MARQUETTE - Marquette native Gus Sonnenberg was a national star in the wrestling world back in the 1920s and '30s. A man of small stature but great tenacity, Sonnenberg was most well known for his signature "flying tackle" move, which would knock his opponents off balance, making it easier for him to take down men who were bigger than he was.
And though Sonnenberg has been dead for nearly 70 years, he'll be brought back to life for a few hours during the Marquette Regional History Center's "Tombstone Detectives" event, which is set to take place from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday inside Marquette's Park Cemetery.
The event will take a group of area youth for a cemetery tour, stopping at the gravesides of such well-known Marquette residents as George Shiras and Carroll Watson Rankin, among others.
Marquette resident Gus Sonnenberg, pictured in an old newspaper clipping, became famous in the wrestling world in the 1920s and ’30s. Sonnenburg was known for his signature “flying tackle” move. He was inducted into the Professional Hall of Fame and Museum in 2007. (Journal file photo)
Above is Sonnenberg’s gravestone in Park Cemetery in Marquette. (Journal photo by Matt Keiser)
Each person whose grave the group visits will also be played in real life by a community member.
And though kids of all ages will get the chance to meet some famous historical figures of Marquette's past, they'll have a few other opportunities to learn how to preserve the history of their hometown.
Kids participating in the event will be allowed to make a tombstone rubbing of specific gravestones, learn about the mystery surrounding the oldest tombstone in Park Cemetery and discover what some symbols commonly found on grave markers actually mean.
"They'll be doing some listening, but also hands-on activities," said Rosemary Michelin, research librarian at the history center. "We picked people that kids would find their stories interesting and entertaining .. They're people in Marquette's history that had some interesting occupations."
Those occupations included photographer, professional athlete and lighthouse keeper, just to name a few.
Bob Mercure, of Marquette, will be playing the role of Sonnenberg on Thursday, complete with a wrestling uniform and gravely snarl.
"Gus is kind of an unsung hero," Mercure said of the man who came from the same time period as George Gipp, the nationally known Notre Dame All American football player who died tragically at the age of 25. However, Gipp's fame far outreached that of Sonnenberg, though Sonnenberg went on to earn accolades not only in the world of football, but also that of professional wrestling. He was even part of a minor Hollywood scandal when it was rumored that his wife had been out on a date with actor Gary Cooper.
Born in Ewen, Sonnenberg played football for Marquette Senior High School, eventually turning professional and playing for the Buffalo All Americans, the Columbus Tigers, the Detroit Panthers and the Providence Steam Rollers.
From football, he made his way into the wrestling world, making a name for himself nationally by defeating wrestling veteran Ivan Ludlow in 1928.
"This was a no-holds-barred type of wrestling," Mercure said. "You were to pound the opponent into submission."
Sonnenberg's most well-known match came on Jan. 4, 1929, when he defeated Ed "the Strangler" Lewis to win the world's heavyweight championship, earning him a prominent front page article in Marquette's local newspaper, The Daily Mining Journal.
"Tombstone Detectives" is open to the public. The history center is asking for a $5 donation to participate in the event. Though children of all ages are welcome to attend, the event is geared toward children 6 years old and up. Participants should meet at the main Seventh Street entrance to the Park Cemetery at 1 p.m. Thursday, rain or shine.
Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.