Thunderbolt Is Silenced

Houston Chronicle – January 6, 2000
By Kevin Moran

DICKINSON – When television and gimmickry began taking over the world of professional wrestling, Jim “Thunderbolt” Casey knew it was time to bow out.

Performers such as George Raymond “Gorgeous George” Wagner were moving in, and Casey refused to fake the action in his matches, his wife, Myrtle, recalled Wednesday.

“He wasn’t going to play their game, so they could get others who did,” she said. “He said if he was the better of the two, that’s the way the match was going to go.”

So the Irish-born Casey – a legendary wrestler, boxer, rower, tug of war champion and member of what was billed as “the toughest family on earth” – left the ring in 1947 but didn’t quit looking for challenges.

The longtime Dickinson kennel owner, who schooled even NASA astronauts in the fine points of rowing, died Sunday at Mainland Medical Center of complications from a stroke. He was 87.

Services will be at 9:30 a.m. today in the Crowder Funeral Home chapel in Dickinson.

The former Pacific Coast and Texas state professional wrestling champion’s survivors include his wife of 54 years, a Galveston County native who met him when he literally fell in her lap after an opponent threw him from the ring during a 1945 wrestling match in Galveston.

Casey and his six brothers were champion rowers and national sports heroes in Irland before Jim, Tom and Steve came to the United States in the 1930s seeking their fortunes. Steve, nicknamed “Crusdher” Casey, won the world wrestling championship in Boston in 1938.

The seven brothers are enshrined in the Irish Sports Hall of Fame. The lone survivor among them now is Paddy, who is 90 and lives in Ireland.

“You don’t encounter many people in your lifetime like Jim Casey,” longtime friend and Johnson Space Center director George Abbey said Wednesday. “What he did athletically over his career is amazing.”

Abbey said he met Casey in the mid-1970s after a beefy Rice University team defeated Abbey, other NASA flight directors, scientists and astronauts in a tug of war during the annual Houston Highlanders Games.

“Jim and his brothers had won the Irish tug of war championship in 1932, when he was a young man,” Abbey said. “They had trained for a year to go and take on the champion team that had won for many years. It was a continuous pull for 45 minutes before they finally beat them.”

After training with Casey, Abbey and four other NASA men returned to the Highlander Games, stunning the Rice team, which was anchored by a star football lineman.

“They were standing there in amazement,” he said. “It was really the technique that Jim taught us that enabled us to do it. He trained us and I think we won the next three or four years.

“He was anxious to get a rowing program started in the Clear Lake community and now we have one here,” Abbey said.

Tales of the seven Irish brothers’ exploits abound. On display at today’s funeral will be a scrapbook containing hundreds of newspaper articles, wrestling-match posters and other items that tell the siblings’ story.

In November 1940, Jim and brothers Steve and Tom took up a challenge by New England rowing champion Russell Codman Jr. With the Joseph Kennedy family and thousands of other Irish-Americans cheering them from the banks of the Charles River in Boston, the Caseys humiliated Codman, who came in fourth out of four one-man sculls.

After Casey decided to quit wrestling, he and his wife opened successful nightclubs in the Boston area. When mobsters began trying to muscle into his business in the 1960s and threatened his family, Casey sold his club rather than go along with them, she said.

The family headed for California but never made it past Texas, said Myrtle Casey, 78.

They ended up in Galveston County, where Casey began buying and selling land. He and his wife opened one kennel, then built a larger kennel business on FM 646 that their son, James, and daughter-in-law, Gerianne, now operate.

“He was a good promoter and a good businessman and a success in everything he ever went into,” his wife said.

Abbey noted that Casey also was a patriotic man who “came to be a real Texan, too.”

“When he’d go back to visit in Ireland, he’d always have his cowboy boots and his white Stetson on,” Abbey said. “He was a big man, but when you saw him with his boots and Stetson on, he was even more impressive.”

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