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A Sad Labor Day Memory – Grandpa Jim

When I awoke, Grandpa Jim had left – left this world and I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. I had fallen asleep in a chair beside his bed with my great aunt, Lilly, standing beside me. It must’ve been around 3 a.m. when I nodded off. Prior to that, when Lilly was out in the kitchen, he’d asked for a drink of water and then told me to open his drawer. “Look in the plaid shirt. There should be four envelopes.” I pulled open the drawer and near the bottom was a new plaid shirt, a gift from last Christmas, unopened and covered with cellophane. I pulled back the scotch tape binding the cellophane and reached inside the tissue paper and pulled out four white envelopes of various thicknesses. They were marked Rose, Anne, Gracie, and Lilly. The thickest of the four were for his daughters Rose and Anne. I brought them over to his bed. He beckoned me towards him and in a faltering voice said, “Give them separately to each of them after the funeral. Don’t tell Rose and Anne about the envelopes for Gracie (niece) and Lilly, it’ll only cause hard feelings. They were good to me, too – they need something for their troubles. And you, young man – I think you’re going to do all right without any cash to burn holes in your pockets.”

Aunt Lily came into the room after I put the envelopes inside my shirt. “Can I get you anything Jim?” He looked up at his sister-in-law, shook his head and smiled. He was always in love with her. They both lost their spouses at an early age in the influenza epidemic of 1918. “I knew him too well to marry him. He was full of mischief,” she said.

She had called me that afternoon as I was relishing the enjoyment of that 1962 Labor Day weekend at the house a group of us had rented in the Hamptons. At the time, my mother Rose was on a cruise to South American, and their being separated, Dad was living at the Elks Club in Elmhurst. I rushed back on the first train from West Hampton. When I arrived home she explained, “I’ve buried two husbands. You can tell by their eyes. When they begin to roll up – you know the time is near.” She rested her hand on my shoulder as we watched him struggle with the heat and humidity in our apartment that was not air conditioned.

The next thing I knew, she was griping my shoulder when I awakened. “He died a few minutes ago,” she said. “You better call Quinn’s (funeral home). Oh, my God. He’s gone. He’s gone. I looked at the clock through my tears. It was 6 a.m. I had missed the chance to say goodbye – say goodbye to the person who, up until then, mattered the most in my life.  Read More 
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A few weeks ago, I received a post card from the “NCAA Student-Athlete Concussion Injury Litigation.” The class action plaintiffs’ committee notified me (some 58 years after my brief time as a student athlete) that a proposed settlement had been reached, and that my rights “may be affected” by this action.

A few things immediately came to mind: New York University and the NCAA keep excellent records; I have no recollection of a concussion; and every day my right knee reminds me of a torn meniscus incurred in countless practice drills diving for loose balls. I’m wondering when someone will file suit for the more prevalent knee injuries, a given for young men and women who gave their all even in practice?

Knee injuries are gnawing over time, but concussions affect your cognitive ability and can eventually kill you. I saw it in a number of my late father’s (Pat Gillen) associates. He was a successful amateur and professional boxer with over 100 fights in the lightweight division. It cost him the loss of an eye, but his quickness saved him from taking too many head blows. He took me to the fights as a young boy, fights at the old Madison Square Garden, St. Nicholas Arena, Sunnyside Gardens, and Eastern Parkway Arena. He also forced me into boxing lessons at the downtown CYO gym with his friend Pete Mello, who coached the successful U.S. boxing team at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland. I had quick hands and could hit. I landed many punches, but they had no effect on my opponents other than to anger them. The resulting punishment impelled me to focus on other sports.

At the arenas where the fighters battled, I saw the sweat, the cuts and the bruises up close and later saw some of these men in West Side bars with my father, men with flattened faces, who had difficulty speaking coherent sentences. I met too many of them not to forget. Dad and George Rosal, his former corner man and best man at his wedding, were at the fights virtually every Thursday and Friday night, depending on the card and where the fights were. They were in the dressing rooms before and after the fights. Dad knew the fight game well and rooted his heart out for fighters he favored. He counted punches and was quick to criticize the decisions of judges when he knew they were wrong. He also knew what was wrong in how fights were scheduled, how certain contenders were avoided, and how outside the ring, boxers were screwed over by their managers as he was by James J. Johnson, a Boxing Hall of Fame (BHF) member, who Damon Runyon called “The Boy Bandit of Broadway.”

Over the years, Dad became more concerned as he saw old friends lose it mentally. He used to say they were “punchy,” while less kindly people would describe them as “punch-drunk.” Simply put, the frequent concussions scrambled their brains and adversely impacted their cognitive ability to think and to function. Many could function, but had difficulty with their thought process. On a visit to New York in the early 1970’s, my wife, Mary-Margaret, and I met up with Stewart Ross, another Washington lawyer, at a newly opened steak house, “Gallagher’s 33,” near the current Madison Square Garden. The greeter at the restaurant was Tony Zale, a two-time Middle Weight champion and a BHF member. Zale’s three classic fights with Rocky Graziano, also a BHF member, in the late 1940’s, in which they traded punches and the title back and forth, are considered among the best battles in the history of professional boxing.

I had met Zale before with my father and mentioned that to him when we entered the restaurant. He looked at me closely and paused. “I don’t remember you,” he said before pausing again as he closed his eyes in thought. A few seconds later he smiled. “Yeah, yeah, I knew Pat. He came to my fights. They said he was fast.” Zale took us to a table and after more difficult small talk he went back to the front of the restaurant. Stewart, Mary-Margaret and I sat there speechless, each of us acknowledging it was sad to watch Zale struggle with his thoughts and words, the result of 87 professional fights.

About seven years later I was in New York on business and staying at the St. Regis Hotel on 55th Street. About 7:15 in the morning I was walking east in my tennis attire on my way to the Town Tennis Club on 56th Street near Sutton Place when I stopped for the traffic light at Second Avenue. Off to my left I saw Rocky Graziano outside his pizza joint hosing down the sidewalk. “Good morning, Rocky,” I shouted as I approached him. He looked at me somewhat puzzled. “Pat Gillen’s son,” I said as I extend my hand. He smiled and turned the hose off to shake hands. “Hey, your father was a great guy. I haven’t seen him for a few years.” I told him that Dad had died in 1975. We chatted about how they used to see each other at the fights before I left for my tennis match. Rocky was a little punchy, but a very engaging person. On a scale of cognitive functions of one to ten, I would give Zale a one and Graziano a six, perhaps because Rocky only had 67 fights compared to Zale’s 87.

A month later, I was back in New York and on my way to another tennis match when I saw Rocky again. He waived me over and said, “How’s Pat?” I found it hard not to smile, but I did, and said, “Rocky, remember, he died in 1975.” Rocky, paused in thought and nodded. “Yeah, I guess he’s still dead.” I nodded, “Yeah, good to see you again, Rocky.” He smiled, “Hey, I hope you beat the guy you’re playing,” he yelled as I crossed the street. I did, my opponent must have been was a little punchy that morning.  Read More 
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