Certainly, when you travel quite a bit, you miss some local news. So, it wasn’t until I got back last week that I found out of the passing of 80-year-old Donnie Hullinger.
If you didn’t know Donnie, you wouldn’t know as I do that he was not only the sweetest guy you could possibly imagine and proud of his ethnicity all the way down to his Irish bones but also someone who, once upon a time, employing the skills acquired in a sport known as the sweet science, could follow a perfectly crisp left jab with a right cross and knock you flat on your keister
When Donnie was 71, nine years before his passing a week ago Sunday, I interviewed him for a two-part series in “Our Generation’s Magazine” on his amateur career in boxing in the late 1940s, ’50s and early ’60s. While I knew that he had done some boxing, until I interviewed him, I had no idea how lengthy his pugilistic résumé was and how sentimental he could be on looking back on the powerful and younger version of himself.
I arrived at his north-side home and was greeted at the door by his beloved wife, Shirley, the vivacious antithesis of Donnie’s more subdued nature.
She led me to the kitchen where her man sat at the table, ready to tell me of his journey through boxing, both the literal and the figurative trek in an era when boxing was so very relevant in America. Scattered about the table were some terrific vintage black-and-white photos of him as a fighting man and a couple of scrapbooks filled with press clippings, evidence that, once upon a time, his name was once a local sports-page staple.
Over the next three hours as I ran my recorder and listened to Donnie’s precise accounting of his initial entry into boxing and his rise through the AAU and Golden Gloves ranks before there would come a time in his life that he would leave the sport he so dearly loved to support Shirley and help raise four kids — Shelly, Donnie (Butch), Billy and Tina — I saw a man who spoke with such passion, such sentiment, of who he once was and what it meant to him.
His eyes glistened and an ever-so-sentimental Irishman cried on three or four occasions as he told his tales. He recalled his first bout in 1949 at just 14 when, in a room with a portable ring behind the Veterans of Foreign Wars clubroom, the North Jefferson Street product beat Joe Henderson, yes, that Joe Henderson, who would go on to become one of Lima’s most accomplished musicians, a world-renowned Grammy Award-winning tenor saxophonist.
Donnie told me about his mentor, a former boxer who trained many young fighters in the area, Louie Kane. While Donnie won all four of his fights in ‘49 and advanced to Toledo in the Golden Gloves Regional, he could go no further because to compete in the National, you had to be at least 16.
By 1950, Hullinger switched his training from the VFW to AMVETS, and in a third-floor room above the old AMVETS building on North Main Street, one of St. Rose High School’s best athletes peppered the speed bag with staccato precision and delivered thunder to the heavy bag and gave more than he took while sparring in that 20-by-20-foot square where young men often went to test their meddle.
Wistfully, Donnie told me of the pride he felt when accolades began coming his way. He spoke of Kane’s persuading him to try out for the Olympic boxing team to compete in the 1952 Helsinki Games and his suffering the narrowest of defeats, a single-point decision, to Davy Moore, who would go on to secure that spot on the team, with Donnie as the first alternate, and then, after the Olympics, Moore’s becoming the Featherweight Champion of the World.
He spoke of so many of his 136 bouts — his narrow defeat to a future Middleweight Champion of the World, Denny Moyer; his proudest moment, his National AAU Championship won against Willie Moran in 1957 in Boston Garden; and his time boxing in the Army. He spoke with such pride and such sadness that can only spring from deep within when days of youthful exuberance and power are gone. And, he spoke of an amateur fight in Louisville when it was he who was on the top of the card while a young brash Louisville teen named Cassius Clay fought on the under card.
Donnie in those 136 fights, emerged a winner more than 80 percent of the time, was knocked down but six times, and rose on all six of those occasions. And so it was that a week ago Sunday, what an opponent could never do, finally put Donnie Hullinger down.
I’ve interviewed hundreds through the years for what I’ve written, and without question, never did I enjoy an interview more than with Donnie Hullinger in 2006. And, I’m pretty certain I’ll never enjoy one any more … ever.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News and Our Generation’s Magazine, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at email@example.com.