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JIM HEARN CHRONICLES
Pals Bill O'Neill (left) and Jim Hearn
The most colorful and engaging member of the Downey High School Class of 1952 was the irrepressible James Daniel (Jim) Hearn; star athlete, legendary street fighter, student court judge, self-styled romeo, and the object of a thousand tall tales. In this space, Jim's good friend Bill O'Neill will share with us a few samples from his bag of "Jim Hearn Stories."
EPISODE ONE: The Imposter
Throughout our high school years, Diana McCallum's family provided a "home away from home" for their children's friends. They were a warm, loving family, and great hosts. Guys like Jim Hearn and me were frequent guests in their beautiful home, and let me tell you, for kids from South of the Tracks it was a big, exciting deal: quaffing sodas or an occasional beer, feasting on ice cream and cookies, swimming in their pool, relaxing and visiting with the family, whether our classmate Diana happened to be there or not.
In the spring of our senior year, I was backing out of my driveway one Friday evening when Jim drove up and inquired where I was going. "Got a date with a beauty from Bell Gardens," I told him. "Does she have a friend?" he inquired. "How 'bout setting me up?" Well, I made a phone call, and yes, my date had a friend who was available, even on short notice. So Jim and I set out for Billy-Goat Acres, picked up the two girls, and set out to have a good time. Jim's date wouldn't have won any prizes for her looks, unless, of course, she was entered in some sort of bovine competition. And there sure was a lot of her, taking up two-thirds of the back seat of my '36 Ford sedan. However, Jim saw nothing but the poor girl's beauty. With a straight face, he told her that she was the girl he had been looking for all his life; and later in the evening he insisted that I drive us to his "home," so he could introduce her to his "family."
When we wheeled into the driveway of the McCallums' spectacular ranch-style home off Old River School Road in west Downey, Jim's date was awe-struck. "Oh, my god!" she exclaimed. "You live here?" Jim modestly explained that his family was extremely wealthy, and insisted that the girl come inside with him, so he could introduce her as his future bride. So up the driveway we went, and when Mrs. McCallum met us at the door, Jim gave her a brief wink and said, "Mama, I always told you that when I met the girl of my dreams, the first thing I'd do was bring her home to meet you." And Mrs. McCallum, good sport that she was, gave the girl a big hug and welcomed her in. Diana wasn't there (probably out on a date with some mogul or other), and neither was her dad (Ernie McCallum, the real estate broker); but her two younger brothers were. Mike, the older one, presented no problem. He stood up, shook the big girl's hand, maybe even gave her a peck on the cheek, and welcomed her to the family. But then we encountered five-year-old Pat; and when Jim introduced him as his kid brother, the little fellow would have none of it. "You?re not my brother!" he shouted. "You're Dirty Jim Hearn!" Whereuupon Jim, never at loss for words, grabbed Pat by the ear, shoved him into his bedroom and quickly closed the door. "Little Pat," he told the girl as he quickly led her outside to show her the big swimming pool, "is a strange kid. We don't know what we're going to do with him."
EPISODE TWO: Too Tough for Boxing
By the time we reached our senior year of high school, I had become convinced that Jim had the potential to become another Rocky Marciano, if only he would get serious about it. Toward that end, I went over to his house every morning for a week or more at daybreak, rousted him out of bed, and took him across the street to the Alameda Elementary School for some roadwork. We also sparred with the gloves a few times in my front yard, but it became obvious that sooner or later Jim was going to tire of the niceties of boxing and tear my head off. So we repaired to the South Gate Arena Gym, on Atlantic Avenue a few blocks south of Firestone Boulevard.
The gym was operated by the Gambina brothers, Ralph and Frank, who took an immediate interest in our Jim. (It isn't every day that a white heavyweight with a pulse walks into a gym, anywhere in the world.) It would have made more sense for Jim to have hooked up with our old neighbor Jake Horn, father-manager of our classmate, Bart Horn, who had already begun his own ring career. But Jim balked at the idea of playing second fiddle to Bart; much as he liked Bart and his dad on a personal level, he did not wish to become beholden to them. So there we were, in a real gym for the first time, and in his first sparring session Jim put so much hurt on an experienced 200-pounder from South-Central that the sparring was halted after one round.
The following afternoon, when no other amateur was available for sparring, Jim was ushered into the ring with a journeyman pro heavyweight named Willie Bean. Now, let me tell you about Willie Bean. Old-timers will assure you that had Willie Bean had just one mean bone in his body, he might have become champion of the world. Willie was bigger than house, with muscles in places where most guys don't even have places. He wasn't much for speed; but he could box, and he could punch like thunder. But he had one flaw, he didn't like to hurt people. And in a professional boxer, that's as bad as it gets. A fatal flaw. The bell would ring, and you could just see Willie asking himself: "What's a nice person like me doing in a place like this?"
Anyway, there was Our Man Jim, the Terror of Downey (and most surrounding communities), squaring off with Willie Bean. As was his custom, Jim went in ripping. And Willie Bean tied him up. With all the ease of a mother nursing her baby, he smothered Hearn each time he came at him?not hurting him in any way, but pushing him, pulling him, turning him, even patting him on the rump at the end of the round. That was more than Jim could take. He spat out his mouthpiece, ripped at the big sparring gloves with his teeth until his hands were free, and got right in Willie Bean's face. "All right, you big, black son-of-a-so-in-so," he shouted. (Actually, those weren't his exact words; but you get the picture.) "Come out in the alley, and we'll see how doggone (actually, he didn't say doggone) TOUGH you are, you big so-and-so." And Willie, after a moment's hesitation, gave Jim a hug and said, "Kid, come back tomorrow. You've got a lot to learn, but I sure admire your spirit!"
Of course, Jim never went back. He had too many other things going on in his life to become an apprentice boxer. And later on, after spinning his wheels a bit as a college football player, tile-setter's helper, and bread-truck delivery man, he "discovered his calling" and was promoted right on up the ladder to an executive sales position with Oroweat Bakeries, before his sudden and shocking death from a heart attack while still in his early fifties. But between you and me: He always remained a tough guy, a very tough guy. He was the kid who coulda been not just a contendah; he coulda been champeen, of da whole, entire woild. And we who knew him best loved him dearly.
EPISODE THREE: Tracking Down a Legend
Jim took pride in his reputation as the Toughest Kid in Town. In fact, he sometimes cruised neighboring communities, seeking to "compare notes" with their baddest actors. Thus, his tender feelings were bruised when a couple of old-timers at Bob's Pool Hall went on record with their considered opinion that Jim couldn't hold a candle to Downey's all-time rough-and-tumble champion, "Nigger" Pompa, who had ruled the streets and alleys of our town in the Thirties and Forties. Stung by that criticism, Jim went looking for Pompa, taking Ward Vaughan and me along, for some unknown reason. (Surely, it wasn't for back-up; Ward and I were peaceful types, more given to talking and writing, than to dealing in nosebleeds.)
A few inquiries led us to the modest home of Jesse Pompa early one evening in the summer of 1951. Jim knocked at the door, which was soon filled by the massive frame of The Great Pompa, himself. Jim asked if the stories he had heard about Pompa were true, and asked if he still liked to rumble. And Pompa, incredulous that a pushy teenage kid would ask him such a thing, replied good-naturedly: "Look at me, son. I'm an old guy, a family man. I don't fight no more. Got better things to do."
The conversation was pleasant, in spite of its ominous undertone. Then Ward, famous for his baiting banter, asked something like, "So, how's it hanging, Nig?" Pompa turned to Ward, and gave him The Look. And Ward said, "I mean, Negro; er, I mean, uh, Mister Pompa!"
Point of information: Jesse Pompa was Latino, not African-American; and there was nothing racial in his nickname. It is not uncommon among Hispanics for a person of dark complexion to be nicknamed "Negro" (if male), or "Negra" (female). It translates, roughly, as "dark one," and is often used as a term of affection, as in the always-popular Mexican song, La Negra.
But it was quite apparent that while Jesse Pompa was aware of his nickname, he did not appreciate having it abbreviated to Nig, by a cheeky kid. So Ward, for once, shut his trap and faded into the woodwork. Meanwhile, the conversation had taken us into Pompa?s garage, which housed his Harley-Davidson as well as the family washer and dryer. After a few minutes of pleasant chatting between the Old and the New Terrors of Downey, Pompa suddenly snatched a lit cigarette that some fool had left unattended on top of the new washer. "Whose is this?" he demanded, looking from the scorched spot in the porcelain to the still-burning cigarette. "Who smokes Viceroys?" Well, it seems I did. And it was my turn to wilt under The Look, and offer up a truly heart-felt apology, while my buddy Ward snickered fiendishly.
And so it was that Jim Hearn met up with his predecessor, the legendary Jesse Pompa, and nobody got hurt. But Ward Vaughan and I almost did!
EPISODE FOUR: Easter Week at Balboa, 1952
In our day, personal combat between schoolboys and young men was done with the hands and feet. No knives, no AK47s, no explosives, no chemical warfare or whatever methods the young toughs of today employ. And fighting was never more fun than during Easter Week, 1952, when a dozen or more of "the guys" pooled our resources and rented a cottage at Balboa. Who all was there? After 49 years, I can't name 'em all; but there was Ward Vaughan, Jim Hearn, Buddy Hayman, Guy Mannino, Don Swick, Leo Stephan, Freddy McCaughan, Hollis Thornton, Don Alexander, Buddy Fuller, Burton Fitch, and meself, among others. Aside from Hearn, we weren't really all that tough, collectively; so we must have just been lucky: in a dozen or more fist fights with guys from other towns, our lads were undefeated.
Better make that almost undefeated. Late one night on the little ferry between Balboa Island and the Peninsula, Ward Vaughan and Jim Hearn were chatting up some beauties from Santa Ana, when several big fellows, also from Santa Ana, issued a "cease and desist" order. Ward, who always talked a good fight, suggested to the Santa Anans that they remove themselves to some other location and perform upon themselves an act of a sexual nature that is at once morally reprehensible and physically impossible. That prompted the big fellows to wonder if Ward could swim. They were in the process of expelling him from the boat, when Hearn went charging to his rescue, and got tossed in the drink, along with ol' Ward-Hog. (They landed in about two feet of water, and got a "standing o" as they trudged ashore.)
So our undefeated record was almost intact, an evening or two later, when there was a disturbance in a cottage down the street from the Downey cottage. It seems there had been a "home invasion" by some guys from Santa Ana, of all places, in a place rented by a party of girls. The girls demanded that they leave, but they wouldn?t go. So the girls began to scream, which brought a Downey contingent headed by Don "Buddy" Hayman to the rescue. The invaders were quickly dispatched, and our guys gracefully accepted the many expressions of appreciation from the Damsels Formerly in Distress. But then the invaders returned, bringing their "First String" of behemoths, and all hell broke loose. (Note: I did NOT witness any of the ensuing events. I was a few blocks away at the time, holding a coterie of Montebello Girls enthralled with tales of my many and varied accomplishments, and missed the entire action. So the ensuing account of The Great Brawl comes second-hand, as told to me later by Buddy Hayman and others who were there.)
The big fellows from Santa Ana (reportedly college football players) came looking for the heroes who had evicted their friends from the invaded cottage. When Buddy Hayman was pointed out as the principal evictor, the biggest of the big dudes picked Buddy up and slam-dunked him, head-first, into a trash can. Buddy clambered out and charged into the guy, only to get himself deposited into the trash can, head-first, a second time. His antagonist has been described as bearing strong resemblance to BLUTO, the comic-strip character who was the nemesis of the heroic Popeye. Standing well over six feet, built like a tank, with black chin-whiskers as thick as pencil lead, the big guy allegedly bellowed out, "You're up!" when Buddy climbed out of the trash can, and "Har, har, har! You're down!" when he crammed him back in.
The disturbance awakened Jim Hearn, who had been sleeping in the Downey cottage. Jim ran out into the street, barefoot, with a not-very-lethal-looking broomstick in his hand. "Let him go!" he shouted at Bluto, who at that moment was holding Buddy Hayman high above his head, ready to slam-dunk him a third time. Bluto turned his attention to Jim, and said, "Put down your stick, little boy, and it'll just be you and me. Pausing for just a second or two to calculate the odds, Jim dropped the broomstick and stepped forward. Bluto dropped Buddy, and the battle was joined. But it didn't last long. Jim dropped the big man with his first punch, and was on top of him in a flash, pounding both fists into his face. In a matter of seconds, Bluto cried out that he'd had enough. Too much, in fact. According to the Official Downey Account, the big man's nose was shattered, his eyes were battered almost shut, he was missing several teeth, and his face was a mask of blood. It was so fast, and so violent, that Bluto's friends were awestruck. They helped the big man to his feet, where he leaned against a car and bled copiously. (I saw the pool of blood in the street and the blood-smeared car afterward, so I can vouch personally for that part of the story.) Bluto reportedly said, "I can?t believe this happened to me; I want to shake the hand of the man that whipped me."
Jim shook the guy's hand, just before Buddy Hayman stepped up and bopped him on the jaw, to atone for that trash can thing. Thus it was that another chapter of the Legend of Jim Hearn went into the oral history books. Even the old guys at Bob's Pool Hall must have been impressed, when it was recounted to them.
EPISODE 5: What Could've Been?
This is a story that might better be left untold, but I have Diana McCallum Mignotte's permission to go ahead and tell it!
Late in our senior year of high school, Diana began dating a young man named Don Rice (Downey High, Class of ?51). To all outward appearances, Don was an all right guy, primarily interested in girls and cars (weren't we all?), and gainfully employed as a telephone linesman, or something like that. But when the romance took a serious turn later on, while Diana was in her freshman year at USC, it became obvious that Diana's parents were not at all thrilled about the prospect of having Don Rice as their son-in-law.
And so it happened that one day that fall, when Jim Hearn and I happened by the McCallum residence for our usual ration of pretzels and beer and friendly conversation, Diana's dad invited us into his private office for a first-ever serious "discussion." It turned out to be a most unusual and unprecedented meeting. Mr. McCallum, after seeing that we were comfortably seated in those deep leather chairs, offered each of us an expensive cigar, which we readily accepted. Then he turned to his liquor cabinet, took out a bottle, and poured each of us a big shot of expensive whiskey. We had no idea why we were receiving the royal treatment, but we sure didn?t want to do anything to break the spell.
"Boys," Mr. McCallum began, "you are probably aware that Dee-Dee has been going with this fellow Don Rice. And now, she wants to marry him!" He went on to make it clear that he, as Diana?s father, was not in favor of the marriage, but that Diana, being a wee bit headstrong, would not listen to reason and put the courtship on hold for at least a couple of years. Jim and I listened carefully, wondering why on earth we were being briefed on such a family matter. And then came the hammer: "Boys," Ernie McCallum suddenly announced, "Diana?" mother and me don't want her to marry this guy. But whoever she does marry, we're going to give them $20,000, as a wedding present!" That was more money than the two of us had ever heard of! Of course, Mr. McCallum wasn't looking at me; he was looking right at Jim, who had dated Dee-Dee a couple of times while we were in high school. And Jim, taken completely off-guard, suddenly choked on either his whiskey or his cigar-smoke, or both, and was overcome with an all-out coughing seizure! He coughed and sputtered, he laughed and giggled, his eyes watered, he almost fell over backward in his chair, and he was, for perhaps the first and only time in his life, utterly speechless! Yes, Diana was a beautiful girl, with a sparkling personality; but Mr. McCallum's pronouncement was so sudden that we were taken completely off-guard.
I don't recall what was said next, but we got out of there, as quickly as we could gracefully take our leave. (Postscript: Diana and Don Rice were married secretly, not long thereafter. The marriage was a stormy one, ending in divorce after eight and a half years.)
EPISODE 6: The 10-Year Reunion
Who can forget the 10-year Reunion of the Downey High School Class of '52, at the Disneyland Hotel, in June of 1962? Everyone was jazzed about having the Reunion at Disneyland, which was really a big deal, in those days. But when we got to our "banquet room," we discovered that it was somewhere deep in the hotel's catacombs. The room had sufficient floor space, but no windows, poor ventilation, and a ceiling that must have been no more than seven feet high. Most of us smoked in those days, and soon the room was so filled with cigarette and cigar smoke that one could hardly see across it. Then came the food: rubber chicken; soggy, overcooked vegetables; and bread that could have passed for hard-tack.
Given those conditions, the job of Master of Ceremonies that evening was one you wouldn?t want to wish on anyone. But Burton Fitch and Ronnie Wendt were the ones annointed, and they stood up to give it their best shot.
"Okay!" Ronnie announced. "I guess by now, everyone has finished their dinner??" From the back of the room, came a booming, disgusted reply: "Are you KIDDIN??" Of course, it was the voice of Jim Hearn.
EPISODE 7: Don?t Mess With a Man's Bread
After high school and a year of college, Jim married a beautiful young woman named Marian and the two of them started having children: one, two, three, four, in about five or six years. Jim worked construction for a while, and then, needing something more steady, he took a job as a bread-truck delivery man, for Oroweat Bakeries. It was a job that he really enjoyed; and he must have been pretty good at it, because within a few years he moved right on up the corporate ladder, all the way to Regional Sales Manager, for the Western United States. But it was during his tenure as a delivery man that a defining incident occurred.
One day as Jim was making his rounds, placing his bread on market shelves along his route, he was alarmed to find that in store after store, his Oroweat space was greatly reduced, while Langendorf?s space was enlarged. The new Langendorf driver was going ahead of him, usurping his space! Jim raced to a grocery market near the end of his route, arriving there a few minutes ahead of the Langendorf driver. And when Mr. Langendorf entered that particular store, he found Big Jim Hearn up on the bread shelf, walking all over the Langendorf products, mashing them flat! "If you ever touch a loaf of my bread again," Jim told his rival, "you'll get this same treatment!"
EPISODE 8: Tough Guys Don't Dance
Many years after high school, Jim?s second or third marriage (I don't recall which) was to a very nice and accomplished lady named Joyce, who was vice president of a bank. That was during the time when the Japanese seemed to have pretty much taken command of the world's money suupply, and Mrs. Hearn had drawn the assignment of entertaining a small group of Japanese investors, in the hope that they would place some of their holdings in her particular bank. With Jim in tow, Joyce hosted a fine dinner at a four-star restaurant in Beverly Hills, then moved the party on to a night club that featured a dance band. With Joyce out on the floor dancing with one of the visitors, and two of the others similarly engaged, the only people left at their table were Jim and one very short, well-groomed, middle-aged Japanese banker.
Looking to make conversation, the little fellow said, in his best English, "You like dance, Mister Hearn?" Jim almost fell out of his chair. Thinking the man was proposing that the two of them get up and dance together, he sputtered, "Oh, NO, Mr. Hashimoto; not right now!"
EPISODE 9: Where Are They?
This isn't really an Episode. It's a call for help, in tracking down any of Jim's children. I want them to know what a wild and warm and wonderful man their dad was, and how much he was loved and respected, by those of us who knew him in school. He was a unique individual: colorful, irrepressible, funny, a loyal friend, possessed of a big heart. I wish his children well, wherever they are; and should they ever happen across these "Jim Hearn Chronicles", I would certainly like to hear from them!
O'Neill e-mail: OlBillie@aol.com
ADDENDUM, 6/10/02 I am happy to report that as a result of the posting of these "Chronicles" on the Downey Class of 1952 Website, Jim's four children have been "found." (Not that they were ever lost; but now we know who and where they are!) They are all in good health, and living in Southern California.
the eldest, is an attorney.
And wouldn't the old Terror of Downey be proud of them all!