Wonder Boys Celebrate 100th Anniversary

“Look out for him before he starts, for once he is on his way brick buildings, rock walls and other immovable bodies but slightly impede his progress.” 

Henry Loesch of the Arkansas Gazette published those words on Nov. 6, 1920, in reference to John Tucker, quarterback for the Second District Agricultural School football team.

Eleven days later, the Arkansas Gazette used the nickname Wonder Boys as a proper noun in describing the team from Russellville for the first time.

For 100 years, young men representing the school that came to be known as Arkansas Tech University have followed Tucker’s example by refusing to allow any opponent or any obstacle to stand between them and success.

ATU will take a closer look at the legacy built from 1920-2020 with a documentary film celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Wonder Boys nickname. The film is currently in production and is scheduled for release through www.arkansastechsports.com in fall 2021.

“A Wonder Boy is something unique and special,” said Rick Thone, who was an All-America split end on Arkansas Tech’s 1971 NAIA national runner-up football team and was inducted into the ATU Hall of Distinction in 2008. “The greatest thing that ever happened to me was when I decided to come to Tech and be a Wonder Boy. You learn how to work hard, get along and be a team player. Regardless of where I go, I am always proud to say I am an Arkansas Tech Wonder Boy.”

Thone and his wife, Harriet, both served on the ATU Board of Trustees and they co-chaired the Return to Glory capital campaign during the mid-2000s. As a result of their leadership in that effort, Thone Stadium—home of Wonder Boys football—was dedicated in their honor in 2007.

Thone’s head coach at Arkansas Tech was Don Dempsey, who was the walking embodiment of the toughness required of a Wonder Boy.

Dempsey’s name is listed alongside fellow Arkansas Tech head coaches E.O. Brown, John Tucker, Raymond Burnett, Marvin “Shorty” Salmon, Brooks Hollingsworth, Steve Mullins, Sam Hindsman, Deward Dopson, John Widner, Marty Barnes, Mark Downey, Doug Karleskint, Chad Kline, Jim Franks, Dale Harpenau, Dave Dawson, Dave Falconer, Luke Calcatera and others who have helped bring meaning to the nickname Wonder Boys by molding the student-athletes under their charge into champions.

Mason Reynolds and his teammates on the 2014 Arkansas Tech baseball team earned that title—champion—when they won the Great American Conference regular season title.

“Being a Wonder Boy is something I will forever carry with me and something I will forever be proud of,” said Reynolds, who graduated from Arkansas Tech in 2014 and went on to earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree. “We were playing for each other, but we also took it on ourselves to thank all of those that sacrificed so much throughout the history of the university to allow us to be fortunate enough to get the amazing upgrades to the baseball facilities. It was an amazing ride, and I think I speak for all of us on that team when I say we will always be Wonder Boys and follow this program.

“The nickname Wonder Boy, to me, is a term of endearment, sacrifice and honor,” continued Reynolds. “Obviously, knowing the history behind the name gives you a sense of great pride in always wanting to make the Original Wonder Boy, Captain Tucker, proud of anyone who wore that name.”

Clearly, the Original Wonder Boy’s influence on Arkansas Tech extended far beyond his playing days from 1919-24.

Tucker went on to work at the school in a variety of roles—including coach, teacher, athletic director and director of student affairs—between 1925 and 1972.

He took a brief sabbatical from Tech to attend the University of Alabama, where he played on the Crimson Tide team that defeated Washington State 24-0 in the 1931 Rose Bowl.

Tucker came back to serve as head coach for the Wonder Boys football team from 1933-41 and again from 1945-47. He won 77 games and five Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference championships as Tech head football coach. His .791 winning percentage still stands as the best of any head football coach in school history.

Today, two buildings on the Arkansas Tech campus—Tucker Hall and Tucker Coliseum—are named in his honor. He entered the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1962 and he was part of the first class inducted into the Arkansas Tech Hall of Distinction in 1965.

Also in 1965, toward the end of Tucker’s lifelong association with Arkansas Tech, the Agricola yearbook was dedicated in his honor and these words were written about him:

“If you are a relative Johnny-Come-Lately, and are not closely connected with Arkansas Tech, then John Tucker may be just a name to you —a name dropped in awe by people who saw him as a football player, or who watched his teams from one to two decades later. If you are now or ever have been a student of chemistry at Arkansas Tech, the name John Tucker is synonymous with excellent instruction. John Tucker has proven to be a most capable leader of youth, and has been and still is, loved and respected by all who know him.”

The standard Tucker and his teammates established for what it means to be a Wonder Boy has continued to ring true through the generations.

“I went to Webster’s Dictionary, and there is no definition for Wonder Boy,” said Jim Murphy, member of AIC championship football teams at Arkansas Tech in 1968 and 1970, a 1971 graduate of Arkansas Tech and a 2013 inductee into the ATU Hall of Distinction. “I came here from the military and had the unfortunate circumstance of arriving without any knowledge of what it meant to be a Wonder Boy. I found out quickly that I had joined a unique group of individuals with diverse backgrounds, but all of them with a desire to be something special and add to the traditions at Arkansas Tech. We were united in the fact that we wanted to be the best there was.” 

-By Sam Strasner
for the Tech Action, Fall 2021
Note: Daniel Gallegos, Taylor Gamez and Stormi Leonard from the ATU Office of Athletic Communications contributed to this article. Photograph: Wonder Boys Trophies 1954-55