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Dempsey was game for the attention. He rode a horse in the parade. He spoke in his high-pitched voice about his childhood to almost anyone who inquired and shadow-boxed with the old-timers. He asked after Moonie Daniels--"He said, `That's the only kid in Manassa I couldn't lick,'" recalls La Vern King, who curates the Jack Dempsey Museum, which opened for the champ's homecoming. "The men talked to him about fights. I just listened, mostly. I had some pictures taken." They're kept in her cedar chest.
Despite all the good feelings and nostalgia, Harley Gilleland confesses to a twinge of disappointment. "He really didn't stay here that long," he says grumpily. "The way I took it, he really didn't have that much to say other than about his childhood. He didn't say anything bad. But he didn't say anything great, either."
That could be because his memories were limited. Dempsey was only nine when he left Manassa, and he followed his family to various small towns around the state. He began fighting for a few dollars in mining towns. In 1919, when he was 24 years old, he knocked out Jess Willard, who outweighed him by sixty pounds, in the third round, to win the heavyweight championship of the world. He held on to the title until September 23, 1926, when he was beaten by Gene Tunney in ten rounds.
He lost a rematch the following year, the famous "Long Count" bout, in front of more than 100,000 fans in Chicago's Soldier Field. Despite several subsequent comeback attempts, Dempsey never regained the title and retired with a lifetime record of 62 wins (49 by KO), 6 losses and 10 draws. But by then it didn't matter. His ferocious presence inside the ring, and his graciousness outside, had made him one of the most popular athletes ever.
In 1990 he was posthumously inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame on the first ballot. "He was known to be a brawler at times, using the upper body leverage he had in his shoulders and arms to kind of maul over his opponent," says Ed Brophy, director of the museum in upstate New York. "But at the same time, he could move on light feet, from left to right, to avoid punches. He was one of the best there ever was."
The museum has a "Jack Dempsey corner," which includes numerous fight tickets from his bouts and a plaster imprint of his giant fist. But Brophy is still missing one bit of information. "Where is Manassa?" he asks. "The general public always picks up on the name, the Manassa Mauler. But then they ask, `Where the heck is it?' Maybe we should have a map here."
If they did, more people might make the trip to Manassa. Since 1966, when the Jack Dempsey Museum opened there, the number of visitors pulling off the highway running between Santa Fe and Alamosa has ebbed and flowed. In the beginning, the town installed several road signs directing passersby to the site. But President Lyndon Johnson's highway-beautification program killed that. "Lady Bird Johnson apparently didn't like signs on the road," says La Vern King.
Now only a single, small blue sign at the junction of routes 285 and 142, at the turnoff to Romeo, announces the museum, which boasts gloves and shoes from Dempsey's famous matches. Still, King says that several hundred people stop by every month during the summer. (The museum is open May through October.) "For the size of our town, we still do get quite a few people coming by," she says.
Despite the passage of years, Dempsey's name still manages to pop up in casual conversation among Manassa residents, too. "You'd be surprised," says Mayor Formhals. "A friend of mine was over for dinner the other night, and he brought up that he had a picture of Dempsey, a personal one, from when he took him back to the airport in 1966. Many people still have pictures of him in their homes. It's a prized heirloom."
For his part, after his visit Dempsey never seemed to forget his birthplace. Joe Espinoza says a buddy of his visited New York City a number of years back and stopped by Dempsey's restaurant on Broadway. "When he heard they were from Manassa, he asked them to order whatever they wanted, and he wouldn't let them pay for it," he says.
Still, the number of locals who remember Dempsey personally, even from his last visit, is dwindling. According to King, Manassa has only a single resident, Leverett Reed, who was alive at the time Dempsey lived there. And his memory is withdrawing into itself. "You could ask him about it, but you couldn't be sure he would be telling you right," she warns.
Outside Manassa proper (the town occupies exactly one square mile), the fighter's star is fading even faster, particularly among the San Luis Valley's younger residents. "It's amazing to me," sighs Art Medina, who coaches youth boxing out of his basement in Monte Vista, thirty miles northwest of Manassa. "I was at a Golden Gloves tournament last week, and most people don't even know where Manassa is. They don't even know that Manassa raised a boxing great." (On the other hand, Dempsey still has a legacy in Denver: The cherrywood bar at the Old Spaghetti Factory downtown once belonged to him.)