The Jim O'Hara Story:

Boxing, Dignity & StReet Smarts



Jazz great Lionel Hampton said: “Gratitude is when memory is stored in the heart and not in the mind.”

Jim O'Hara was always grateful for the city of his birth, St. Paul, and its diverse people. They prepared him for life, and he was grateful for the many years he was given.

In his teens he was riding in the back of a convertible through the Battle Creek area of St. Paul. The driver was going too fast and lost control, and Jim was catapulted over a steep gully. He said he should have died. Yet he landed without a scratch. He committed himself then, fully realized later, to live with unselfish purpose – to be a giver and not a taker.

In the latter 1950s he had another scare. A growth had formed in his voice box, making it difficult for him to speak. Cancer was feared. With three young children and a wife to support, Jim vowed that if the growth was benign, he’d give thanks at Mass every day for a year. He kept his vow at St. Luke’s, located at the intersection of Summit Avenue and Lexington Parkway in St. Paul.

With his youngest child born in 1964, Jim made sure all four of his children attended St. Luke’s, grades one through eight.

A theme of his life was the protection of others. On occasion those protected were aware of it. For example, as an adult he came to know a certain teenager who suffered from physical abuse at home. The kid had plenty of potential, but he was at the breaking point and confided in Jim. Before long the boy’s father showed up carrying a baseball bat other than for its intended purpose.

Jim stepped in front of the man and said: “Where do you think you’re going with that?”

The father was undeterred so Jim spelled it out for him: “You make one move and you’ll find that bat up your arse.”

Thereafter the boy left home, and Jim had his back.

At times Jim's judgment, in the protection of others, might appear arbitrary. Don Boxmeyer, columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, quotes Jim:

I was checking over some young fighters one time just before a fight, and one of them was just wild. He was lippy and arrogant and couldn’t wait to get in the ring and destroy his opponent, and that can be a dangerous attitude.

I yelled over to the doctor and said, “Doc, is this kid’s heart going a little too fast?”

And the doctor said, “I believe it is. He won’t fight tonight.”

(Don Boxmeyer, Through It All, Jimmy O’Hara Fought the Good Fight, St. Paul Pioneer Press, January 22, 2002, page 1B, column 3.)

You know those guys who always seem to run into people they know? Jim was one of those guys. He seemed to know just about everyone on a first-name basis, from St. Paul’s leading citizens to the less fortunate. That’s boxing. When he was young just about every guy participated in some level of boxing. Many of these boys went off to war, and many of those who returned went to college on the G.I. Bill and became successful lawyers (and, later, judges) and successful businessmen while others of them became penniless and everything in between.

Jim treated them all the same. Throughout life, then, these men introduced Jim to more people who became new friends and acquaintances.

Knowing so many people he had many opportunities to help both inside and outside the boxing community.

William Finney, the first black Police Chief in Minnesota history, didn’t need help getting appointed in 1992 to the office for the City of St. Paul. Nevertheless, Jim wasn’t one to take chances and did what he could to make sure the appointment occurred. (An interesting account of Chief Finney’s early life is recorded in his own words in the 2007 Saint Paul Almanac (Arcata Press 2007).)

Jim always had energy for special projects, like assisting James Griffin, St. Paul Deputy Police Chief, in honoring St. Paul police officer Mahlon “Roy” Thomas, who boxed professionally in the 1940s. When Roy died the Deputy Chief thought it appropriate that a plaque honoring Roy be posted on the beat that Roy covered for so many years.

Walking his beat in downtown St. Paul, Thomas had the opportunity to influence street kids. No less a great than Minnesota Boxing Hall of Famer Gary Holmgren (who is white) got his start from Thomas (who was black) insisting that Holmgren give up street fighting and turn to boxing and its discipline. 

In 1979 St. Paul Mayor George Latimer hired this writer as an aide. After verifying the necessary education, the Mayor observed that it didn’t hurt that the new hire was the son of Jim O’Hara.

Paul Johnson, a St. Paul middleweight (160 lbs. max.) when he boxed at the pro level and currently an advocate for boxers, credited Jim for helping him learn the business of boxing. In an email dated December 2, 2012, he said:

I met Jim when I was looking at an old restaurant that was used for storing mushrooms that Jim owned. He suggested that I start boxing which I did (professionally) from 1976 to 1982. We are working to start a union for boxers and I owe so much to Jim. See www.boxers.org.

Referee Denny Nelson long credited Jim with helping him get discovered by the worldwide boxing community. In an email dated January 9, 2013, Nelson recalled:

In 1984 I asked him if he would send a letter recommending me to the International Boxing Federation.

“The president is a friend of mine,” answered Jim. “I’ll call him.”

They accepted me and Jim’s call was the beginning of 28 years of world title bouts for all of the sanctioning bodies.

Don Riley, former sports columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, remarked that Jim was “a gentle giant with a terrific mind. Jim had great character. He knew everybody…. He got everybody to work together. He was an ambassador of the waterfront.” (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.)

Just his name could sometimes help to defuse a potentially dangerous situation. In 1992 Rich Ehrich, Jim’s nephew, was managing some residential property in the Twin Cities when he encountered a tenant who was very close to being evicted. As Rich tells the story:

I had approached him in the hallway and asked him how things were going and if he was able to get his rent caught up. He said, “No, I don’t have it yet, but if I need to I will fight you.” He gets into this stance and says, “Yeah, back in my prime I would take them all on.”

I asked if he was a boxer, and he said yes. I told him who I was and where I come from. I remember his jaw dropping and the look on his face. His rent was paid the next day, and it was never late again.

Even on his deathbed in January 2002 Jim was concerned about stopping violence and unfair fights. He could barely talk but summoned the energy, on his own initiative, to speak about the then pending manslaughter case where a father had beaten to death a youth hockey coach in an ice rink lobby. Jim was concerned the guy could kill again. From these and some of his other final words you could still see not only his compassion but his will to protect others.

Morphine was necessary at the end. You know when you're on that stuff you're not always thinking straight. Yet who you are comes through. "There's this big guy," Jim began. "He killed a coach after a game. KILLED him! Don't you get involved! I know about fighting. I'll handle him."

In 2011, nearly a decade after Jim’s death, this writer met a 54‑year‑old master craftsman from the Rice Street area of St. Paul who had relocated to Anchorage, Alaska. Asked if he’d heard of Jim O’Hara, he replied: “Everyone from Rice Street has heard of Jim O’Hara.”

Jim was naturally a showman from his days in the ring, but he never thought of himself as somebody. With an eighth-grade education and Kitty as his rock and inspiration, he was a humble and happy guy. Full of gratitude, Jim’s heart had no room for envy or insecurity. “Nobody’s looking at you,” he said many times. “Who do you think you are?”

His meaning is illustrated in a story James Cagney told in his autobiography, Cagney By Cagney. In the book the actor, who did some boxing in his day, shared the following:

During the making of a picture directed by Charlie Vidor, I noticed him come into the studio one morning looking very low and disconsolate. I asked him what the matter was.

“Ah, Jimmy, everybody hurt me, everybody hurt me.”

“How do you mean, hurt you?”

“They say things. I don’t think they mean to hurt me, but they do. They say really cruel things, and it weighs on me the whole day.”

“Do you want to get rid of that, Charlie? Well — just ask yourself one question and the hurt will disappear THAT fast. The question is this: just ask yourself, ‘Who the hell do I think I am?’ And you’ll see the hurt will disappear.”

“Ah, Jimmy, I can’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“Because I think I’m somebody.”

And with that view, inevitably, comes insecurity and frustration and unhappiness. 

 (James Cagney, Cagney By Cagney, 179 (Pocketbook Edition February 1977).)

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