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Masked man or not, 'just an idol' "If I drive around Japan without my mask on, they don't know who I am, and they cut me off. But if I wear the mask, they say 'Destroyer, dozo [go ahead of me.]'" -- Dick "The Destroyer" Beyer

Eleven-year-old Dick Beyer had just left church, armed with a nickel he somehow had "forgotten" to put in the collection plate. So he headed to the nearby candy store, on Leroy Avenue, where he heard the dreadful news:

Pearl Harbor had been bombed. The date was Dec. 7, 1941.

Like any true-blooded American boy, Beyer suddenly hated Japan, our nation's new enemy.

But in the ensuing 70 years, Beyer, who now lives in Akron, has forged a unique bond with the Japanese people, through his days as a professional wrestler and later as a television star. He has made about 200 trips to Japan, some with young Western New York wrestlers and swimmers, often to raise money for charitable causes.

Thursday, Beyer, now 81, will be honored with the Japanese Consul-General's Commendation for 2012 at a 6:30 p.m. ceremony andreception in Ilio DiPaolo's Restaurant on South Park Avenue in Blasdell.

Each year, the award is given to someone who contributes to a better understanding or an exchange of cultural values between the people of Japan and the United States. Previous winners include former New York Yankees outfielder Hideki Matsui.

"Any person in Japan who's older than about 40 knows who he is," Joe Koessler of Buffalo, honorary consul-general of Japan at Buffalo, said of Beyer. "He still is a pop culture celebrity over there."

The Japanese people don't know Beyer as Dick, or Richard or Mr. Beyer. They know him simply as "The Destroyer."

To this day, whenever he goes there, he barely goes out in public without his trademark Destroyer mask. In that way, he's sort of the Japanese version of the Lone Ranger.

Here's how magical a figure he is in Japan, even in today's ultrasecurity-conscious post- 9/1 1 world:

When he flies there with his wife, Wilma, he gets on the plane in Los Angeles without donning his mask. But he always puts it on before getting off the plane in Tokyo.

"When I go through Customs, they know who I am, and they start asking for my autograph," he said in an hourlong interview Tuesday.

"If I drive around Japan without my mask on, they don't know who I am, and they cut me off. But if I wear the mask, they say, 'Destroyer, dozo [go ahead of me].' "

Koessler has seen and heard about the effect of Beyer on the Japanese people.

Last spring, Koessler and his wife, Kyoko, hosted a dinner for some Japanese citizens living in the area, and they invited Beyer, who sat at the dinner table, holding court.

"Just about every Japanese person there wanted to take a photo with him and text it back to their friends and relatives in Japan," Koessler recalled.

So how has Dick Beyer, a wrestler who grew up in Buffalo during World War II, carved out such a reputation in Japan?

Koessler has a theory.

Beyer started out as a "scary, big foreigner" in the 1960s, at about 5-feet-10 and 230 pounds, when he first wrestled former sumo star Rikidozan; that event, televised in black and white, drew nearly 70 million viewers.

But over the years, he won the Japanese people's trust and respect with his energy, his gentle ways and his big heart, as seen in the special events and fundraisers he spearheaded.

"People are still a little scared of him, because of his size, his gruff voice and because he wears a mask," Koessler said.

Beyer plays off his fame there, always wearing his Destroyer mask, to raise money for projects ranging from youth sports programs to tsunami victims.

Last summer, at age 81, he went back to Sendai, to aid in the relief effort.

"He did it without any photographers or camera crews," Koessler said. "The people in Sendai really appreciated that. He was there to support the victims, not to promote himself."

Wilma Beyer has another way of explaining it.

"He's just an idol," she said. "Wherever he goes in Japan, people want his autograph. They just want to be around him, like the Pied Piper."

Beyer has lived a fascinating life, although he attributes much of his success to being in the right place at the right time.

Long before his special bond with the Japanese, he was a football star and successful pro wrestler, whose athletic accomplishments led him eventually to cross paths with Jim Ringo, Ernie Davis, Thurman Thomas and even Dominik Hasek.

Years before his Destroyer career, Beyer played on the Syracuse University offensive line, as the right guard next to future Buffalo Bills coach Ringo, an eventual Pro Football Hall of Fame center; he was co-captain of the 1952 team that went to the Orange Bowl. He later was an assistant at Syracuse, helping coach Heisman Trophy winner Davis.

In 2003, he was inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame, along with Bills running back Thomas and Sabres goalie Hasek. Two years later, he was enshrined in the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame in Amsterdam, Montgomery County.

As one wrestling official told The Buffalo News that year, "A Wrestling Hall of Fame without Dick 'The Destroyer' Beyer is like a Baseball Hall of Fame without Mickey Mantle."

The early years of his wrestling career also include some great stories.

Especially the one about the girdles in a California Woolworth's, from 1962.

Beyer signed on with a wrestling promoter, who told him, a day or two before his first match in San Diego, that he no longer was wrestling as Dick Beyer. Instead, he would be a masked man, "The Destroyer."

The promoter gave him a wool "mask," more like a smelly bodysuit with two eyeholes.

"It had no mouth or no nose," he said. "I couldn't breathe. I couldn't talk. All I could do was see, and I couldn't see very well."

After the bout, he told the promoter, "You have seen the first and last of The Destroyer."

But another wrestler showed him a better mask, made out of a woman's girdle.

The next day, Beyer went to the Woolworth's lingerie department, where he tried on some girdles, until he found the right size and ordered a dozen.

Beyer, in retelling the story for about the thousandth time, paused to laugh at the sight of a grown man trying on girdles, in public, pulling them over his head.

"I drew a crowd. They said, 'What are you doing here?' "

Beyer began his love affair with Japan in May 1963, starting with three matches against Rikidozan, a Japanese hero. Some think that Beyer later filled a void left when Rikidozan died.

In the early and mid-1970s, Beyer was on Japanese television twice a week, on a comedy program called "Uwasa No Channel" and a wrestling show.

He wrestled there for 30 years, before retiring at age 63. Stepping out of the ring, after about 8,500 bouts, Beyer returned home, living and teaching in Akron and coaching three sports there and in Amherst.

Before that, another sign of his popularity was the 1989 Coca-Cola Bowl game between Louisville and Syracuse. Each team got a politely warm response from the crowd.

"Then The Destroyer went out and got more cheers than Louisville and Syracuse combined," he said.

It's a mark of humility that Beyer often dissociates himself from The Destroyer. He noted that the Consulate General of Japan is presenting the award Thursday night to Dick Beyer.

"I told them Dick Beyer didn't do a thing. He was just the guy under the mask."

But Beyer remains grateful for the recognition, asking, "Why me?"

"I know I did a few things in Japan, for the Japanese people, but I did it because there was a need for it. It was a little bit of a payback for what the Japanese have done for me.

"They treated me terrifically."

email: gwarner@buffnews.com