By Nick Hansen, Marshall Independent
MARSHALL - Tom Caron’s road to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame started in an ice cream truck.
The former Schwan’s employee is being inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame as an Outstanding American for his accomplished business career.
Caron used the principles he learned as a wrestler to help Schwan’s grow into a leader in the frozen food industry.
The Outstanding American recognition is given to individuals who use wrestling to help launch prestigious careers in other fields. There are only ten other Outstanding Americans from Minnesota in the NWHOF. They include former pro wrestler Vern Gagne and former Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice A.M. “Sandy” Keith. Caron will be officially inducted on April 25.
Caron’s wrestling career started at Northfield High School in the late 1950s. He attended Winona State University after graduating. He would compete in the Northern intercollegiate Conference, one of the best wrestling conferences in the country.
“It was a very powerful wrestling conference. It had twins who were on the Olympic team twice,” he said via phone from his Bradenton, Florida, home.
Caron was one of the top wrestlers on the team.
“I was the high point man on the Winona State team. I was a pinner. I pinned most people. I was a better dual meet wrestler than tournament,” he said.
Caron became a two time NIC conference runner up but had the bad luck of wrestling in the same weight class as the national champion.
“I simply couldn’t beat him,” he said.
After leaving Winona State in 1965, he moved to Milwaukee where he took a job loading an ice cream truck.
Caron first thought he was going to be a teacher after graduating college.
“I took a teaching job outside of Milwaukee. At that time teachers didn’t make a lot of money. I ended up getting a job loading a truck, happened to be a Schwan’s ice cream truck. I got $2 a night in the fall of 1965,” he said.
He eventually left teaching and moved to Marshall in 1969 after being asked to help set up a sales training program for Schwan’s.
“Marvin Schwan wanted to try new things and I liked new things,” said Caron.
Caron found he had a talent for business.
He helped Schwan’s start or acquire 26 companies over his 25 year career, including Tony’s Pizza and Red Baron. His proudest accomplishment was taking the pizza group to the top of the market share in both retail and food service. The company grew to a multi-billion dollar enterprise during his time.
Even though he found many successes while at Schwan’s, he knew that failure was part of success.
“I enjoyed seeing people that worked hard and were basically honest, good people and give them an opportunity to fail. They have to earn the right to succeed,” he said.
The grappler didn’t forget how much wrestling helped him learn that lesson.
“Wrestling is an excellent teacher. It’s an excellent tutor for going into business. One thing it teaches you is that you don’t keep trying to do the same thing if it doesn’t work,” he said.
Caron learned about teamwork, preparation, and working hard during his career on the mat. He wanted to make sure other individuals experienced those opportunities as well.
Caron made sure Marshall’s wrestling culture thrived.
Through Schwan’s he helped set up an endowment fund for the program.
SSU was struggling financially at the time and Caron helped the program get on solid ground.
“He and Gordy Molitor set up an endowment fund for the wrestling team. If they sold Tony’s pizza, they got money for it,” said Karen Sterner, wife of coach Mike Sterner, who relayed Mike’s comments through the telephone.
The university administration was grateful for the support.
“I was especially close to Tom Caron, who was an excellent vice president for the Schwan Food Company in Marshall,” said former SSU President John Wefald via email. “His contribution to the wrestling program in the late 1970s was an extraordinary gift. His gift to the school’s wrestling program was a game changer for the future. I will always be grateful for Tom’s excellent contribution.”
The team became a powerhouse in the mid 1980s, which was helped by Caron’s support. The Mustangs finished first in the region four times, including a seventh place national finish in 1989.
“It helped us stay on our feet and able to recruit. We were a tough team in the ’80s to beat,” said Sterner.
SMSU was not the only school Caron helped support.
He donated money to Bethany College, Minnesota State, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, the University of Minnesota, and his alma mater Winona State. Even though the Warriors disbanded their program as a varsity sport, Caron has helped raise $250,000 in matching funds to try and get the program reinstated.
U of M wrestling coach J Robinson said Caron is the ideal booster.
“He’s everything you want in a booster that loves the sport and wants to give back,” he said. “That’s one of the most important things wrestling misses and something that wrestling needs more people like Tom Caron.”
Caron has been personally involved with the Gopher wrestling squad. He’s donated money to help fund scholarships and cover operational costs for the program. The athletes know Tom and he’s sat on the bench for some of the Gopher’s meets.
He’s provided personal support for the program as well as financial.
“The thing that Tom does and he does it well is he brings people in. He makes it inclusive environment,” said Robinson.
Caron’s competitive spirit hasn’t diminished since leaving wrestling. He’s still battling, but his latest fight has been unlike anything he’s faced on the mat. Last April, he was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer that damaged most of his back. He was given a 7.5 percent chance of survival after two years.
“I approached it like you would a wrestling match or a business. You can cry, ‘oh me, oh my,’ or you can go forward,” he said.
However, late last year doctors found that “everything had settled down.” He said that he isn’t cured, but that his treatment is going into “maintenance mode”
Spencer Yohe, the Minnesota chapter president of the NWHOF, said the criteria for the Outstanding American Award includes integrity, professional success and the using the principles of wrestling to help those accomplishments.
With all of Caron’s accomplishments and successes, selecting him was an easy option.
“They don’t come any better than Tom Caron,” said Yohe.