Former boxer champions poor, rural Ohio school district


GLOUSTER, Ohio (AP) — Before Sam Jones and his boxers stepped into the ring and started raising money, the Trimble school district was so poor educators turned to other districts for hand-me-down textbooks.

Today the rural Athens County district has new textbooks, iPads, interactive smartboards and other educational technology thanks to Boxing for Books, the exhibition fundraiser that Jones organizes each year.

This year’s Boxing for Books is scheduled for Sunday at 4 p.m. at the Trimble Elementary School. Jones is still assembling the fight card, but whomever the sparring partners are, they are sure to entertain the several hundred spectators expected.

People come to cheer for the amateur boxers who, over the years, have included local prosecutors, police officers and deputies, firefighters and teachers, and many others who have trained at Sam’s Gym. The gym is home to the Glouster Boxing Club, started 80 years ago by Sam’s father to provide sport, conditioning and recreation for coal miners in the village about 75 miles southeast of Columbus.

The gym is a local institution and so is Sam.

At 75, his professional days in boxing, kickboxing and martial arts are behind him — he once fought at Madison Square Garden in 1975, but he continues to train youngsters and adults at the gym.

And he uses his boxing background to give back to his community and his local school district.

“That’s part of the uniqueness and mystique of Sam,” said Superintendent Scott Christman, who started boxing in the sixth grade under Sam’s instruction. “Sam can get anyone to do anything.”

That includes having the amateur boxers put on 18-ounce boxing gloves (“very big, very cushioned; we don’t want injuries,” Sam said) helmets and mouth guards, and spar for two one-minute rounds. Sam then holds up the arms of both fighters and declares each a winner.

“Everybody’s a winner because they’re helping the schools,” he said.

That’s typical of the philosophy that Sam dispenses to the boys and girls who come through the gym each year to learn boxing, kickboxing and martial arts. Some even learn music from Sam, who plays the drums, guitar and blues harp and keeps the instruments at the gym.

“I say to the kids, give something back. Be a champion in life. Respect your mother and father and be a productive citizen. That’s our mission right there.”

He has practiced what he preaches in his own life.

“Boxing is a metaphor for life. I could be winning and then knocked on the canvas,” he said. “We preach that you have to get up off the canvas and get right back in the game and never quit. You can’t give up. Boxing teaches you not to give up.”

Sam, who was a world heavyweight kickboxing champion, has over the years met Sugar Ray Leonard, George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Larry Holmes and other giants of the sport whose photos cover the gym walls.

He also is the proud son and grandson of coal miners, married to his high school sweetheart, Ellen, for 58 years now and loyal to his hometown. Sam has been helping the Trimble district for decades, including buying a blocking sled for football training, a wrestling mat and other equipment for the athletic department.

Textbooks became the focus about 15 years ago when Sam and his brother-in-law, Dr. Tom Pappas, a retired family-practice doctor in Westerville, learned that their alma mater was using 25-year-old textbook.

The property-poor district has struggled because it lacks a commercial base to generate taxes. Most coal mining is gone, and no industry has replaced it. The Trimble district is among the poorest of Ohio’s 613 districts, and relies on the state for 90 percent of the funding, said Treasurer Jared Bunting. The 840-student district has stabilized its finances, however, since emerging 10 years ago from state-declared fiscal emergency, and currently runs on an approximately $10 million general fund, he said.

District officials thank the Trimble Local Textbook & Supplies Foundation for helping the turnaround. Pappas, chairman of the foundation board, started the nonprofit group with Sam in 2001. It has since raised and donated to the district more than $600,000 for textbooks, technology and school supplies, Pappas said.

“The support they have provided is truly invaluable,” Bunting said, “especially during the years when the district didn’t have anything extra to provide. Now, it’s almost icing on the cake.”

District officials credit having up-to-date textbooks and technology for helping to steadily improve student scores on state proficiency tests.

“When they started the textbook committee, we didn’t have anything,” said Diane Hobson, the district’s curriculum and testing administrator. “Other school districts would donate books to us that they were throwing away.”

Now, Hobson said, the district has all the technology needed for everything from handling the state’s change to all-online testing to teaching kindergarten children. The textbook foundation has touched every grade, including funding the purchase of iPads for the kindergarteners. “They have had touch-screen technology their whole lives; they don’t know how to use a mouse,” Hobson noted.

The foundation also pulls in grants from the boot-maker charity Rocky Community Improvement Fund, the Athens Foundation and others, and hosts annual golf outings and other events to raise money for the school district.

The most novel fundraiser, though, is Boxing for Books, which usually attracts 500 to 600 people. Some buy tables, others just donate at the door what they would like to give. Sam sets up his portable boxing ring, and introduces the pairs of boxers. He anticipates he will have 20 or 30 boxers sparring this year.

Fifteen-year-old Austin Bobo hopes he will be on the fight card. The Athens High School sophomore has fallen in love with boxing, and trains regularly at Sam’s Gym. “It’s a nice, small gym, and it has lots of good fighters,” Bobo said, his face flushed and moist with perspiration as he warmed up by pummeling first a heavy bag and then a speed bag.

Drew Mendenhall plans to help out at the fundraiser. Mendenhall, a 24-year-old firearms instructor from nearby Albany, is a second-generation boxer at Sam’s Gym. His father, Jeremy Mendenhall, today a State Highway Patrol sergeant, was 12 when he started training with Sam.

“I’ve known Sam my whole life,” said Drew Mendenhall. “He’s an awesome guy. There’s so much history on the walls, and he loves to tell it. It’s amazing the people he’s met over the years.”

Sam hopes to raise a few thousand dollars from this year’s Boxing for Books.

“That’s what happens in small towns,” he said. “People chip in.”

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Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com

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