MINNEAPOLIS -- Stan Kowalski grappled with wrestling opponents for a living, and carried that fighting persona into the real-life battle for his fellow military veterans.
Kowalski, who died Friday at the age of 91, never stopped thinking of the guys he served with on Navy submarines in the Pacific during World War II.
"He had a love for those fellow servicemen and crew members that he carried with him a whole lifetime," friend Pat Turgeon told KARE.
He joined the Navy at age 17 and served in Submarine Squadron 182 aboard the USS Bashan and USS Plaice. He worked tireless for his generation of veterans and those who followed.
"He was in that generation that wouldn't consider the job done unless you solved the problem. If you ever had a problem with a vet not getting care and you called Stan, he would work on it until they got call-backs and things happened."
Turgeon first met Kowalski when she worked for the Minnesota legislature two decades ago, and the Kowalski would come to as a citizen lobbyist to speak up for veterans.
"Stan Kowalski rarely took 'No' for an answer and I think that's how he got a lot things done. He did not know fear," Turgeon explained.
"When I first heard he had passed away, my thoughts were with his family," Turgeon said. "He was such a larger-than-life person to all of us, and he was so loved and dedicated to his family it has to leave a huge vacuum for them."
Turgeon said Kowalski had the cell phone numbers of several Minnesota governors, and would dial them up whenever it was warranted and pull no punches.
"I have seen him call governors and clearly state his opinion on issues!" she recalled.
Most of the people at the State Capitol knew Kowalski through his work with the Veterans of Foreign Wars, promoting projects such as the World War II Memorial.
But earlier in life he was known as "Krusher Kowalski" in the wrestling ring in the United States and Canada, teaming up with Tiny Mills to form a duo known as "Murder Incorporated."
After the war Kowalski had enrolled at the University of Minnesota and wrestled for the Golden Gophers, behind another legendary grappler Verne Gagne. One of the Kowalski legends is that he passed up on a chance to play for the Green Bay Packers so he could pursue pro wrestling.
The name Kowalski was one he chose, because his birth name "Bert Smith" didn't blend well with the "Krusher" handle.
Kowalski would have other vocations along the line, such as police officer and bar owner. But the grappling legacy stuck. He had autographed copies of promotional photos in his wrestling garb.
"He told me he had to give me a picture of him, and so he gave me this picture and it said, 'To Pat, never forget, Stan Kowalski,” Turgeon recalled, as she cradled the keepsake in her lap.
"It’s a picture of him in his wrestler uniform, but he cut off the other person who was in the picture with him! I’m thinking this probably isn’t the only one that got cut and distributed like this, knowing Stan. That was my buddy."
Turgeon called it an honor and a privilege to get to push Kowalski's wheelchair around the World War II Memorial in Washington DC, when they traveled there in 2009 as part of a Veterans' Honor Flight.
And when she battled multiple myeloma cancer in recent years, and was bedridden for 18 months in a body cast, Kowalski and other veterans in his circle would check on her regularly.
"After my cancer battle, there’s not much I tear up about anymore, but I tear up thinking about Stan."
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