By Alan Prendergast
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Jack Dempsey lived in Creede, Denver, Steamboat Springs and Montrose, fighting in mining camps across the entire Rocky Mountain region before becoming the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. But he was still known as the "Manassa Mauler."
This summer Dempsey would have been 100 years old. And the tiny town of Manassa (population 1,060), a dozen miles north of the New Mexico border, is in a tizzy over how to recognize the occasion.
Town fathers have contacted a local fight promoter to set up his ring in Jack Dempsey Park and stage youth bouts all day, weather permitting. The mayor is sending out invitations to Governor Roy Romer and George Foreman, in no particular order.
Mrs. Bo Jean Sellers, who works at the public school, has been assigned to find Deanne Dempsey, Jack's fourth wife and surviving widow, to issue an invite. (So far, she has been unsuccessful. "If you can help us, we'd appreciate it," she says.) There will be fried hamburgers, cake and, naturally, punch.
"We're planning on working this into a daylong celebration," says an enthusiastic Mayor Robert Formhals, who intends to give a speech himself. He adds that he has been petitioning the U.S. Postal Service for the past year and a half to issue a commemorative stamp. (So has Mrs. Dempsey, most recently through a Dear Abby letter. Formhals says he had the idea first.)
"I have gotten nowhere fast," Formhals concedes. "I send a letter off, and--boom--I hear nothing, so I send another one off. I've been pushing the Postal Service since September 1993."
In fact, the mayor, a Vermont transplant, admits that whipping up interest in Manassa's most famous--indeed, only famous--son has at times seemed an uphill task. "I've been trying to get just a one-day annual thing going for several years," he says. "This is the first year there's been any interest."
Part of the reason could be that Manassa already has a popular summer bash. The town celebrates Mormon Pioneer Days over a long weekend every July, when its population swells to 10,000 and street dances last into the night.
It also could be that Manassa didn't offer the future heavyweight champion of the world much while he was there, as evidence suggests. Jack Dempsey was the son of itinerant laborers from West Virginia, and the family alighted only briefly in the southern Colorado Mormon ranching community.
"He was the youngest in his family, and very, very small," says Joe Espinoza, the mayor of nearby San Luis and a local boxing coach and promoter. "All his sisters were bigger than him. He got in a lot of fights."
The family left Manassa when Jack (whose real name was William Harrison) was still young. After that, the champ made it back to his hometown only once, in 1966. That's when the town honored him by moving his boyhood house to the renamed Jack Dempsey Park at the center of town. Manassa invited Dempsey to the celebration, and Dempsey accepted.
(Actually, he was to have returned a couple of years earlier. When Espinoza heard about that planned visit, he telephoned Dempsey at his New York City restaurant, and the fighter agreed to referee a bout scheduled for the day he arrived. Espinoza announced the event in a local paper. But Dempsey canceled at the last minute. Although Espinoza managed to print a cancellation notice, dozens of people either forgot to read the paper or chose not to believe it. "We had a full house," he recalls. "Fortunately, I kept both newspaper clippings, or I think I would've been hung.")
By all accounts, Dempsey's homecoming nearly thirty years ago was a smash. Harley Gilleland was Manassa's mayor pro-tem at the time. He'd also just built a new home next to the park, so he was selected to host the great man.
Dempsey arrived at the Alamosa airport with various hangers-on, like Eddie Bohn, the owner of Denver's now-defunct Pig n' Whistle, where Dempsey stayed when he flew in here from New York. (Bohn has since passed away. His son is still alive. His name, naturally, is Punch.)
"The whole town board met him there," Harley recalls. "I guess it was...I don't know what you'd call it. Maybe `a thrill.' He was quite a man, still quite spry. He shadow-boxed with old Troy Soward. Troy was supposed to have remembered him. But I don't know if he really did."
For three days the Gilleland household was in a frenzy. Dozens of people came and went. Mrs. Gilleland's picture was in the Denver papers handing Dempsey a nicely cooked ham. "I was so busy running around doing other chores that we really didn't visit," Harley Gilleland recalls. "Late at night we sat alone in the living room. But he was so tired, and we didn't want to push him."
"He was a big man," adds Janice, Harley's wife. "Of course, at that time he wasn't as big as he had been. But you could tell when people have been boxers. Their faces look..."--she searches for a delicate explanation but gives up--"like they've been punched." Still, she adds politely, Dempsey "was a very nice-looking man. He acted like he appreciated my cooking."