The loss of Owen Hart shakes the professional wrestling world to this day. Stories of pranks and humility, Owen remains one of the most likable personalities in sports entertainment history. In this week’s installment of Pro Wrestling Stories, Owen’s widow, Martha, opens up about her final moments with her husband. In this passage, it’s a pleasure to see a side of Owen not often seen – Owen, the family man.
If you enjoy what you have read, be sure to check out Martha Hart’s moving book, Broken Harts: The Life and Death of Owen Hart.”
“I feel I’ve done everything in life. I’ve reached all my goals, I’ve traveled all over the world, ridden a camel in the desert, I’ve been to Africa, India, Japan, Mexico, all over Europe. I’m married to the woman I love, we have two great kids … I feel I’ve lived the most incredible life and all I want to do is keep living it.”
– Owen Hart
“Whether Owen was home or not, Friday night was always pizza night. After a swim at the Killarney Pool our two kids, Oje and Athena, always looked forward to dropping by Spiros Pizza to pick up a Hawaiian Special on the way home. Friday, May 21, 1999, was no different in this respect, but what made the evening so special was Owen’s rare presence.
As was usually the case when Owen was home, it had been a busy day.
Owen joined me as we went to Christopher Robin Junior School to pick up Athena for an afternoon at the Science Centre. Our first and only house of ten years was up for sale and we were asked to vacate it for the day so the realtor could show it.
Acting goofy as always, Owen flipped up his collar to look like some sort of nerdy Dracula and thoroughly enjoyed watching our precious, pony-tailed daughter, then three years old, discover the wonders of science. A big kid himself at 229 pounds, with a neck practically as big as my waist, Owen seemed equally as enthralled with the various hands-on exhibits and challenges aimed at children twenty years his junior. He and Athena were adorable to watch together.
Soon thereafter we made a quick trip south of the city to the house we had been building for the better part of the last two years.
As part of his final touches to the place, Owen had just painted a bench swing for our wraparound porch. Here we planned on spending evenings snuggling up together with mugs of hot tea while the kids would play in the big backyard.
Owen was scheduled to fly out the next day for a typical ten-day stretch of wrestling shows and a pay-per-view event as part of the World Wrestling Federation’s traveling soap opera/freak show. The next time he was scheduled to be back in town the new house would be our home. Although I was in charge of the entire move, he wanted to help as much as he could before he left, to ensure it would be a smooth transition without him.
As one of the WWF’s highly touted international stars, Owen was on the road up to 250 nights a year. I had long become accustomed to “running the show” in Calgary while he put on shows all over the world.
Later that night at the pool, I watched as Owen ran into one of his favorite people, Bill Breen. He was our next-door neighbor who always seemed to enjoy a laugh with Owen. With imminent plans on moving his family as well, Bill found plenty to talk about with Owen as I watched the kids.
Owen was a baby-faced giant whose twenty-one-inch neck and ability to bench over 350 pounds were a strange fit for his boyish grin and playful personality. Everyone seemed to like him-not just because he was recognized around the city and the world as a high-profile wrestler, but because he loved to laugh. He was a good listener with a heart of gold and an infectious grin. He made me proud everywhere we went. Yes, there were times he’d frustrate me to no end with his incessant pranks and pratfalls, but that was also part of his charm.
Wrapping up his conversation with Bill, Owen told him he was “just like a brother to him.”
The words meant plenty considering Owen was the youngest of twelve children born into Canada’s undisputed first family of wrestling.
Growing up in a red-brick Victorian mansion perched on Calgary’s west side overlooking the city’s ever-growing skyline, Owen was taught early on about the importance of family. You look after your family members and you stick together.
Yet his home was managed more like a decrepit, broken-down hotel for freeloading wrestlers, sideshow freaks and animals used in his father’s Stampede Wrestling circuit.
Owen’s lifelong goal was to simply be normal. While his life on the road or in the WWF was anything but, I like to think our little family of four gave him the love, attention and nurturing he missed out on in a childhood house that had its share of misfits.
Coincidentally, I too grew up the youngest in a large family that had a number of drifters roving in and out of the house.
The Hart house was even more crowded with outsiders, including various mechanics who worked on any number of the broken down Cadillacs Owen’s father, Stu, kept strewn across his acreage.
In both our houses, the intrusion of strangers did well to disrupt what little family unity we had, as nameless, faceless strangers would routinely sit down at the dinner table with us. They were generally harmless folk who were down on their luck and needed help getting back on their feet. However, as children, Owen and I similarly resented their presence. Although we appreciated our respective parents’ kind intentions, we could think of plenty of other ways to help those in need without disrupting family life.
Although his good looks and brilliant smile were what initially attracted me to Owen, I think it was our similar backgrounds that truly brought us together. We both wanted the same things in life. We wanted a normal existence with a nuclear family and good, strong values. We did neighborly things, got involved in our children’s schooling and were active in our children’s lives. Neither one of us had that while growing up, but we had it now, and our Friday night ritual drove that point home.
Returning to our southwest Calgary home with pizza and two starving children in tow, we settled down for a quiet evening in the family room. Owen stoked the fire and put a Disney movie on for the kids. There were plenty of laughs and plenty of smiles.
Just over an hour later, we put the children to bed and reconvened on the sofa to watch one of our favorite movies, Father of the Bride. We spoke briefly about how proud we were of our two kids and the direction we had them going.
Owen and I were especially pleased the children were not interested in following wrestling in any way.
Both kids loved swimming and, despite a WWF schedule that almost always included Friday night cards, Owen tried as hard as he could to be there for our week-ending routine. If at all possible, he’d reschedule Friday night flights to the midnight milk run so he could enjoy the evening, kiss the kids goodnight and travel overnight to his next match.
One Friday night he made sure never to miss was the annual family camp-out at Butterfield Acres. It involved setting up camp, singing songs and sleeping in a tent together with other families setting up nearby. Every year he would book off that night so he could camp by flashlight with us. One year it got rained out and was switched to the following week. He was so upset. Despite the rain, we went camping that night anyway. We were soaked to the bone, shivering and uncomfortable. I felt like a cavewoman. He loved it, though, because we were together, doing something normal families did.
One year he flew home from California just so he could watch Oje perform in his school’s Christmas concert. All the kids thought it was so cool Oje’s dad flew two-and-a-half hours to see the show before racing back to the airport for a return flight an hour later.
While some days I felt like a single parent, having to raise the two all by myself, Owen’s time at home was a powerful reminder the kids and I were not alone. The two children had given us so much joy through every stage of their young lives that we had planned to have a third child within the next year. It was with that in mind we decided we’d need the bigger house. We were so excited about the idea of having another child, we painted a bedroom in the new house yellow, so it could be a nursery. Sadly, it remains empty.
Before we delved into what would be the most memorable conversation of my life, Owen said something out of the blue.
“This is your life, isn’t it-just you and the kids?” He smiled, tilting his head and wearing a look that made it clear that he too would love to be a bigger part of that life.
Although I love my children dearly and have always treasured the ability to spend plenty of time watching and helping them grow up, I longed for the day when Owen’s traveling would end and we’d get to be a true family unit. Yes, this was my life but it could’ve been so much better with Owen by my side more often.
We both knew that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. Despite the fact Owen grew up wanting to be a school teacher and later tried to join the fire department, we both realized a few years earlier that he would likely wrestle for a while longer. He figured his body could stand up to the rigors of pro wrestling until at least age forty, if not longer, and he was only thirty-four. As disenchanting as the WWF had become, the money was good and we had a new house to pay for.
We had accepted wrestling as his career-that was our life.
As the movie progressed that evening, so did a heart-to-heart discussion that eventually turned to his job-something we rarely talked about.
He had been informed just a few days earlier that he’d be required to descend eight stories, from the rafters to the ring, for an upcoming pay-per-view show. He admitted to me he was scared about it. It wasn’t that Owen was afraid of heights, but having done two previous stunts in which he first rappelled into the ring along a guide wire and later descended from high atop a building, he was uncomfortable with the idea. What was heightening his fear was that, for the very first time, he would descend straight down into the ring hooked up to a harness from behind-there would be no guide wires. It was a long way to go with nothing to hold onto.
Scheduled just two days later, for the “Over the Edge” pay-per-view show in Kansas City, Missouri, there was little time for him to protest the decision. Owen was assured he would be in the hands of top stunt experts so he figured there was little point in ruffling feathers among show writers. He had already spent a lot of time over the last several years arguing with WWF brass who wanted him to take part in a variety of lurid storylines.
Whereas wrestlers had once been a collection of comic-book superheroes battling evil challengers, the WWF had degenerated into a sleazy soap opera that suddenly revolved around immorality, sex and vulgarity, a world in which good is bad, and bad is better. Owen figured there were only so many times he could charge into the production room and beg off from yet another sick or ridiculous gag aimed at bolstering all-important TV ratings.
Years earlier, when he began souring on the business and its rigors, he wouldn’t have cared if he had lost his job. However, things had changed. We now had a new home to pay for as well as costly designs on private schooling for Oje and Athena. In addition, we’d hopefully have a third child on the way soon, which would mean even more bills.
Promising himself and me he’d never sell out for the money, he decided he wouldn’t be part of any storylines or antics his children couldn’t watch on TV. That was his barometer and it was forever being tested. Truth is, we never let the kids watch wrestling anyway.
Still, there were certain aspects of the job he knew he would have to endure, despite his displeasure. This stunt planned for Kansas City was obviously one of them.
As we sat chatting in our cozy living room surrounded by framed family photos, I knew Owen was having a hard time saying goodbye to our modest digs. He would have been content to stay in our original home the rest of our lives. The house had a sentimental value he figured could never be replaced no matter what price we sold it at. It was the house we brought our first bundled-up newborn to on March 5, 1992. Three-and-a-halfyears later, on September 23, 1995, we did the same with Athena.
“When I’m not home, you’re the little man in the house and it’s your job to be good to your mom and sister.” – Owen to his son, Oje
Soaking up his final night in our home, he reiterated just how lucky we both were. Yet, with all wrestling had provided, I pointed out to Owen a stunt like the one scheduled for Kansas City was way above and beyond his job description. He was a wrestler, not a stuntman. I told him he should get the WWF to sign a waiver in case something happened and he was unable to work for a while. He agreed.
It was then he rattled me with words that will stay with me forever.
“You know, if anything ever happened to me I’d want you to find someone else.”
“Especially for Athena,” he added. “Oje will be fine because he’s really close to you. It would be Athena that would need someone.”
I grew extremely upset. Getting up off the sofa and standing to face him, my voice began rising. I told him not to talk that way. He too grew more and more serious and reiterated his stance.
My worst fear for years had been the prospect of losing Owen. I worried he’d die in a plane crash or car accident, or that he’d be crippled by something gone terribly awry in a wrestling match.
I suppose most happy couples worry that way. Given that Owen was my high school sweetheart and the only man I’ve ever loved, I needed him in every way. We needed one another. We were soul mates and nothing could be allowed to ruin all we had hoped and dreamed of together. How would either one of us be able to go on alone?
Shuddering at the thought, I returned to the sofa, cuddled up to him and buried my head in his broad chest. I told him if something ever happened to him I would be so terribly alone. He disagreed, reminding me people like my dear mother Joan and my sister Virginia would do anything to help. As for his family, which we had purposely distanced ourselves from for years, he told me Bret could be counted on for anything. He also pointed out that my closest girlfriends, Lisa Hartzell, Sharon Falk and Tammi Christopher, were really good people.
With all that was said, it was nevertheless a strange and foreboding moment.
Owen came from a family of seven brothers and four sisters, in which Bret was the eighth-oldest sibling and the one Owen knew best. As two of the WWF’s most popular attractions, they had traveled all over the world together, occasionally dabbling as both partners and opponents.
Wrestling was Bret’s passion, which accounts for why he was so successful professionally. Owen’s passion was his family-wrestling was just a job. As a wrestler, Owen always took solace in the fact he could count on dependable advice from his big brother, “The Hitman,” who is a multi-millionaire and was widely considered the most famous Albertan, if not one of the most famous Canadians, alive. Despite being radically different individuals, they were close at times.
Getting up to pour a cup of tea, I confided to Owen my belief that if something ever happened to me I would feel as though I hadn’t truly lived yet. As happy as I’d been through the years, and as excited as I was about our future, I just felt there was more for me to experience out there.
He felt completely differently about himself. “I feel I’ve done everything in life,” he said, his face lighting up. “I’ve reached all my goals, I’ve traveled all over the world, ridden a camel in the desert, I’ve been to Africa, India, Japan, Mexico, all over Europe. I’m married to the woman I love, we have two great kids … I feel I’ve lived the most incredible life and all I want to do is keep living it.”
At first I was somehow angry at his words, although I quickly realized I was envious more than anything else. Only now do I see his words as so terribly sad. He just wanted to keep living.
With a busy day ahead of us, we decided to skip the rest of the movie. Instead, Owen suggested we pop in a home video. We selected our recording of the day Oje was born. It was a great choice as it’s one of the only videos we have in which neither one of us is behind the camera filming. We’re both sitting together with Oje, talking to the camera.
With a deep sigh Owen sank back into the sofa, put his hands behind his head and said, “This is so nice. You can just never have enough of this stuff. We have to watch more of this, it’s so precious.” I agreed.
Capping off a wonderful day with a kiss from the man I so dearly loved, we went to bed. It would be the last night we’d ever spend together.
The next morning, Owen woke up early and went downstairs to grab the Saturday paper and make coffee. Returning to the bedroom after rousing the kids and getting their day started, he climbed back into bed with a steaming cup of coffee for me. I flipped on the Tv and we cuddled. A brilliant sunshine blanketed the room when he opened the curtains.
I treasured mornings like these – there were too few of them. I felt like life was too good to be true, that I had everything I could ever want. It was one of those rare moments I actually thought about my happiness. Owen crawled back into bed and we spooned, holding each other tight. It was wonderful.
Knowing how much I loved a particular gardening show that was on TV, he instructed me to stay in bed while he got up to make his famous French toast. A half-hour later we assembled as a family at the kitchen table for breakfast, something the kids loved as much as I did.
Forever wanting to spend every possible minute at home, Owen had rescheduled his 8 A.M. flight to noon. Yet, as always seemed to be the case, he suddenly found himself rushing to get out the door. Quickly packing his two small carry-on bags – a task he had down to a science – he ran down the stairs and clamored to throw on his boots. Since I had to drive Athena to soccer, he decided to spend a little extra time with Oje by driving with him to the airport. The plan was he’d pick my mother up on the way so she could drive Oje and the minivan back.
As we gathered in the garage to see him off, Owen was in such a scramble to get going I was reluctant to even hug him for fear of slowing him down. I elected for a brief embrace and a quick peck on the cheek as he tied his boots. It was then he stopped, pulled me into his arms and kissed me on the lips. I remember thinking how incredibly thoughtful it was of him to do that. As much of a hurry as he was in, he wanted me to know he was never too busy for his wife. It was our last kiss – a moment I’ll forever cherish.
Having made his way to Chicago for a show that night, he called for our nightly chat shortly after midnight. Typically spending at least an hour on the phone with one another every evening, it wasn’t uncommon for us to rack up monthly long distance bills in excess of $400. Because we couldn’t share our days together, we spent countless hours rehashing them over the phone.
We were always very connected, taking one another on a chronological review of our respective days. Even though we had spent the morning together, much was discussed. I was particularly intrigued by the conversation he told me he had with Oje en route to the airport.
Before picking up my mom, Owen said Oje was kind of quiet and listened closely to his father’s words. Owen told Oje, “When I’m not home you’re the little man in the house and it’s your job to be good to your mom and sister.” Owen gave him this little pep talk about what it’s like to be a good person.
Little Oje, all of seven years old, then asked his dad how one goes about picking a wife. Owen said you have to pick someone who’s going to be your best friend and help you.
When I think of how everything unfolded, I think it’s just so incredible Owen had this talk with him and that Oje has this final memory of his dad giving him such great advice.
Given how perfect our last couple of days had been together, I didn’t want to let him hang up. After ninety minutes of chatter into the wee hours of the morning, it became apparent to both of us I was simply stalling him – I even asked what he ate for dinner. It was silly but I just wanted to hear his voice. Our conversation the night before had stuck with me and I didn’t want to hang up.
Finally he said, “Martha, you know I love you. I’m so tired, I just want to go to sleep.” A minute later we exchanged goodbyes and he told me once more how much he loved me.
We’d never speak again.”
SOURCE: Broken Harts: The Life and Death of Owen Hart by Martha Hart.