THAT'S OUR BOY
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."
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.)
Dempsey died in 1983 and was buried in Southampton Cemetery on Long Island. Espinoza, who at 83 years old claims to be the oldest mayor in the state, still tears up when he thinks back to that time a dozen years ago.
"I had a boxing match five days after he died. And I got up in the ring and I asked them to ring the bell five times and give a moment of silence." He pauses and wipes his eyes. "I wished I had known him better. He was a gentleman and a half."
Espinoza says he plans to organize several fights in Manassa on Dempsey's birthday, June 24, as a tribute. "I'm going to have a good boxing match for him this summer," he vows. "I'm going to get the best boxers in Colorado and New Mexico.