Flying Ace, Wrestling Champ

Centenarian Oliver G. Cellini holding a model airplane.
Centenarian Oliver G. Cellini, a decorated military pilot and national wrestling champion, peers over a model airplane similar to the ones he flew in WW II and the Korean War. Courtesy Mark Reis, The Gazette.

Sometimes you can trace a man’s accomplishments back to his childhood. For Oliver Cellini, BS’35, two experiences stand out and seem to have set the trajectory for the arc of an exemplary life.

Born in 1913, Cellini grew up in Chicago, the son of Italian immigrants. As a boy, he would peer from the window of his elementary school and watch in fascination as planes landed and took off from an airfield a few hundred yards away.

His father, a former member of Italy’s elite infantry, taught him to shoot a .22 pistol in the Chicago coal yards, sharpening young Cellini’s marksmanship.

“He bought his first gun with nickels and dimes that he saved from working in the coal yard with his dad. He was only about 10 or 12 years old,” Oliver’s daughter Linda Cellini said. “It was the fascination with guns, but what really brought him to the military was flying, it was his love for airplanes.”

His early love of airplanes and sure shooting eye indicated a course toward becoming a decorated pilot in World War II and the Korean War.

He was a wrestling champion in high school and earned an athletic scholarship to IU in 1931. While in Bloomington, his success continued: three times a letterman, twice an All-American, an NCAA championship with the 1931–1932 team, and an invitation to join the 1936 U.S. Olympic team.

From the 1935 Wrestling Manager’s Book, Oliver Cellini strikes a pose. Courtesy IU Archives P0021489.

Instead of the Olympics, Cellini parlayed his IU degree and his second lieutenant commission into a 13-month appointment in the U.S. Army, and later attended flight school in what would become the U.S. Air Force.

Cellini, who died on Sept. 12 at the age of 107, would have tremendous success over his 32-year military career.

A heroic flying ace in both WW II and the Korean War, he earned the Legion of Merit (four times), the Distinguished Flying Cross (also four times), and the Medal of Valor—bestowed by Chinese President Chiang Kai-shek, for helping to train Chinese pilots.

Cellini retired from the military in 1968 and then flew charter planes for small groups before becoming a real estate agent, something he did until he was 78. He spent the remaining years of his life with his family in Colorado Springs, Colo.

In 2017, IU Athletics produced a piece honoring Col. Cellini. For more about his birthday celebration, check out this video of his 107th birthday party, courtesy The Gazette in Colorado Springs.

Written By
Lance Farrell
Lance is a life-long Hoosier and the associate director of content for the IUAA.