Back in the days when rebels without a cause were hip, Charlie Mohr, a goody-two-shoes if ever there was one, stuck out like a sore thumb. When you saw him bopping around the campus at the University of Wisconsin in his dorky horn-rimmed glasses, long brown overcoat and green Irish-tweed cap, you never would have guessed he was a celebrated national boxing champion. Or that he was one of the most indelible characters who ever turned up in Madison, Wisconsin, or, for that matter, in any other college town. He wasn't just a superb athlete. He was a folk hero, a living legend known as "the saint with boxing gloves" whose decency touched thousands.
Charlie died 40 years ago, on Easter morning. Like many of his classmates, I think about him every time Easter rolls around, but it never occurred to me to write about him until I picked up the Times one day and saw a picture of Pete Spanakos on the front page of the Metro section. Pete was, briefly, a teammate of Charlie's at Wisconsin, and when I worked out with the boxing squad that fall we became nodding acquaintances. He pretended to remember me when I called. We arranged to have dinner in New York and ended up talking about Charlie all night. After that, I began the interviews and research that have occupied me, off and on, for the better part of three years now.
It didn't take me that long to find out there was a lot more going on with Charlie than many of us realized. The legend was true, as far as it went. He was a hero, for sure-but not the one we all thought we knew. Concealed behind the jaunty facade he beamed at the world was a tormented young man who had the misfortune to end up in a place where he didn't want to be, but who never quit fighting and always tried to do the right thing. I doubt if any other athlete ever made a greater sacrifice for his coaches and teammates, and certainly none had a more profound impact on the history of an intercollegiate sport.
Charles Joseph Mohr was the oldest of four children in a strict Catholic family that occupied a small white house on Westmoreland Road in Merrick, New York. The youngest child, Billy, was afflicted with polio but recovered. The girls, Carol, dark of hair, and Joan, who was fair, adored "Joe," as Charlie was called to avoid confusion with Charles Sr. The elder Mohr was a butcher at the local A&P supermarket. Charlie's mother, Rita, a slender, auburn-haired wom- an, worked as a stenographer at the Western Union office.
e was a happy, affectionate kid who liked to swim, tease his sisters and write poems, but from an early age Charlie was driven by an extraordinary sense of dedication. He wanted to please everyone and could not bear to disappoint. He was a diligent student and an avid reader. He especially enjoyed books about the saints, and there was always that about him, too, a precocious holiness he inhabited like a conch in its shell.
He started delivering newspapers when he was 10. Making the rounds on his bicycle, he frequently pedaled alongside a young man in sweat clothes who was doing roadwork. Dick McNally was an outstanding amateur boxer. One day he showed Charlie the gym in Long Beach, a few miles from Merrick on the south shore of Long Island, where he worked out. It was in a renovated fire station on the corner of Alabama Avenue and Beach Street. A boxing ring was on the first floor; upstairs there were punching bags, some mirrors and a shower.
Presiding over the place was a onetime song-and-dance man and boxer named Frank A'Hearn. A stockbroker in New York City, A'Hearn wanted to do something that would help local youngsters stay out of trouble, so he fixed up the gym and started giving lessons. He was assisted by two friends, a World War I veteran who had a soft spot in his skull where he had been wounded, and an ex-pug who ran a bar-and-grill in the old Judson Hotel on the boardwalk. A'Hearn dignified his modest operation with a fancy name: the Long Beach Athletic Association. It produced a number of good fighters in the early 1950s, including McNally, Jimmy May and several other Golden Gloves champions.
After Charlie started hanging around, A'Hearn took him under his wing and taught him the fundamentals-footwork, how to jab, how to slip punches and counterpunch. Pretty soon Charlie was out running every day, like McNally. When A'Hearn finally let him start sparring, it was only light contact or none at all. Jimmy May, who was five years older, moved around in the ring with him and was impressed. The skinny kid had an unorthodox southpaw, or left-handed, stance. He was very fancy.
Charlie Mohr-a boxer? It didn't make any sense. This was a preternaturally gentle kid who eased his sister Carol off to sleep every night by promising to "mind" her; who adjured his siblings, after their father occasionally flew off the handle, to honor their parents, as the Bible instructed; who felt obliged to serve as an altar boy for two and sometimes three masses every Sunday. Charlie was a peacemaker, not a warrior. But Charles Sr., a robust, proudly muscular man, was all for boxing. He thought learning how to defend himself might be just the thing his shy son needed.
When Charlie was ready for competition, A'Hearn helped him make connections at places like the Madison Square Boys Club in Manhattan, where one day he met a brash little rooster from Brooklyn named Pete Spanakos. Pete had an identical twin, Nick, who was also a boxer. Eventually the Spanakos brothers would fight more than 200 amateur bouts and amass 17 Golden Gloves titles. Pete had never seen anyone reading books in a locker room before. Charlie was wearing a white shirt and a tie with a jacket, dressy slacks and nice shoes. He had on a pair of spectacles that looked as thick as the bottoms of two Coke bottles, and he was carrying a valise full of gym clothes and books. He was in the ninth grade at an elite Catholic high school in Manhattan that specialized in preparing students for ordination. He told Pete he had to make use of every spare moment to keep up with his studies.
The first time Pete saw Charlie fight was at a "smoker," an informal program of unsanctioned bouts, in a community center in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. Charlie showed up in his fancy clothes, carrying his valise. A notorious neighborhood tough …