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George Kimball: An Appreciation

Some months ago, as it was getting close to the end and my friend George Kimball was very, very sick, he came up from New York to give a book reading. It was at an Irish pub (of course), downtown, to publicize, The Fighter Still Remains, an anthology of boxing writing he edited with John Schulian. Except George couldn’t do the reading. He could answer questions, and did, but the cancer made prolonged speech impossible, and even George knew it.

Former Herald sportswriter George Kimball.

Instead of a live reading, the audience was treated to a recorded reading. The folk musician, Tom Paxton, read a Jimmy Cannon column on Archie Moore. A celebrated American musician gave voice to a great American sportswriter who had given his voice to the life and skills of a great American boxer. Our culture did itself proud in those five or six minutes.

George died last night at age 67, and of all the time we shared over more than 30 years, that reading is the most vivid illustration of his life and sportswriting I can share here. He loved sports — boxing most of all — he loved fine prose, occasionally even his own, and he was going to make the most of those loves come what may.

George was diagnosed with cancer in 2005, about four months after he retired from the Herald. From then until now, he had five books published as an author and editor. Two of them were collections of columns, one from “The Irish Times,” the other taken from his post-2005 work for a variety of boxing Web sites unknown outside the boxing world itself. And George continued to write pieces on boxing and golf for the Herald as well.

In other words, after retirement, and after being diagnosed with an evil illness, George didn’t do less work, he took on more, more than he might have before he retired. George didn’t “fight” cancer, as is the meaningless cliche. He did something better. He ignored it, just as he ignored the size of the audience for his boxing writing. Many readers or few, whether he was sick or healthy, George had something to say about boxing, and was going to keep on saying it.

The voice of Tom Paxton at the reading symbolizes the other notable aspect of George Kimball’s career — the large number and extraordinary nature of the social circles it contained. Angry Young Man to Grand Old Man is the most-worn career path in American letters, but a career arc of ’60s Radical Poet and Activist to Dean of Boxing Writers must be its most singular variation.

Or maybe not. When it came to writing, George was always old-fashioned, no matter how “Angry” and “Young” he was. One evening in the 1970s, a group of Boston Phoenix staffers at the old Eliot Lounge was advising a colleague on what fiction to read about London prior to a trip there. George interrupted a discussion of Angry Young Novelists of that period to say, “(Expletive) that. You want to know London? Read Dickens!”

To George, there was no contradiction in spending a large chunk of his time attending obscure avant-garde art and music events of old friends, and more often of the children of those old friends, and another large chunk attending even more obscure club fights. Come to think of it, there wasn’t. In the 21st century, what could be a more underground expression of counterculture rebellion than boxing?
There was one other professional love of George’s life. You’re looking at it. The Herald meant more to him than he ever let on, especially to his employers and superiors. George was a columnist here from 1980 to 2005, a quarter of a century. Here is where he made the transition from Angry Young to Grand Old. Here is where he got to have the most fun there is, being a big-city tabloid sports columnist. Here is where he found professional true love No. 2: boxing writing.

He expressed his gratitude by trying to make reading as enjoyable as he found writing. A series of shared misadventures too long for newspaper space allows me to state that one of George’s dominant personality traits was a love of mischief. That’s a very good attribute for a sportswriter, and a better one for his or her readers.

Those shared misadventures and all the other experiences I shared with George were my cherished privilege. I do not leave out the night in Dublin we drove down a one-way street the wrong way that just happened to be in front of the Dail (their Congress) building, with some guy I’d never seen before in the back seat who really wanted to avoid contact with the police due to his considerable contact with the IRA. We got out of that scrape when George put on a display of confused American tourist jabber that Chevy Chase must’ve stolen for “European Vacation.” I do not leave out the golf wagering system George used, more complex than any credit default swap, that made every match end the same way. I always needed a win on the 18th hole to break even. Some people you meet once and remember all the rest of your life. George was one such, and I knew him for 35 years.

But in a fundamental way, I think his readers, all of them, knew him just as well, if not better. They knew the ferocious regard for facts (George was upset to the max about the inaccuracies in “The Fighter” and Mickey Ward sure wasn’t). They were shown the vivid people and ugly, addictive drama that make up boxing and why George loved it. They were treated, three times a week in this paper, to George’s conviction that sports was a fit topic for an old-fashioned man of letters. They were lucky, just as I was.

George Kimball is survived by his wife Marge Marash, his children Darcy and Teddy, his mother, brothers, sisters and a vast number of friends. He is also survived by the sport of boxing and the idea sportswriting and literature can be peers.

The two most fitting tributes to his memory would be this: Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather would get off the dime and fight each other and millions and millions of people would read all about it. Then those millions would keep on reading about sports, each and every day.

Source: Michael Gee Boston Herald

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