Earning a living since eighth grade, Jim O'Hara went the distance in business as well as boxing. He could have retired comfortably but chose not to. In the face of various health challenges throughout life, he was energized by work, believing to the end that he could help make a positive difference as others had for him.
After Kitty retired from Control Data in 1989, Jim enjoyed setting aside time each day for lunch with her. They shared stories and laughed a lot, feeling like no couple could ask for a better life. One of their routines had Kitty asking: “Jimmy, what do you do all day?” To which he replied: “I’m not quite sure, but if I stop, we’re in trouble.”
Throughout his final battle, a tough go with bladder cancer, Jim never complained. He fought on while accepting the hand he’d been dealt. He loved life. He loved people. They loved him.
Boxing people are sweet beyond the sweet science. Take heavyweight-title-challenger-turned-Boxing-Commissioner Scott LeDoux. When Jim was dying Scott let it be known that a part of the French Bomber, as only Jim called him, was dying, too. They’d been on the same team a long time.
In 1975 Jim the promoter flew in an Irish gladiator from the East Coast for LeDoux to fight. In 1980, in the presence of Muhammad Ali, Jim mediated a dispute between Larry Holmes and Don King that threatened to derail LeDoux's title shot.
Later Jim and LeDoux served 18 years together on the Minnesota Board of Boxing. See Round 1 entitled The Boxing Board, Round 11 entitled Muhammad Ali, and Round 13 entitled The Businessman. There's a great book on the life of Scott LeDoux that came out in 2016 by Paul Levy: The Fighting Frenchman: Minnesota's Boxing Legend Scott LeDoux (University of Minnesota Press 2016).
Jim departed the world peacefully in his beloved St. Paul on January 17, 2002, at the age of 76. After a lifetime associated with the fight game, Boxing was his middle name. Terry Collins of the Minneapolis Star Tribune put it this way: “For more than six decades, the name Jim O’Hara was synonymous with boxing in Minnesota.” (Terry Collins, Jim O’Hara Dies; He Ran the State Boxing Board, Minneapolis Star Tribune, January 21, 2002, page B5, column 1.)
Jim was survived by his loving wife, Kitty, and their four children and eight grandchildren. He had a big wake and a big funeral. Many spoke of how he'd made a difference in their lives.
From the sunsetting of the Boxing Board on July 1, 2001 until his death, Jim continued to be consulted on all things boxing. He still had that spark but one natural aspect of dying, he knew, is that people eventually stop listening to you. He understood it’s only human nature to count you out, indeed on a short count, once the physical effects of cancer become apparent.
On his 76th birthday, December 23, 2001, he mugged for the camera, displaying his right fist. Now possessing mental footwork only, he was confined to a wheelchair.
In his day one of his lines was to tell troublemakers in gyms and elsewhere: “Listen. I’m going to leave and walk around the block. If you’re still here when I get back, you’re going out on your ass.”
Now at his last birthday party before his passing, he was so grateful to be wheeled around the block. He loved seeing his neighborhood of over 50 years near the intersection of St. Clair Avenue and Lexington Parkway.
To the end ring history was a source of interest and excitement. He was interested in the Sports Illustrated magazine article that recently had been published on Max Schmeling, who then as an old man enjoyed bird watching from the window of his home in Hollenstedt, Germany.
Jim was age 12 in June 1938 when his and everyone’s hero Joe Louis scored a brilliant first-round victory over Schmeling, sticking it to Adolf Hitler. Louis and Schmeling became good friends after Schmeling showed up unannounced at Louis’ home in Chicago in 1954. (Patrick Myler, Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling: Fight of the Century, Prologue: The Visit (Arcade Publishing 2012), Kindle Edition.)
On the eve of his scheduled exhibition with Louis in 1949, Jim declined to go inside the ropes. See Round 10, entitled Joe Louis. To the end Jim made his own decisions, always thinking of Kitty.
"Pray" was his last word. Then he slipped into a comma, Monday evening January 14, 2002, passing three days later, Thursday morning January 17, 2002.
Jim’s funeral was at his beloved Church of the Assumption in downtown St. Paul, with Father Arthur Kennedy offering Mass. Holy Scripture readings included the following verses from Psalm 24:
Who shall go up to the mountain of Yahweh? Who shall take a stand in his holy place? The clean of hands and pure of heart, whose heart is not set on vanities, who does not swear an oath in order to deceive. Such a one will receive blessing from Yahweh, saving justice from the God of his salvation.
(The New Jerusalem Bible, Doubleday Publications 1990.)
Verses from the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25, also were read, including the following:
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you made me welcome, lacking clothes and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.
(The New Jerusalem Bible, supra.)
Jim’s pallbearers were Clark Armstead, Joe Azzone, David Cossetta, Don Evans, Denny Nelson, Don Riley, and Bert Sandberg. Honorary pallbearers were Jerry Hurley, Nick Mancini, Dick Plunkett, and Bill Schmidt. Jim’s friends treated one and all to a meal at Mancini’s steakhouse following the graveside service.
Jim’s body is buried at Calvary Cemetery in St. Paul. Appropriately, his tombstone has an Irish Cross and, of course, a pair of boxing gloves. Kitty has shared that Jim’s in the fistic firmament with his brothers Mike and John and the rest, no doubt assisting with a boxing event.
If writing anyone’s story is an exercise in scratching the surface, it’s clear that Jim is missed. International referee Mark Nelson, Denny’s son, wrote in 2012: “There will never ever be another Jim O’Hara. Ever. I miss him dearly.”
Gary, Jim’s oldest child, delivered the eulogy at the funeral. It’s fitting to end with Gary’s words:
For Dad, what was important was clearly understood. All that he did was focused on four priorities: family, friends, business, and boxing. Although his accomplishments in business and boxing are many and were important, I know he would want me to speak today of where he found his greatest joy – his relationships with people. In fact, the successes he enjoyed in business and boxing were achieved in a very large part by the strength of his relationships and the trust he built with those he worked with.
First for Dad was his family, the foundation of which was his marriage – 53 years of giving and taking, learning and growing that produced a loving bond that I know was more than he had ever dreamed possible when he began his life’s journey.
Although he rarely would share his innermost feelings, we all knew that his children and grandchildren were always on his mind and in his heart. His special gift to us was that you could count on him during times of joy or need to have the wisdom and perspective to help us focus on what was right and what really mattered. This we all will miss.
Dad came from a family of 12, survived now by his youngest sister, Joanie. As in many families their journeys took them all many directions during the course of their lives, but when it mattered Dad was always there for his brothers, sisters, and their families.
Jim O’Hara had tremendous capacity for people and relationships. He sincerely invested himself in his relationships, and his friends knew it was the real thing. Each friendship – and there were many – was unique. He never imposed expectations or was envious and whatever times came their way, Dad was a true blue friend, offering whatever he could to celebrate or console and counsel. When times got difficult for someone close to him and it might have been easy to change his alliances, he never wavered. He said to me many times, “I don’t turn my old friends in for new ones.” That being said, he did make many new friends throughout his entire lifetime – friendships that transcended generations.
Dad also had an insatiable passion for learning and understanding, most of which was acquired through experience and people. More often than not he would share his knowledge, wisdom or perspective by telling a story.
It wasn’t long after he was diagnosed with cancer and told it was incurable that he shared one such story with me. He told me of a good friend who had died some 15 to 20 years ago. This friend – who he described as in his prime, very handsome, strong, athletic and always on the go – had succumbed to cancer. Dad had not seen him for a time and was shocked and saddened when he saw him in his diminished condition at the visitation. Dad went on to say that at the funeral Mass the priest spoke of what a beautiful death his friend had. This he did not understand. After the service at the luncheon gathering he found a time alone with the priest and questioned him on how he could describe his friend’s death as beautiful after all he had gone through and the condition he had diminished to. The priest then explained and offered to Dad how his friend had time to spend with his family, to find peace, and to prepare for his journey in ways he never had imagined. This is where Dad ended the story and after a pause moved on to other, lighter discussion.
We never spoke of this again but it was clear by the style, dignity and grace he demonstrated over the last 17 months, he knew what he had to do.
In what was to be the toughest and final fight of his life, Jim O’Hara went the distance – beautifully.
Copyright 2012-2016 by Steven T. O’Hara. All rights reserved.