never attempted to do so. One of the first things Wilson did after marrying Betsy Ross was hang a photo of G. Bill, Betsy, and the three oldest children. Young Betsy had not been around long enough for the family of six to have a photo taken together. 

“He respected G. Bill so much because of the way mom talked about him,” says Betsy. “He had no reason not to respect him. He never did anything wrong to her or to us. He died! He used to say, ’How can I be mad at him? I’m grateful to him for my wife and these kids.’” 

Wilson was “Dad” to young Betsy, but she always knew G. Bill was her birth father. “I’m the one who looks most like him,” says Betsy. “Especially when I was younger.” 

Billy and Betsy with three of their children. Photo courtesy Chris Bergstrom and the Wolfe Family.

Answered Prayers

Betsy and Johnson are both professing Christians. Johnson accepted Christ first, and Betsy followed when she was in college. The sisters witnessed to their siblings and led each one of them to a confession of faith. 

Betsy Wolfe recalls that her mom had a very different view of God for most of her life. “My mom loved God, but she didn’t have that personal relationship with Jesus my father did,” says Betsy. “We found a diary she kept while she was in the convent as a teenager, and we read a Valentine she wrote to Jesus. She loved him, but it was based more on works.” 

When their mother got cancer, Betsy and Johnson spent a lot of time sitting with their mom. One night they put on The Passion of the Christ. “Our brother Bill had given her a copy,” said Johnson. “He told her to watch it and let him know what she thought of it. It sat and gathered dust for a long time. I was doing dishes one night when I heard her say, ‘Mickie! Stop what you’re doing. I want to watch this right now!’ 

“As I was putting the movie in, there was a knock at the door. Betsy just happened to be out and got the notion to drop by. I told her we were getting ready to watch the movie, so she decided to stay.” 

Betsy Wilson didn’t say a word for the longest time, but her daughters could see the transformation happening. “Everything my father wrote to her in those postcards finally clicked,” said Betsy. “She got it. She started crying, and she said, ‘This is real, isn’t it?’ I know it was because of my dad. When he was writing all those postcards, he was praying for my mom’s salvation, and he was praying for us kids. It’s hard to explain having a relationship with Jesus to someone who thinks they already have one, but she finally understood. But she got it. She finally got it before she died.” 

A week later, Betsy Wilson lapsed into a coma and never came out. She died peacefully on December 1, 2004. After her passing, Johnson and Betsy shared the story of their mother’s conversion with Wilson. The girls told him their father had always prayed for his family, and by extension, they said, he was praying for Wilson as well. Six years later, a week before he died, Wilson also accepted Christ. 

“I bet no one ever thinks of G. Bill as a prayer warrior and evangelist!” laughs Betsy Wolfe. “But that’s who my dad was!” 

Johnson has been married to the same man for almost 48 years. They have four children, plus two more from her husband’s previous marriage. The couple now has six granddaughters and seven great-grand babies. 

In 2022 at the age of 58, Betsy Wolfe took up the sport of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as a white belt. She was in a car accident that derailed her training in March of 2023, but she was back on the mat practicing drills at the end of July. Chalk that up to the toughness she no doubt inherited from her grandfather. 

“My orthopedic surgeon is actually writing a paper about my recovery,” she says.

Although he’s been gone almost 60 years, and even though most of the Wolfes of today never knew him, G. Bill still dwells at the heart of this family. One of the family’s most enduring traditions stems from a ritual he and Johnson did every Friday. 

“When Daddy got home on Fridays,” says Johnson, “I would run out and leap into his arms and say, ‘Daddy, I love you as big as the sky.’ He would hug me and throw me up in the air and carry me into the house.” 

After her father’s death, Johnson never said those words. Not until one day when she spontaneously said them to her husband. He was so taken aback, she had to explain where the words came from. 

G. Bill’s favorite song was a tune called “Running Bear”, a 1959 hit written by The Big Bopper and performed by Johnny Preston. The song tells the tale a Native American brave who was in love with a girl called White Dove. Running Bear, the song says, loved little White Dove as big as the sky. Hence, “I love you big as the sky” became Johnson and G. Bill’s special greeting.

Shortly after saying those words her husband, “I love you as big as the sky” spread to the whole family. “My husband loves an abbreviation,” she says, “So it was shortened to ILYBATS.” 

“When we send each other letters or cards,” says Betsy Wolfe, “Or even texts and emails, we write ILYBATS on the outside of the envelope. My phone knows it so well, it comes up on my auto-correct. It all goes back to my dad and my sister Mickie.” 

“It all goes back to my Dad,” says Johnson. “He said the prayers and did the work. As the years go by, more and more of our family has come to the Lord. I’m sad that he died so young at 42, but I’m grateful for everything he did for us.” 

TOP PHOTO: Betsy and G. Bill. Photo courtesy Chris Bergstrom and the Wolfe family.