What’s in a Name?

Damon Runyon

Memphis News Scimitar/April 25, 1919

Before I got off on that tangent suggested by the name of Jack McKenna, I had escorted William Harrison Dempsey by a devious lingual route up to the manner in which he acquired the title “Jack.”

As I was saying, William Harrison’s brother, Bernard, did a bit of fighting as Jack Dempsey, but it seems Bernard was no great shakes as a ringman. Give him a nice little comfortable free-for-all, with plenty of space and no holds barred, and Bernard could step with the best of them, but gloves and ropes and the like hampered his style.

He fought some around the mining camps of Colorado for several years and finally withdrew from the ring in favor of mining. Meantime his brother, William Harrison, was commencing to swing his fists around quite loosely, and William Harrison picked up the name of Jack.

I doubt if he had at that time heard a great deal of Jack Dempsey, the “Nonpareil.” Now, of course, he knows all about him, and is very proud of the fact that he bears the name of one of the greatest champions the ring has ever known. Incidentally, the name has been quite an asset to him.

 His Career Begins

Hiram Dempsey disposed of his San Luis farm when Jack was pretty young—around 10—and moved to the western slope of Colorado, a great farming and fruit raising region. He secured another farm at Uncomphagre, in the Ute Indian country, and Jack continued the process of growing up there, and in the town of Montrose. This is one of the principal towns of the western part of Colorado, and it was there Dempsey began his fighting career.

Incidentally, it was there Dempsey began emulating Jack London and “A-1,” and all the other celebrated boxcar tourists.

It would sound most romantic to say Dempsey spent much of his boyhood among the picturesque Ute Indians, but as a matter of fact he did nothing of the kind. He doesn’t know any more about Indians than you do, and cares less.

Nearly every boy who is raised in Colorado might be said to have been raised among the Indians if you wanted to make his raising sound colorful, for there are Indians all over the Colorado premises. But mainly they are Indians who are kept copped up on reservations, and the youth of Colorado does not affect reservations to any extent.

No Wild Men There

And I don’t know that a raised-among-the-Indians fellow would have much to brag about, anyway. So let’s not raise Dempsey among the Indians. Let’s raise him in Montrose, a bustling little city of homes, which is well West, but by no manner of means wild West. A wild man would have a tough time making a living in Montrose, Col.

It is no hick town, mark you. It is a progressive, up-to-date community, center of a great agricultural and horticultural district. Folks have plenty of money out there. An acre of land is worth something in that region.

I have no detailed information concerning Dempsey’s boyhood, but I gather that he early showed a bent toward the career on which he is now fully embarked. That is to say, I gather he was ever a likely lad with his dukes. He could lick a lot of the young men of his time around Montrose, and did it.

“I wasn’t no hand to go looking for fights,” disclaims Jack, modestly, but it is my impression that he did not duck fistic conflict when it came his way.

From the time he was very young he did a lot of boxing and rough-and-tumble scrapping with his brothers. A family of six boys is apt to get snarled up now and then. Most of the Dempsey boys could jolly well take care of themselves in fist swingings.

“My little brother Jonny was quite a fighter,” says Jack. “He was the best of us all.”

Then Bernard turned thoughtful eyes to the roped arena, as the old-time sporting writers called it, and naturally his example was an inspiration to his brothers. All in all, the Dempsey boys were, I judge, a brood to be let severely alone by anyone combatively inclined.

They not only boxed a lot among themselves, but they wrestled and played baseball and football together. The boys of the western slope of Colorado work and play and live outdoors a lot, and the breath of the great mountains is mingled with their mother’s milk. They are strong and healthy because they can not help being that way.

Dempsey’s magnificent physique is due not only to the sturdy strain of Dempsey-Smoot, but to his youth on the western slope of Colorado. It enabled him to withstand the boho hardships that generally break a man long before his time. Life on the road is not conducive to good health or old age.

Incidentally Hiram Dempsey required hard work of his sons. He made them help out on the farm. He raised alfalfa and some fruit, he had some livestock and all the boys had to do their share of the heavy lifting.

“I’m a good all-round farmer,” boasts Jack Dempsey. “I can do anything on a farm from milking a cow to handling the crops.”

But, of course, he didn’t like to farm. Show me a farm-raised boy who really likes farming, and I’ll show you an elephant with two trunks. The back to the land chap is generally brought up down by the gas house.

Jack went to school to some extent in the country, and also in Montrose. The family moved to that town after awhile, and the fighter seems to regard it in the light of his home town—that and Salt Lake City. He really has no set base of origin, as you might say, but his emory dwells rather lovingly on Montrose.

He was growing into a husky bobbledeboy. Also he was continuing his practice with his fists by taking part in such arguments as might come his way. His brother, Bernard, had become an out-and-out fighter, and by this time it is apparent that William Harrison Dempsey’s immature mind was likewise turning to the ring.

His Start at Globe-Trotting

So you see he is not a fighter by accident. He is a fighter largely by natural bent.

In Montrose, Col., as in every small town where there is a railroad, the untrammeled youth of the community frequently adventures in nearby ports after the manner of the genus “bo.” In every boy’s system I the germ of a desire to go “hoboing”—to see something of the world.

So one day William Harrison Dempsey and a young companion went down to the yards in Montrose, sequestered themselves in a boxcar, and journeyed to Delta, Col., which is not far from Montrose, but far enough to be quite a jaunt for a youth on his first big adventure.

They went back to Montrose in a very short time, however, that trip was the beginning of other such trips and the beginning of even longer trips. Moreover, it was the starting point of the career of Jack Dempsey, hobo, which carried him to strange places in the next few years.

(Source: Chronicling America, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn98069867/1919-04-25/ed-1/seq-19.pdf)