A Minnesota Marvel: The Johnny Lettengarver Story

The son of Harry and Margaret (White) Lettengarver, John 'Johnny' 'Peewee' Alfred Lettengarver was born April 29, 1929 in St. Paul, Minnesota. As a young boy growing up during The Great Depression, he made his own fun by taking to the frozen ponds of St. Paul and Minneapolis and soon was recognized as something of a child prodigy.

Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine

Johnny's parents enrolled him in figure skating lessons at the St. Paul Figure Skating Club and by the age of eleven, he entered the world of competitive skating - coached by no less a great than World Champion Megan Taylor and mentored by USFSA judge Mary Louise Wright.

Photos courtesy "Skating" magazine

By the time young Johnny was fifteen, he won the bronze medal in the novice men's event at the U.S. Championships behind Dick Button and Jean-Pierre Brunet. In the two years that followed, he won the U.S. novice and junior men's titles as well as the U.S. junior and Midwestern senior pairs titles with partner Harriet Sutton of Minneapolis. The pride of Monroe High School, not only was he a skater going places but an honour roll student and senior vice-president of his class. Nicknamed 'Pee-Wee' by his peers for his compact stature, he also excelled at gymnastics, horseback riding, cross-country running and track and field.

A silver medal win in the senior men's event at the 1947 U.S. Championships in Berkeley, California earned Johnny a coveted spot on the American team headed to the 1948 Winter Olympic Games in St. Moritz, Switzerland. At the age of eighteen, he departed for Europe in December 1947 aboard the S.S. America, early enough to get in some much needed practice in advance of the 1948 European Championships in Prague which preceded the Olympics in Switzerland. Though he placed fifth in Prague, he made quite an impression on the Canadian and Hungarian judges, who both had him second in the free skate... ahead of Switzerland's Hans Gerschwiler. In St. Moritz, his free skating performance was second best to Dick Button but a fourth place finish in the figures kept him just off the podium. A similar scenario played out at the World Championships that followed in Davos, where young Johnny again had to settle for fourth place. After another trans-Atlantic voyage aboard the S.S. America, he claimed the bronze medal at the U.S. Championships behind Button and Jimmy Grogan. That August, he announced his decision to turn professional, thus ending an incredibly short but thoroughly impressive competitive career. At the time, he told Associated Press reporters, "It looks as though the draft is going to get me and I won't be able to do any skating in the Army. So I might as well cash in now and be a professional."

As he predicted, Johnny was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1950, after skating a stint as a featured skater with the Ice Capades. He joined the cast of John H. Harris' Ice Cycles spin-off tour in January of 1953 and later returned to Ice Capades, performing alongside Ája Zanová, Donna Atwood and Bobby Specht and Silvia and Michel Grandjean. He skated a solo act as well as a precision duet with childhood friend Don Pearson. The November 8, 1950 issue of the "Buffalo Courier-Express" described him as "poetry in motion" and the March 13, 1949 issue of the "Chicago Tribune" raved, "Mr. Lettengarver moves like a dancer and skates like a dream. He has instinctive elegance and style to spare, a rare sense of timing in space, and his turns in the air have a silky, balletic brilliance. There are plenty of other experts, but he is unmistakably a star."

Top: Don Bearson and Johnny Lettengarver in the Ice Capades. Bottom: Johnny Lettengarver in the Ice Capades.

Interviewed for "The Philadelphia Inquirer" on October 11, 1949, Johnny said, "There is long training to go through before the Olympics and there is plenty of high tension during the Games. That's easy compared to the championship competition I face in every Ice Capades performance. With Ice Capades, I have to be at my peak all the time because the entire cast is made up of champions. It's competition every night and keener than one will find in amateur contests... Every performance is a stern test of a skater's skill and the applause of the crowd is an honour that has given me my greatest thrills."

While touring with the Ice Capades, Johnny met his wife Virginia, a fellow skater. After retiring from the show in the late fifties, the couple settled in the state of Washington and raised two sons and a daughter. A love of water both frozen and not, Johnny became a keen boating enthusiast and a respected skating coach at Highland Ice Arena in Shoreline, Ballard Arena in Seattle and Jimmy Grogan's school in Squaw Valley. In his spare time, he enjoyed skiing and sports cars. He sadly passed away of cancer on January 14, 1997 at the age of sixty seven.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating": https://skateguard1.blogspot.com/p/buy-book.html.