Stan Kowalski's shoulders and knees are made of titanium, but nobody questions what's in the old wrestler's heart.
The man who was once dubbed "Killer" and "Krusher" and was part of a pro wrestling tag team called Murder Incorporated is now 85. But his 200 yearly appearances for the United Way and tireless campaigning for homeless veterans show that Kowalski will still go to the mat for any cause he believes in.
"There are 740 homeless veterans in Minneapolis and 7,000 around the state, and I want to know why nobody's taking care of them," Kowalski said.
"If it was your family, you'd do something. You don't just leave 'em. Somebody's gotta take care of them."
Kowalski is determined to be that somebody. Last year, he recruited 61 new members to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Last month, Kowalski, who lives in Blaine, organized and promoted a 9/11 memorial at Spring Lake Park High School.
He may no longer stand 6-foot-3 or approach 300 pounds, but when he says he's going to approach Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak about converting an old elementary school building into a home for destitute veterans, he'll probably have no problem grabbing the mayor's attention.
"I've got unions ready to come in and remodel an abandoned school and turn rooms into apartments," Kowalski said. "And when we get the veterans settled, I'm telling the Veterans Administration to do something to help get these guys jobs."
The man who says he's met kings and dictators and was Ronald Reagan's guest at the president's California ranch is anything but bashful. And he's surely not the villain he played in the ring.
Kowalski has reinvented himself often, but his dedication to service members is the real deal, he said.
Born Bert Smith and raised in northeast Minneapolis, he joined the Navy at age 17 and served on a submarine in the Pacific during World War II. He says he was 5-10 and 160 pounds when he entered the service -- and 6-3 and 250 pounds when he got out.
He wrestled to kill time
He wrestled in the service -- "to give me something to do," he said -- and continued to wrestle at the University of Minnesota. A coach saw something in him and suggested he go to California and become a professional wrestler.
Pro wrestling was different in those days, Kowalski said. Matches weren't orchestrated the way they are now. A wrestler was paid more for winning than losing a match.
He went to the East Coast and tried a few name changes.
"Antino Buddy Marco was one," he said. "I'm not sure where that came from."
Somewhere in New England, he decided to embrace his Polish roots. He thought Kowalski, or something close to it, was the family name before it was changed to Smith. His grandfather called him Stash, so Stan seemed a natural choice.
19 major titles
There were nicknames, of course: He was "Killer," but there was another Killer Kowalski, a cousin. So he became "Krusher" Kowalski and, later, "The Big K."
And he won -- 19 major titles in all, he said. Between 1950 and 1976, he was in 6,600 professional matches. In a match in Pennsylvania against Bruno Sammartino, he said he helped set a wrestling attendance record and helped take in a record gate at the time, $86,000.
He decided it was time to get out of the ring when a promoter told him the day of a match that his opponent was going to have Kowalski's title before the night was over.
"No way," Kowalski told him. "I'll beat this guy. I'm not gong to have any problems with this guy."
The promoter smiled.
"But he's going to be champion," the promoter said.
Made for TV
Retirement did not sit with him -- or his wife, Cleo -- very well. He ballooned to nearly 320 pounds.
"Every morning I'd get up, eat breakfast, watch TV, have lunch, watch TV, eat supper, watch TV and go to bed," he said.
His wife gave him an ultimatum. Leave the house at 9 and don't return until 5. She didn't care where he went.
He volunteered for the United Way and became the organization's most prolific speaker in the Twin Cities. He became the VFW's state commander, after serving as district and post commander -- a triple crown of sorts. He was the first person in 30 years to hold all three positions at various times. On his massive hand he wears a large ring commemorating his service to the VFW.
He carried the Olympic torch through downtown Minneapolis in 1996 (and says he still has that torch, by the way). He's raised money for University of Minnesota sports programs. He's headed ROTC fund drives and has made dozens of trips to Camp Ripley and the Air Force Reserve's 943th Airlift Wing to see off troops about to be deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan or Kosovo.
One day last week, he spoke at four different locations in one day for the United Way.
"I don't nap," he said. "I've had colon cancer and have a defibrillated heartbeat, but I feel great.
"I just don't have time to slow down. There's too many people to help."
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419