- Cornell Alumni
Rest In Peace, Arno Niemand '56
Generous and passionate.
When asked about Arno Niemand, those words came up time and time again.
He was passionate about Cornell wrestling, women’s wrestling, great achievements in wrestling, and, well, wrestling in general. And that passion extended to other areas as well.
“Arno loved to support youth,” said fellow Cornell wrestling alum David Wechsler ’60. “He was compassionate towards everyone and didn’t limit himself to wrestling in his generosity. And it needs to be said that his wife Brenda was the same way.”
Indeed, the Niemand presence is felt in numerous places around Ithaca - the Arno Niemand Arena inside the Friedman Wrestling Center, Niemand-Robison Softball Field, as well as the Niemand Fitness Center in Teagle Hall.
“Arno once heard [former Big Red] softball coach Dick Blood speak,” said Cornell Director of Athletics and Physical Education Andy Noel. “Coach Blood had to take the team to the Lansing recreation field miles away for practice in his personal van. Arno was taken with Coach Blood’s ethics, drive, and humility and decided to support the building of the softball field. The softball program went from being a low key one to a great program that won a number of Ivy titles and a big upset at the NCAAs.”
Noel also recounted that Niemand saw a need for a training center for all Cornell students, beyond the dedicated facilities for varsity athletes. That’s how the Niemand Fitness Center came about.
Answering the call when a need arose was a theme for Niemand. The growth of women’s wrestling in the United States and around the globe is well known now, but Niemand was a supporter decades ago. In fact, when USA women’s wrestling didn’t have a sponsor, Niemand enthusiastically jumped on board to fill the role, later saying the he was “gratified by the success” of women’s wrestling.
He began his journey in the sport in high school, and like many, was hooked.
“There is a self-selection process in wrestling which goes from the first time you step on the mat," he told USA Wrestling in 2009. "People are quickly weeded out and the struggle is almost everything in the sport.”
He proudly passed through that self-selection process in high school and at Cornell, where he was a starter for the Big Red at 137 pounds. He was part of the 1953 Big Red squad that took second in the EIWA and third at the NCAA Championships.
Years later he yearned to get back on the mat, even if only fictitiously.
“We used to kid about it all the time,” Wechsler said. “He would call me every five or six weeks and ask - are we going to have an exhibition match? Do you have your singlet ready to go?”
While Wechsler and Niemand never did wrestle that exhibition bout, Niemand did get to use his wrestling skills after graduating from Cornell. More than 25 years ago, Niemand was robbed in a parking lot by someone less than half his age.
“As the guy walked away, Arno jumped on his back, brought him to the ground and held him there in a wrestling hold until authorities arrived," Noel said. "I remember Arno telling me he barred his left arm and used hip pressure. He was heralded as a hero and I believe his story was on the very famous Paul Harvey Radio Show.”
His link to wrestling never waned. In fact, Noel was amazed at the calls he frequently received from Niemand.
"Arno cared about the experience of the men on the team and their success at a very profound level,” he said. “He knew so much detail about each individual. He was constantly calling me for updates when he didn’t see someone in the lineup. He always wanted to be up to date with the latest information. I remember when Vito Arujau was first going down to 125 pounds, he called me and asked, 'Can he get there? Will he be ok?' He was so immersed in the team and so invested in everyone being successful and thriving.”
Of course, Niemand was instrumental in making the Big Red the thriving and successful program that it is today.
“Arno, along with Steve Friedman, David Wechsler, and Phil Proujansky really showed their care, loyalty, and support of the program when I became head coach,” Noel said. (He took the reins of the program in 1974). “They were so motivated and inspired to make the Cornell wrestling program reach its potential. What they did and continue to do can’t be overstated.”
Noel added that Niemand was proud to be part of the historic Cornell Class of 1956, a class that set the university record for reunion giving.
After graduating, Niemand earned his MBA at the University of Virginia. After serving as a first lieutenant in the US Army Signal Corps, he worked for his family’s packaging company, becoming the President and CEO.
In 1990, he founded the very successful Body Bar Systems, which sold fitness products all over the globe.
His talents went beyond wrestler, high achieving professional, and philanthropist. He also researched and authored the book, “The Dream Team of 1947”, which depicted the Cornell College (Iowa) NCAA Championship team.
Niemand felt it was important to share the story, which he described to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame as “one of the greatest upsets in sports history that no one’s ever heard of outside of a small group of wrestling aficionados.” For his work, he was made an honorary Cornell College Alumnus.
There are so many accomplishments to remember, but for Wechsler, he’ll always recall the gatherings at the NCAA tournaments.
“Whenever we got together at Nationals, Arno and Brenda always knew which art museums had the best shows,” Wechsler said. “Between the sessions of wrestling, they would always lead a group of alums to great exhibits - combining wrestling with art collections. He always had some great stories to tell.”
And there are many great stories to tell about Niemand as well. His dedication and contributions to the sport certainly did not go unrecognized.
FILA granted him the Gold Star in 2008, the “highest award” given by the international wrestling governing group.
He was inducted into the Cornell University Hall of Distinguished Alumni and served on the Cornell Athletic Advisory Board for more than a decade.
The National Wrestling Hall of Fame inducted Niemand with the prestigious Order of Merit in 2009. He also earned the USA Wrestling Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011, and was honored as Outstanding American by the New York Downstate Chapter of the National Hall of Fame in 2017.
Prior to receiving the Order of Merit, Niemand said, “It’s a great honor to be considered for this category considering the past recipients who have contributed significantly to the sport. I guess everyone is trying to give back in some way to whatever they’re enthusiastic about. Fortunately, this has been a passion of mine.”
He certainly contributed significantly and was passionate and generous to the very end.
In fact, his passion even came through in an email to this author as he talked about just how “delighted” he would be to talk about his Cornell experience and his continued connection with the university, just shortly before his passing.
Cornell Wrestling is incredibly proud to have Arno Niemand as an alum, benefactor, visionary, friend, and so much more and will forever be thankful for his countless contributions.
Rest In Peace, Arno Niemand.
Photo: National Wrestling Hall of Fame
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