IBHOF 2017- Part Two: A farewell to my father
Before I continue my narrative about the 2017 International Boxing Hall of Fame Weekend, I must address the issue I presented at the end of Part I: What was the source of my unusual peace of mind?
The answer: My father. My now late father.
At 7:10 a.m., on June 7, Gary Lee Groves Sr., the man for whom I was named, died at age 80, due to complications stemming from liver cancer, which was diagnosed shortly after successful skin cancer surgery in May. Mercifully, the time between diagnosis and death was measured in days instead of weeks or months because his quality of life had eroded with stunning speed and wrenching clarity. The suffering was minimal and, when the end of his life arrived, he knew he had the love and respect of everyone who had the privilege of knowing him. All things considered, that’s the best scenario anyone could ever want.
His health had been on my mind since my first trip to Oxon Hill, Maryland, in April when it became clear he had skin cancer and needed surgery. That surgery took place during my second trip to Maryland and while I was concerned for him, I never allowed his issues to adversely affect my job performance. That’s because he, as well as my mother and older sister, urged me to fulfill my obligations and not to worry about him. Dad said the best thing I could do for him was to do the best job I could for the people who put their trust in me and to have fun while doing so. After all, that’s the way he conducted his own life.
In many ways, I am my father’s son. I inherited his robust work ethic that demanded a job needed to be finished completely, quickly, and correctly and, if he had the opportunity to venture above and beyond what was required in order to please someone else, he would do so with a gleeful enthusiasm because he believed so strongly in treating others the way he wished to be treated.
He applied these principles as he pursued his diploma from St. Mary’s High School in St. Mary’s, West Virginia. He also put them to use while serving four years in the U.S. Navy, while working more than 30 years as a machinist at Union Carbide’s Friendly, West Virginia, plant and during his two post-retirement stints as a trusted fur dealer and a widely sought-after gunsmith. As a child, and later as an adult, I not only watched; I also learned and I did my best to put his lessons into practice.
We also shared a determination to turn our passions into our professions and he gave me the blueprint on how to do so at an advanced stage of one’s working career.
Dad’s greatest love was hunting, fishing and anything having to do with the outdoors, a byproduct of his rural upbringing by two parents who were skilled and knowledgeable hunters. Over the years, he acquired a deep and detailed expertise that allowed him to make the transition from valued employee to self-made businessman.
After retiring from Union Carbide in his early-50s, he established Groves Friendly Fur and worked out of a small shed attached to the house, a place he lovingly referred to as “the shop.” After the fur market dried up, he became a licensed gunsmith and specialized in making choke tubes for muzzleloaders. His design was so advanced and performed so well that Winchester approached him about acquiring it. My fiercely independent father turned them down. Dad continued to work steadily into his 70s and he walked off the stage while still on top.
The secret to his success in business was his uniquely personal touch. He didn’t believe in newspaper or TV ads to promote his ventures. Instead, he relied on good, old-fashioned word-of-mouth because he knew that friends and family of potential customers offered the most trusted testimonials. Once those customers arrived at his shop, my father made them all feel welcome. He not only knew their names but he also knew their families, and, in some cases, their family histories. My father’s ability to connect with people was a gift from God and the proof of that ability was measured not only by the number of people who attended his funeral but by the number who wished they could have been there to honor his life.
My father also tried to pass on his love of the outdoors to his only son but it was not to be. My life’s work began to take shape the afternoon of March 16, 1974 when, as a nine-year-old, I saw the first boxing match of my life, the rematch between then-lightweight champion Roberto Duran and challenger Esteban DeJesus, the only man to have beaten him in his 42-fight career. The pulsating action lit a fire within me so strong that I have called it my “thunderbolt moment,” an event that reshaped and clarified the course of my life. More than 43 years later, that inferno still rages inside me and will do so until my own dying day. Like my father had with the outdoors, I acquired an uncommonly deep level of knowledge about my subject of choice. Just as he was “the hunting guy” within his circle of friends, I became “the boxing guy” within mine.
Even before attending Fairmont State College in 1983, I already identified my dream job: Writing for THE RING Magazine, “The Bible of Boxing.” Although Dad expressed doubts about my career choice because it didn’t offer promising financial rewards, he still had the courage to support my desire to chase after my own dreams instead of forcing me to go into the family business.
As I grew up, Dad and I watched hundreds of fights together and, while doing so, he taught me everything I know about breaking down styles. His experience wasn’t only as a fan but as a participant, for he engaged in a dozen boxing matches while serving in the Navy. His ability to identify the winner within seconds after the opening bell was almost uncanny and it was a mystery to me how he was able to do it. He did his best to explain to me but my young mind was not yet able to grasp his teachings. As time went on, however, I began to “get it” and, by the time we watched our last match together – Anthony Joshua’s 11th round TKO of Wladimir Klitschko for the IBF/WBA heavyweight titles on April 29 inside “the shop” – my dad and I were finally on equal footing. In retrospect, two torches were passed that day: From Klitschko to Joshua inside that Wembley Stadium ring and from my Dad to me in his shop thousands of miles to the west. In that moment, Dad might have silently declared, “My work here is finished.”
Although I got a taste of my dream after graduating from college – I wrote about a dozen feature articles for THE RING and its sister publications from 1987 to 1990 – the dream died for more than a decade after I was told no full-time positions at the magazine would be available for the foreseeable future. So, like my father, I accepted a job that I hated because it paid the bills and offered necessary benefits.
Just as Dad had done for decades at Union Carbide, this aspiring writer remained a copy editor and page designer at The Parkersburg News for 17 years because I liked the people with whom I worked and loved the area in which I lived. But just like Dad, I held on tightly to my dreams and waited for the chance to make them come true, no matter how long it took.
Thanks to a jagged series of circumstances that would take much too long to describe here, I was able to produce a second life as a boxing writer at MaxBoxing.com from 2003-09, at BoxingScene.com in 2010 and at RingTV.com since 2011. But my big break from the newspaper job came on February 19, 2007 when CompuBox President Bob Canobbio offered me a full-time job as a writer, punch-counter and chief researcher for his company. For those who believe in biblical numbers, it is of great significance that this job offer came exactly three years after Dad underwent life-saving kidney cancer surgery.
Since then, my career as a boxing writer has blossomed. Since 2006, I have won 15 awards from the Boxing Writers Association of America. Along with my duties at RingTV.com and CompuBox, I am the author of a boxing book called “Tales from the Vault,” which was released in 2010. I am a voter for the International Boxing Hall of Fame and have edited four other boxing books, including one on Muhammad Ali by Jonathan Eig that will hit the market in October. Sometime next year, Bob Canobbio and I will be releasing our own book on Ali, that examines the statistical side of his career. Although I have passed the halfway point of my life, I still believe that the best is yet to come.
None of this would have been possible had it not been for Dad, who showed me that dreams delayed don’t necessarily have to mean dreams denied. Also, I’m happy to say that I heard the four words all sons long to hear from their fathers: I’m proud of you.
Following his skin cancer surgery, doctors tested a telltale lymph node near his collarbone and declared all the bad cells had been removed. Mysteriously, however, Dad’s health started to slip noticeably soon after he returned home. He ate precious little, his gait was unsteady and his thought processes had lost their sharpness. Subsequent lab tests yielded numbers so dangerous that additional scans were ordered. Those scans revealed the liver cancer.
The day before I left for Montreal the toll of Dad’s illness was driven home. His body was frail. His skin was yellowed. His speech was gravelly. He needed to be helped out of his easy chair and he had to be led from place to place so he wouldn’t fall. He was alive but he was no longer living. I didn’t know it at the time but this would be the final time I would see him.
When I landed in Philadelphia on June 4, I called home to let my family know I was safely back in the U.S. Everyone was on the line, including Dad. Dad said he was having a good day and when the subject of the upcoming Hall of Fame trip came up, he delivered the same message that he said before the first appearance in Maryland: “Go on the trip. Don’t worry about me. There’s nothing you can do for me here. By doing your job and having fun, you’re doing exactly what I want you to do.”
By the time I landed in Pittsburgh, the narrative had changed dramatically. My sister said via email that Dad had fallen four times and had to be transported by ambulance to the hospital. The examination revealed that the liver cancer had metastasized so quickly that doctors gave him a terminal diagnosis. He was presented a choice: Six months to live with treatment, one month to live without treatment. Dad being Dad, he chose to fight.
But that fight didn’t last long. Following a second attempt to address a blocked bile duct, Dad’s already fragile state became grave. In anticipation of the worst, which I thought was at least several days away, I spent much of the evening of June 6 in Erie, Pennsylvania, writing a tribute that I planned to read at his funeral. I wouldn’t get the chance. He died the next morning.
Only a few trusted friends knew what was going on but, thanks to a Facebook posting announcing my father’s death, the condolences began pouring in. I was offered multiple chances to withdraw from my punch-counting responsibilities but because of what my Dad had told me, in what would be our final conversation, I was at peace with being exactly where I was and I had no problem enjoying the experience to the fullest. As usual, Dad placed my welfare above his own and his parting words granted me the freedom to be my full self without feeling any guilt. What a magnificently selfless gift.
I emailed the tribute to my sister with instructions that it be read at the service, which took place at 11 a.m. Saturday, June 10. Although I couldn’t be there in person, I was there in words. I later learned that a copy of my tribute was placed inside Dad’s casket.
I will miss many things about Dad but, from a boxing standpoint, I’ll always remember the way he shouted, “Up the middle!” while watching a fight, no matter who was fighting or whether the fighters were even capable of carrying out his unheard advice. Just a few weeks before he passed away, I asked him why he loved the uppercut so much. He replied that it was the only punch that boasted the element of surprise and, when it connected correctly, it could do incredible damage. As usual, Dad was right.
Although his physical body is no longer here, the spirit that made Dad who he was will continue to live through those of us who loved him most. I will remember his welcoming manner, his willingness to go the extra mile for his friends and family and the countless stories he told. He loved his friends, his family and his God and, on the morning of June 7, 2017, that spirit returned to that very God.
His final days may have filled with pain, fear, weakness and confusion but, now that he has crossed over to the other side, his eternity will be filled with happiness, assurance, strength and certainty.
Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, West Virginia. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 15 writing awards, including 12 in the last seven years and two first-place awards since 2011. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales from the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics.” To order, please visit Amazon.com. To contact Groves, use the email [email protected].
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