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An early Thanksgiving story about Aunt Vi, the 122-pound lady wrestler

Publicity photo shows Violet Franco — Aunt Vi to her family — from her days as a pro wrestler. She frequently arrived for a match dressed in harem attire. Here she is portraying the sultan’s favorite.
Publicity photo shows Violet Franco — Aunt Vi to her family — from her days as a pro wrestler. She frequently arrived for a match dressed in harem attire. Here she is portraying the sultan’s favorite. Courtesy of Dorothy Wilhelm

My Aunt Vi was a professional wrestler.

“Look — Look — Look,” her posters screamed, in big black letters over a shot of her curvy, diminutive figure. “Violet Franco — 122 lbs — fastest and strongest little lady in wrestling today.”

Today would have been the late 1940s and early ’50s. The picture shows my aunt lifting a 200-pound man on her abdomen. The posters don’t say why she’d want to do a thing like that. That was decades before the ladies of GLOW gave us a more contemporary TV look at the sport.

Vi frequently wrestled on the same bill as her four brothers. The Battling Francos got their start wrestling in carnivals and challenging the local champion, winner to get the princely sum of $25.

As her career advanced to TV, Aunt Vi included a collection of height-challenged men and billed her act as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. This did not seem odd to me. That was just Aunt Vi.

Even in those days before Facebook, Vi had groupies. Gentlemen were always falling in love with her and wanting to meet her — and marry her, hopefully as soon as possible to save the time and expense of dating. She had a loving heart and at one time was engaged to roughly a whole cadre of soldiers from Fort George Wright in Spokane.

“I always feel sorry for them and say ‘yes,’ ” she sighed, “but not sorry enough to marry them.”

No matter where they traveled, Aunt Vi and the Battling Francos would all get together around the family table for Thanksgiving. You could count on it. And there would be fights. You could count on that, too.

The Franco version of a traditional dinner was more likely to be Hunter’s Stew than turkey. Hunter’s Stew is made with super hot peppers, beef and pork and perhaps an unwary critter or two that gave it a really unusual flavor. Sooner or later someone would express the thought that if the pilgrims had been Italian or perhaps Chinese or from New Delhi, the food would be much better.

Sooner or later though, the conversation would turn to the Battling Francos, and the year Aunt Vi took on the Blonde Bomber from Bakersfield, California. It must have been a great match because somewhere in one of the boxes in the garage, I have Vi’s gold championship belt.

Eventually, Violet Franco retired and taught square dancing on cruise ships.

Today’s descendents of the Battling Francos are spread around the world, but if we could get together around a virtual table, the descendants of those Italian carney folks would include career servicemen, health care professionals, educators, attorneys and a professional puppeteer, oh, and a newspaper columnist and author.

Around that virtual table, we’d tell all the precious family stories. How my grandfather, who was the oldest of 24 children came to the United States first and my grandma followed through Ellis Island with four of the children. They moved on to a cold water flat in Chicago.

One of the children died there and the family moved west to settle on ranch land in rural Oregon, three miles from Roseburg.

They built a house with a lot of personality, but somehow forgot to install outside stairs from the second floor. You could get out only by literally hurling yourself to the ground. That first step was a lulu.

There was no electricity and no indoor plumbing. No outdoor plumbing either, but Grandpa imported grapes and created a very nice winery in the cellar.

If we were all together around the table, Number One daughter is sure to recall with glee the year Thanksgiving was at her house, and her “baby” Great Dane (a mere 160 pounds) walked over to me, rested her head on the table and drooled a great puddle of Great Dane drool onto the tablecloth at my fingertips.

It was an unforgettable but messy gesture of love.

We’ve heard a lot talk lately about whether there’s a value to allowing people from other countries to live here. It’s important to remember that plenty of people were once as vehement about not letting Italians or Catholics into the country as they are about people from other countries now.

My son the Latin teacher commented recently, “I saw it pointed out that everyone in this country is the result of some combination of Indigenous people, slaves, refugees or immigrants. As long as we’re being thankful, it’s important to remember where we came from.”

You see, I never understood that we were immigrants. I just thought we’d come home.

Dorothy Wilhelm is a professional writer, humorist and speaker. Her podcast, “Swimming Upstream,” is available 24 hours a day at Her new book, “True Tales of Puget Sound,” will soon be available from The History Press. Contact her at PO Box 881, DuPont WA 98327, 1-800-548-9264.