WRESTLING: BHS, BSU trailblazer Jack Willhite dies

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Jack Willhite (right) was inducted into the Bemidji High School Wrestling Hall of Fame in February 2017. Willhite, who started Bemidji's wrestling program in 1955 and was the team's first coach, died on Sept. 11 at the age of 88. (Pioneer file photo)

BEMIDJI -- Jack Willhite, one of the most important figures in the Bemidji wrestling community, died on Sept. 11 at the age of 88.

Willhite established the Bemidji State wrestling program in 1953 as a player/coach. He then founded the Bemidji High School wrestling program in 1955, accumulating an 18-8 record over the Lumberjacks’ first two seasons on the mat. His overall record was 127-63-8, which also included stints in Grand Rapids and St. Louis Park.

A St. Cloud Tech graduate, Willhite attended Itasca Junior College and then BSU -- forming wrestling programs at both schools. He lettered in football and track as a Beaver, while also going 19-2 as a wrestler, and he was inducted into the Bemidji State Athletics Hall of Fame in 1979.

Willhite coached six individual state champions and 34 individual state tournament qualifiers -- including 10 Lumberjacks -- while also leading one team to a state runner-up finish in his coaching career. He retired in 1992 at the age of 62.

Willhite was inducted into the Bemidji Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2017. He has also been a member of the Minnesota Wrestling Coaches Association Dave Bartelma Wrestling Hall of Fame since 2001.


“(My time in Bemidji) is an experience I’ll never forget because of all the things I remember going way back to its infancy when I started the program and what it's grown to,” Willhite said in 2017. “I was only here two years but how fortunate I was to have that team wind up winning the regional tournament in both years.”

The pioneer was also the founder and initial coach of Minnesota Special Olympics, according to his obituary. He received a number of awards, including National Coach of the Year in 1988.

Willhite died at his home in Minnetonka surrounded by his family. The family conducted a private funeral, while a public celebration of life will be held at a later date. He is survived by his wife, Karen, daughters Linnea (Doug) Manske of Delano and Kirsten (David) Barraclough of Rapid City, S.D., plus many extended family members.

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