Editor’s note: Today is the second in a series of articles profiling the 2015 Norwich High School Sports Hall of Fame induction class.
By Tom Rowe
In 1965 Sam Elia was completing his 19th and final season as Norwich High School’s highly-successful wrestling coach, and he still had more than 10 years left mentoring the Purple’s golf team in addition to overseeing the school’s whole gamut of sports as Athletic Director. And during that same halcyon year of 1965 a young British lad by the name of Ray Davies was penning the Top 20 hit “A Well Respected Man” for his quartet The Kinks. Although the song was a satirical look at the lives of well-heeled Brits, its title fit Samuel Francis Elia to a tee.
“He was a great coach, knew his stuff and gave it his all,” said Don Manley, who wrestled under Elia from 1953-57, compiling a gaudy 67-2 record, and who, himself, was recently elected last year to the Norwich High School Sports Hall of Fame. “But, more importantly, he was the perfect role model, and that was scarce. He may have been the only role mode I had as a young fellow.”
Elia, who graduated from Norwich in 1932, lettered in golf, as well as playing football, basketball and baseball his senior year. Class statistics in the school yearbook listed his amusement as being gallant, and his ambition to be a Notre Dame star. Well, he headed west after graduation but to LaCrosse State College in Wisconsin, rather than to Fighting Irish territory. There at LaCrosse, he not only graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Physical Education, but met the love of his life Dorothy Ranallo. Married in 1940, they remained in the Midwest while Sam took graduate courses at the University of Minnesota. Two years later, they returned to Norwich, where Sam began his livelihood in teaching. But World War II put a quick stop to that career and he spent three years in the Air Force before resuming his life in Norwich in 1946.
It was then that Elia assumed the reins of the Tornado wrestling program, taking over from Frank Giltner, who had inaugurated the program some 11 years hence. And in his very first season, without any wrestling experience behind him, Elia demonstrated the flair that would be his trademark for the next two decades as the Purple posted a 9-1 dual meet record en route to the Section 4 championship. The two of them will be honored posthumously on Sept. 20 in Syracuse with their induction into the Upstate New York Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.