The Day Tarzan Came Home to Iowa

Thursday, January 14th, 2010 | Columns, Iowa History Journal, Wrestling

This is the Publisher’s Perspective column from Volume 2, Issue 1 of Iowa History Journal:

During my long career in journalism I’ve had the opportunity to meet many interesting personalities … from President Ronald Reagan to boxing legend Muhammad Ali, from actors like Robert Redford and Lou Ferrigno (“The Incredible Hulk” of TV fame) to super athletes like Dick Butkus and Bob Mathias.

But one of the most memorable moments came when Tarzan visited Iowa City.

I was editor of the Voice of the Hawkeyes newspaper in 1985 when Dan Gable, Iowa’s wrestling coach at the time, called me and asked if I had any ideas on who he could get to be an “honorary coach” at the upcoming wrestling match between the Hawkeyes and the Cyclones. The meet was already a very big deal back then, but he was trying to put a little extra excitement into the event and thought it would be fun to have someone special with his team on the bench.

I said, “How about a former movie Tarzan?”

“That sounds interesting,” he replied, “but what’s the connection with Iowa?”

I told him that Jock Mahoney was raised in Davenport and was an athlete at the University of Iowa in the early 1940s. He wound up in Hollywood and became one of the most respected stuntmen in movie history. He went on to star in his own television series, called “Range Rider,” and in movies.

In 1962, Mahoney became the 13th actor to play Tarzan, king of the jungle.

“And Tarzan was a wrestler,” I added a little tongue in cheek. “In every movie, he winds up wrestling various jungle animals and villains.”

Gable asked me to try and arrange it. So I called Jock at his home in Sherman Oaks, California. I introduced myself and asked him if he knew who Dan Gable was. I found out from his response that he was still a dedicated Hawkeye fan.

“Do you think I live under a rock? Of course I know who Dan Gable is,” said Jock with a chuckle.

When I told him that Dan and Glen Patton, the swimming coach, would like him to be a guest at their meets and that I would like to host a film festival in his honor, he was happy to oblige.

It turned out to be a great weekend. On Saturday afternoon, Jock, his wife Autumn, my wife, Bev, and I all attended the Iowa swim meet, where he was introduced. That night, we went to the Iowa-Iowa State wrestling meet, where a crowd of 12,000-plus gave Jock a standing ovation.

He walked out onto the floor dressed in his cowboy attire (Jock always loved the western films) and took off his cowboy hat, waving to the crowd. He sat with the Iowa team for half the meet, and then came up in the stands to sit with us for the second half.

After the meet, we drove to a huge Iowa victory party at the old Holiday Inn on Highway 218, north of town. It was packed to overflowing. I introduced Jock and he said a few words about his pride in being a Hawkeye. He signed hundreds of autographs and enjoyed it immensely.

The next afternoon, we held the Jock Mahoney Film Festival in the Student Union, showing both of his Tarzan films and a Three Stooges short where he played the role of a villain. Jim Zabel, the longtime sports announcer at WHO Radio in Des Moines, came to the festival to say hi to his old school chum. Zabel had graduated from the same high school in Davenport a year after Jock. They reminisced for a long time, telling stories about their Davenport days.

When I took Jock to the airport the next day, he told me how much he enjoyed the weekend.

“Living in Iowa was a special time for me,” he said. “I can remember it all like it was yesterday.”

Several weeks later, he sent me a seven-page handwritten letter outlining his philosophy of life. Coming from a man who accomplished a great deal – going from Davenport, Iowa, to being a major movie and television star – I found it very interesting.

He stressed his viewpoint that it’s necessary to have the courage to test yourself before one can become a true winner, in athletics or any other part of life.

Jock was never afraid of testing himself … from athletics at Iowa, to being a stuntman and movie actor, and to trying something new after his movie career ended. He continued to work after Hollywood as a businessman, motivational speaker, sales executive, horse trainer and consultant. He operated a tourist attraction in Hawaii and a ranch in Colorado. He served on the board of directors of the Screen Actors Guild in Los Angeles and was president of the chamber of commerce in Lake City, Colorado.

He had numerous hobbies and interests and was always searching for new adventures, new challenges. He also believed in preparing oneself to meet challenges through study, hard work and planning.

“I think Jock’s goal is to live five lifetimes in one,” said his wife to me in Iowa City.

Here is part of what he wrote to me in his letter in 1985:

“I have found that after winning in any endeavor, it’s best at some point to move on to another field of endeavor and start all over. There is satisfaction and happiness in accomplishing and there is always the knowledge that you, with preparation, are a winner and success breeds success. The biggest rival you have is yourself, win or lose! Be a man and stand to be counted. Just don’t be afraid to try. Never!”

Though I never saw Jock Mahoney again, we corresponded and his optimism about life in general and his sense of adventure left an impact on me. I am proud that I was able to spend some time with this intriguing Iowan from out of the past and I hope you enjoy his story in this issue.

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