Asheville NC Citizen-Times – December 24, 1999
By Sandy Wall
WAYNESVILLE – Billy Wicks always seems to be in the right place at the right time.
The 67-year-old son of a Norwegian immigrant was able to turn several chance meetings into two fascinating careers – one as a professional wrestler and the other as a law enforcement officer.
Along the way, Wicks battled tough guys across the country, was a witness to history during the trial of James Earl Ray and even met the King of Rock and Roll.
“I think I am very lucky,” Wicks said with a grin.
Nowadays, Wicks works part time at the Waynesville Recreation Center. He jokes that he’s the man who fetches the toilet paper. But Wicks’ life has not been ordinary.
Wicks’ father, who was born Bjorn Johannson, sailed to the United States in 1912 aboard the California. During the crossing, he and other passengers saw a ship in the distance firing rockets into the sky.
The California’s captain, believing the faraway ship was shooting rockets to celebrate a party, dismissed it. The ship turned out to be the Titanic. It sank hours later.
Once in the United States, Wicks’ father changed his surname, settled in Minnesota, married and had two sons.
Wicks grew up in St. Paul, Minn. At age 16, he had a chance meeting with a college student who was teaching wrestling at the YMCA. He took to the sport almost immediately, and later worked out with the McAllister College wrestling team even though he was not a student there.
Another chance meeting, this one with a female professional wrestler at a record store, put him on the road to wrestling for money. During the early 1950s, Wicks worked at carnivals in the Midwest as a wrestling “hooker” – that is, wrestling volunteers from the audience.
Later, he hooked up with wrestling promoters and worked in “territories” from Oregon to Oklahoma to Texas. He eventually settled in Memphis, Tenn., where he earned fame wrestling on local television and at venues in western Tennessee and in adjoining states.
Basically, professional wrestlers were ego-maniacs, “Look at me, look how tough I am,” Wicks said. “And I can make money at it.”
In 1959, Wicks wrestled in a match refereed by former heavyweight boxing champion Rocky Marciano and witnessed by more than 15,000 people. About a year later, Wicks took the recommendation of a friend and went to work as a deputy sheriff with the Shelby County, Tenn., Sheriff’s Department.
In 1969, Wicks served as bodyguard for the late Judge Preston Battle, who presided over the James Earl Ray trial. Ray pleaded guilty to killing the Rev. Martin Luther King, although he later recanted.
Wicks retired from wrestling in 1972, retired from the sheriff’s department in 1987 and moved to Waynesville in the early 1990s.
His body bears the scars of years of professional wrestling. He has self-described “tin ears,” does not have full use of his right arm, has an artificial knee and recently underwent surgery to repair some vertebrae.
Despite the toll, Wicks has no regrets.
“I wouldn’t trade it for a million bucks, buddy,” he said.