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'Mean' Gene Okerlund, Wrestling’s Greatest Interviewer, Had a Decades-Long Love Affair With Sarasota

Okerlund began visiting Sarasota in the 1970s and later lived in Osprey's Oaks Club year-round.

By Clayton Trutor September 17, 2023

Millions of wrestling fans around the world knew longtime Sarasota resident Gene Okerlund as “Mean Gene,” a nickname given to him by his friend and colleague, Jesse “The Body” Ventura.

For more than 40 years, Okerlund was the most trusted voice in professional wrestling. A consummate professional, Okerlund put his memorable baritone to use with the American Wrestling Association, the World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment) and World Championship Wrestling. His ability to sell fans on the significance of what they were seeing in the ring played as profound a role as any individual performer in transforming professional wrestling into a multibillion-dollar industry.

Okerlund also had a years-long love affair with Sarasota. He began visiting Siesta Key in the mid-1970s and moved to the area permanently in the 1990s. He and his wife, Jeanne, took joy in being near friends and family, not to mention everything else the area has to offer, right up until Okerlund's death in 2019, at age 76.

Eugene Arthur Okerlund was born on December 19, 1942, in Brookings, South Dakota, to Arthur, a farmer and seed dealer, and Helen, a homemaker. He was raised in Sisseton, South Dakota, a community of 2,500 in the state’s eastern plains, not far from the North Dakota and Minnesota borders. His friends called him "Gene-o." He was an accomplished athlete, playing on his high school’s basketball, baseball, football and track teams, but his true passion lay in music and radio.

“He practiced being a disc jockey at his house before he ever was one," says Tor Okerlund, Gene's son. "He would spin records in his room. That’s where it all began."

From a young age, Okerlund played piano—classical at first, although he later fronted a rock 'n' roll band in Sisseton called Gene Carroll and the Shades. Okerlund played piano, guitar and sang for the group, whose sound on singles such as “Red Devil” and “Is It Ever Gonna Happen” was reminiscent of performers like Jerry Lee Lewis and Gene Vincent. Gene Carroll and the Shades were a big hit in South Dakota and toured extensively in the Midwest and were inducted into the inaugural class of the South Dakota Rock and Roll Music Association's Hall of Fame in 2009.

Throughout adulthood, Okerlund kept a baby grand piano in his home and played daily. In fact, while working with the WWF, he recorded a version of Little Richard's “Tutti Frutti" for the WWF's The Wrestling Album, and he later performed the song live at WWF's 1986 "Slammy Awards."

Okerlund graduated from Sisseton High School in 1960 and attended the University of Nebraska for one year before breaking into radio. At 19, he landed a job as a disc jockey and program manager for WDGY-AM, a rock 'n' roll station in Minneapolis.

In 1964, Okerlund married Jeanne Zulawnik of Wausau, Wisconsin. In the early years of their marriage, they moved frequently for Okerlund’s work as a DJ, but eventually put down roots in 1967 in Minneapolis, where they raised two sons, Todd and Tor. With a young family to support, Okerlund moved to the sales side of the broadcast business, taking a position with WTCN-TV in nearby Golden Valley, Minnesota. Later, he got into the advertising business and founded the successful Cohen Okerlund Smith firm in Minneapolis.

“He had an unbelievable talent for public speaking," Tor says. "I watched him do presentations where he scribbled down 10 words of notes and then gave an eloquent 20-minute pitch. He practiced and rehearsed being a broadcaster and a public speaker. It was evident when you saw him work. He could put a few scraps together and create a masterpiece."

It was at WTCN that Okerlund broke into wrestling. He began working part-time as a wrestling announcer for Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association, a Minneapolis-based promotion that was one of the country’s largest. Okerlund soon became the primary interviewer for AWA.

“He was a natural,” Okerlund's friend Jim Brunzell says. Brunzell was a major star in the AWA, winning the tag team championship twice with Greg Gagne. He worked with Okerlund for many years in the AWA and, later, the WWF, where he performed as “Jumpin' Jim” in the Killer Bees tag team with Brian Blair.

“To me, he was the greatest interviewer in the business," says Brunzell. "The other guys couldn’t hold a candle to him." Before the days of pay-per-view and big cable television contracts, wrestling was almost exclusively a live event business. Wrestlers and wrestling promotions made money by persuading people who watched their television programs to buy tickets to in-person shows. Okerlund literally talked people into the building.

 “A wrestling interview does four things, and they all start with a W: who, why, where and when," says Brunzell. "Who do you want to wrestle? Why do you want to wrestle them? Where are you going to do it? And when are you going to do it. [The interviewers] would incorporate those four questions into a story. Gene was so good at it because he’d been a fan of wrestling and a fan of the business. He didn’t come into it blindly. He led the guys through an interview and it was golden."

Okerlund’s voice, honed by years of work as a DJ, was instantly recognizable. It was also the way he spoke in everyday life. The "Mean Gene" people saw on television was just like the "Gene-o" people knew off-camera.

“He always had the voice,” says Tor. “If you got in trouble, he used that same voice.”

“He was a big personality, both on and off the camera,” says Todd Pettengill. Pettengill worked as an announcer for the WWF in the 1990s before enjoying a long career as a New York City morning show host. “He loved life and didn’t use the word ‘no’ a lot when invitations came up. He was always game and always ready to be part of the party.”

“There wasn’t a big difference between the public Gene-o and the private Gene-o," says Tor. "He was a fun-loving, hard-working guy. He loved what he did and he loved the people that he worked with."

Okerlund made friends everywhere he went in the wrestling business, beginning with his time in the AWA. Nick Bockwinkel, Andre the Giant and Ric Flair became lifelong friends—but no one in the business was more closely associated with Okerlund than Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, manager extraordinaire and probably the funniest on-air personality in wrestling history.

“He and Bobby Heenan worked together for decades and adored each other," Tor says. "They were their own tag team. They were hilarious together."

“Gene and Bobby never stopped," says longtime WCW ring announcer David Penzer. "It wasn’t a show. You could tell their love and adoration and respect for each other.” Penzer worked with both men in the WCW during the 1990s. “You could flip a coin for who had a quicker wit between them.”

Mary Brunzell, Gene Okerlund and Jim Brunzell in Venice.

It was during his dozen-year tenure in AWA, from 1972 to 1984, that Okerlund became a regular visitor to Sarasota. The Okerlunds purchased a condo on Siesta Key long before it became one of the world’s most popular beach destinations.

“In the late 1970s, there were very few high-rise condos [on Siesta Key] and there were still bars on the beach," Tor says. "It was a pretty fun scene."

When they were in town, the Okerlunds were regulars at the Crescent Club.

“They didn’t have too many quiet evenings at home," Tor says. "Even if they did, it probably started with going out for a drink and dinner. My dad, specifically, preferred to be out. He got a lot of energy from being around people." 

Sarasota was also the perfect place for Okerlund to pursue two of his passions: boating and golf.

During his time in the AWA, when he lived in Minneapolis, Okerlund would join the guys from the locker room for fishing trips to Lake of the Woods, Minnesota. He eventually purchased a place of his own in northern Minnesota’s cabin country on Big Sandy Lake. The Okerlunds spent several months there each summer—boating, fishing and relaxing. Boating became a pastime Okerlund shared with his sons and, eventually, his grandsons. It became just as central to his life in Sarasota. He spent countless hours on the water with friends and family.

Golf also anchored Okerlund’s social life in Florida—especially when he made his home at The Oaks Club in Osprey and became a fixture on its 36-hole course and dining establishments.

“Gene-o loved to golf," Tor says. "He loved the social aspects. That’s how he spent most of his free time, whether he was with his buddies or my mom.” The right-handed Okerlund—always a strong athlete—was an excellent golfer, known among his friends for his short game.

He was devoted to sports, too—especially hockey. His son Todd was a star hockey player who played at the University of Minnesota, on the 1988 U.S. Olympic hockey team and, briefly, for the NHL's New York Islanders before injuries derailed his career. For a number of years, Okerlund had season tickets for the NHL’s Minnesota North Stars.

“When Gene-o would walk into a hockey game, he would get the most amazing ovation from the guys in the upper level," Tor says. "They loved him and he loved them."

Okerlund speaks during the WWE Hall of Fame Induction in April 2014.

Okerlund speaks during the WWE Hall of Fame Induction in April 2014.

As Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation came to dominate the wrestling business, Okerlund became part of an exodus from the AWA to the WWF in 1984. In the WWF, he again served as the promotion's lead interviewer. He became particularly associated with its rising star, Hulk Hogan, with whom he had worked in the AWA. Okerlund’s segments with Hogan played no small role in creating Hogan's larger-than-life persona. Of all the famous utterances to come out of Hogan’s mouth, his “Let me tell you something, Mean Gene” was among his most iconic.

“Gene coming over [from the AWA] was a big plus for WWF," says Brunzell. "People in the Midwest were so familiar with him, and he was such a great personality that he fit right in." (Brunzell began working at WWF in 1985.)

Okerlund spent many Mondays and Tuesdays at a rented TV station in Poughkeepsie, New York, with WWF talent, conducting interviews with wrestlers to promote the company’s upcoming live events and pay-per-view shows. Over the course of 10 to 12 hours, Okerlund would do as many as 400 event-specific interviews with wrestlers to promote the shows. Rarely did he need a second take.

Pettengill remembers his friend as a master of his craft, and a master at creating a rapport with wrestlers and the audience.

“Tempo, timing—there was nobody better than Gene," Pettengill says. "He also knew when to say nothing, which I think is a lost art. A lot of [interviewers] now just want to talk, talk, talk. If Gene didn’t think a guy was finished, he’d leave the microphone there and wait.”

It was Okerlund who first told Pettengill about Sarasota, and Pettengill has owned property in the area for more than 25 years. They often hung out, playing a round of golf before grabbing a bite to eat and a drink. Pettengill cites Okerlund as a major influence on his work as a wrestling interviewer and morning show host.

Okerlund always had great relationships with his co-workers and bosses, and taught his sons to embrace that same sensibility in their own working lives.

“He definitely respected the people he worked for,” says Tor, who has had a long career in the event planning business. “He was very loyal.”

In 1993, Okerlund took a position with media mogul Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling, where he continued to work as lead interviewer. A group of his longtime friends, including Bobby Heenan and Ric Flair, also worked there, giving Okerlund a built-in after-hours crew that soon blossomed into another large social circle.

“You hear people say, 'Don’t meet your heroes because they might disappoint you,'" says David Penzer, who arrived at WCW as a producer shortly before Okerlund. "I met Bobby and Gene and they didn’t disappoint me. They surprised me and made me feel like I belonged.”

In college, Penzer wrote up a list of people he’d like to have a drink with. Okerlund and Heenan were Nos. 1 and 2 on the list. He remembers the hours of laughs that Okerlund and Heenan provided in the WCW announcers’ locker room, telling old wrestling stories from their long careers. Penzer's father, a psychologist, often came out on the road to watch his son perform. During this time, Penzer's father and Okerlund became fast friends.

“Every time I saw Gene, it was, ‘How is Dr. Penzer doing?’" Penzer recalls. "I would tell my dad and he would say, ‘Oh my God, he asked about me!’ It was little things like that which made you feel special. It  showed what a class act Gene was."

At WCW, Okerlund continued conducting market-specific interviews with wrestlers to promote live events. Penzer often served as his producer.

“WCW set up a gray box with an air conditioner in the parking lot, and that’s where we did all the interviews,” Penzer says. He and Okerlund spent several hours every Monday and Tuesday covering each town. Penzer credits Okerlund with teaching him the art of the wrestling interview.

“You could have him in there with a green-as-grass wrestler and Gene could carry the minute-and-a-half interview and make the guy seem like he was a star," Penzer says. One of the wrestlers who spent hours in the box with them was Chris Jericho, who watched Okerlund as he tried to develop his own microphone skills. Jericho went on to become not only one of the best talkers in the business, but one of its most popular performers.

“In interviews, people would try to throw Gene off but he would always have an answer," Penzer says. "The guys loved to try to ruffle his feathers, but he had the quickest wit."

Gene Okerlund in his later years

Gene Okerlund in his later years

Okerlund worked with WCW for a number of years before returning to the rechristened World Wrestling Entertainment when Vince McMahon’s company purchased WCW in 2001. He worked on several projects for WWE over the next two decades, but by that point was spending most of his time in Sarasota.

“Gene was a talk-fast, drive-fast kind of guy," Pettengill says. "I don’t think there was much down time for him."

In 2006, Okerlund was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame by Hulk Hogan. In his later years, he signed autographs and took pictures at wrestling conventions, where fans could meet their heroes. His comfort in those types of settings was no surprise to Tor, who remembers his father as always having time for fans and enjoying his interactions with them.

Okerlund died on January 2, 2019, after battling kidney disease for several years. On that day, the wrestling business and Sarasota lost one of its most fascinating characters—but his contributions to the world of wrestling live on. 

“He was just such a happy guy," Penzer says. "He loved making people laugh—whether it was 50,000 people in the Superdome, in a car or having a drink with friends. He just liked to entertain people.”

Clayton Trutor holds a Ph.D. in U.S. history and teaches at Norwich University. He is the author of Loserville: How Professional Sports Remade Atlanta—and How Atlanta Remade Professional Sports and the forthcoming Boston Ball: Rick Pitino, Jim Calhoun, Gary Williams, and the Forgotten Cradle of Basketball Coaches. He’d love to hear from you on Twitter: @ClaytonTrutor.

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