The Jim O'Hara Story:

Boxing, Dignity & StReet Smarts



If Jim O’Hara didn’t stick around in school to get a formal education, he came to know boxing inside out from some of the best in the profession. He  learned:

  • To operate a gym from Billy Colbert and Emmett Weller.
  • To train a fighter from Ray Temple, Murray McLean, and Emmett Weller.
  • To be a matchmaker from Billy Colbert and Murray McLean.
  • To manage a fighter from Murray McLean and Emmett Weller.
  • To promote a boxing show from Billy Colbert, Jack Raleigh, Spike McCarthy, Lou Katz, and Mike Thomas.
  • To ref from Ray Temple and Denny Nelson.
  • To work a corner from all of the above.
  • To speak publicly from Don Riley.
  • To run a Golden Gloves tournament from Emmett Weller and Joe Azzone.
  • To run a Boxing Commission from Jack Gibbons and Dick Plunkett.  

As of 2014, six of these boxing aficionados have been inducted into the Minnesota Boxing Hall of Fame. Don Riley was inducted in 2010 as a member of its inaugural class. Emmett Weller was inducted in 2011; Denny Nelson, 2012; Jack Raleigh, 2013; and Jack Gibbons and Jim, 2014.

With a gift for numbers, Jim counted to five continuously and effortlessly, like breathing. This habit allowed him to tell time without looking at a clock. Not quite but he could watch a freight train go by and almost tell you the sum of the numbers on the freight cars. He knew a guy from the streets who could accomplish that feat.

Don Riley, former sports columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, knew Jim for over 50 years. He called him a “gentle giant with a terrific mind.” (Riley is quoted by Terry Collins, Jim O’Hara Dies; He Ran the State Boxing Board, Minneapolis Star Tribune, January 21, 2002, page B5, column 1.)

Although he showed promise in mathematics, Jim declined to go to high school, a decision he regretted later in life when he could appreciate the value of a formal education. At the time he turned his math skills to the family budget. He figured it was more important to try to help the family bring in at least as much money as it paid out.

Despite having skipped high school, he felt comfortable with people of all educational levels. Dick Plunkett, former Chairman of the Minnesota Boxing Board, graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School. When he Chaired the Boxing Board he also was the President of a bank. He and Jim didn’t know each other well before Jim was appointed to the Boxing Board in 1976, but they became friends for life. In 2012 Dick wrote: “If you could only have one friend – Jim would be a unanimous choice.”

Jim also felt comfortable with public speaking, including on the history of boxing at the College of St. Thomas, now University of St. Thomas. He spoke at Parents’ Weekend or some such event at St. Thomas on more than one occasion.

For him boxing and history went together hand in glove or, more precisely, bare knuckle in boxing glove. Essayist A.J. Liebling said it best: “The Sweet Science is joined onto the past like a man’s arm to his shoulder.” He penned these words in the introduction to the book Sports Illustrated ranked, in 2002, the number one sports book of all time: The Sweet Science (The Viking Press 1956). For his essays on boxing, Liebling was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1992. He believed television would put boxing into a coma. See his comments quoted near the end of Round 13, entitled The Businessman.

Jim could read well. He assembled a library on boxing, which he consulted regularly, including of course the Bible of Boxing, The Ring magazine.

He communicated effectively though the spoken word. A high school education would have improved his ability to communicate with the written word, not to mention the many other benefits he would have enjoyed in and from high school.

At lunch with his buddies, he listened as they reminisced about their glory days in high school athletics. “It’s sad when you peak in high school,” Jim said with a wistful smile, wishing he had been in school with them. His area high school was St. Paul’s Mechanic Arts. He would have liked to have graduated with his pal Bert Sandberg as part of the class of 1943. Sandberg went on to give his country three years of decorated service in the Navy. After World War II Sandberg was a star athlete at Augsburg College, where he’s a member of the Hall of Fame for football, basketball, and track.

There’s a famous artist from the neighborhood, another contemporary of Jim’s, who also skipped high school, LeRoy Neiman. Both were born on the wrong side of the tracks, but Neiman eventually got a formal education. After World War II Neiman passed the high school equivalency test and, with the GI Bill, graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he later taught. (LeRoy Neiman, All Told: My Art and Life Among Athletes, Playboys, Bunnies and Provocateurs, Chapters 1 and 3 (Lyons Press 2012), Kindle Edition.) He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2007.

Poking fun at himself, Jim said many times: “I can say big words, too, like cantaloupe and watermelon.”

In addition to boxing, he worked in the produce business with his pal Jerry Hurley. See Round 13, entitled The Businessman. Jim wasn’t the handiest guy with a wrench but when their company, Jerry’s Produce, moved to Payne Avenue on the East Side of St. Paul, they were required to have an engineer on the premises to be in charge of the boiler. Jim studied and passed the exam with no problem. “I’m an engineer,” he joked. “Imagine that.”

He said he went through high school vicariously through his four children. He and his wife, Kitty, sacrificed to make it possible for their children to go to some good schools, including Our Lady of Peace High School, Cretin High School (whose alumni include Jack Gibbons), the College of St. Thomas, and Northwestern University.

Jim claimed to have a Ph.D. in Street Smarts from the School of Hard Knocks. You learn more from your losses than your wins. He acquired a mental toughness. To survive he knew from experience that mental toughness is more important than any physical toughness.

He defined Street Smarts as “common sense which ain’t too common, and judgment.”

He learned to anticipate the hustle, how to beat someone at his own game, and when to throw in the towel.

Streets Smarts also includes psychology -- to cool tempers, and to help people without their knowing it. See Round 15, entitled Unselfish Purpose.

When he was a boy the Mike Gibbons Rose Room Gym plus the nearby Harkins Recreation Pool Hall made for the Academy of Street Smarts. See Round 13, entitled The Businessman.

“O’Hara was revered by many who knew him as a kind but firm man whose wisdom often astonished people with superior educations,” said sportswriter Jim Wells of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. (Jim Wells, Jim O’Hara, 76, Boxing Official, St. Paul Pioneer Press, January 19, 2002, Obituaries, City Edition.)

With more than two fists of street smarts, Jim became an educator himself in that he not only listened and shared, he worked each day to create a lasting environment where young people could become good citizens. As Terry Collins of the Minneapolis Star Tribune said: “His goal was to recruit community leaders to help youngsters in the Golden Gloves program stay in the ring, in school and out of trouble.” (Terry Collins, supra.) 

Copyright 2012-2015 by Steven T. O’Hara. All rights reserved.