August 06, 2008

University's Three-time Olympian also a rocket scientist

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The average person might not believe the terms wrestler and rocket scientist could co-exist, but at Case Western Reserve University combinations like this are the norm and William Kerslake is the namesake.

"It was an odd dual-career," laughed Kerslake.

Kerslake, who received an undergraduate degree in industrial chemistry in 1951 and a master's degree in chemical engineering in 1955 from Case Institute of Technology (CIT), was more than just a grappler for the Rough Riders— he wrestled for his country on the world's biggest stage. So he can relate to members of the 2008 U.S. wrestling squad who will begin their quest for Olympic gold mid-August in Beijing.

"While wrestling my senior year [at CIT] I saw that I was just about equal with everyone in the nation at the time, so I tried out for the Olympic team and I won a spot in 1952," Kerslake explained. "I was undefeated in this country from 1952 through 1960."

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Kerslake, who credits his success on the mat to legendary CIT Head Coach Claude B. Sharer, wrestled on three U.S. Olympic teams: 1952 in Helsinki, Finland; 1956 in Melbourne, Australia; and 1960 in Rome. Over that eight-year span, he won 15 national championships in the heavyweight division, eight in freestyle and seven in greco-roman. He also won a gold medal at the 1955 Pan American Games in Mexico City.

Unlike most of today's athletes who can train year-round thanks to sponsorships or their youth, Kerslake had to juggle a full-time job and his large role at home with preparing to wrestle the world's best. Kerslake had to use all his vacation days and some unpaid leave time to train for and compete in the games. Although he would never admit it, that may have been what held him back from an Olympic medal.

"I kept on going after that [Olympic] gold, but I never got it," Kerslake explained. "But getting married and having four children and 10 grandchildren makes you forget about things like that."

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Around the same time he was pinning opponents he was also considered one of the main players in electric ion propulsion in the world. Kerslake worked with chemical rockets, intercontinental missile combustion, ion propulsion and rail accelerators at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and its successor, NASA.

His research with chemical rockets played a role in the success of the Apollo program and a current NASA rocket, headed to an asteroid near the planet Jupiter, is using ion rocket engines.

The 78-year old Kerslake retired from NASA after 35 years of service as an aeronautical research engineer in 1985 and to this day credits the two-dollar chemistry set his grandfather bought him when he was 10 and successful homemade roman flares and sky rocket launches in junior and senior high for his interest in chemistry and coming to the university.

"During my freshman year I was so happy to go back to school on Monday morning because I did so much studying on the weekend," Kerslake explained. "I learned so much about all the sciences that year that I felt over the next three I was just polishing up. The faculty made us think and grasp our ideas."

Rough Rider Run

As an undergraduate, Kerslake won nine letters in wrestling, football and track and field. He set the Case and Ohio Conference shot put record in track, was an All-Big Four tackle [defensive and offensive] in football and was one of the premier wrestlers in the country. He was voted Cases' outstanding athlete of 1951. Kerslake is a member of the Case Reserve Athletic Club Hall of Fame, the Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame and the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Okla.

Family Connections

Kerslake's wife, Pat, is an alumnus as well. She graduated from Flora Stone Mather College in 1951 with a degree in elementary education. The two first met on a blind date at a fraternity party on campus. Kerslake's youngest two children followed in his footsteps at NASA. His daughter, Ann, is a branch chief overseeing 25 engineers and his son, Tom, is a senior engineer working on the Orion capsule. The two were also standout athletes at local Midpark High School.

For more information contact Creg Jantz, 216.368.6517.

Posted by: Kimyette Finley, August 6, 2008 01:06 PM | News Topics: Alumni, HeadlinesMain, features

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