Memories of Hank
How do you write about the death of a friend? Last Sunday, I wrote an obituary of Hank Kaplan, the country's foremost historian of boxing. I'm rather proud of the story, both as a piece of writing and as a remembrance of someone I knew rather well.
If you haven't read the story yet, Kaplan was a boxing aficionado who turned his interest into a full-time scholarly pursuit. He had a collection of some 500,000 boxing photographs and files that overflowed his house and filled his two-car garage. In 1992, when Hurricane Andrew struck Miami, where Hank lived, the roof was blown off his garage, exposing his collection to danger. He threw out his shoulder mopping up the mess, but managed to save almost everything.
I lived in Florida for many years and wrote for a newspaper Sunday magazine (no longer in existence, alas) and, because of personal interests, wrote about boxing quite often. As a result, I came to know Hank fairly well and, in 1995, wrote a 2,600-word profile of him. I don't know how many hours I spent with him at his house, just talking about his life -- he earned his living as a tropical disease specialist -- and his memories of boxing. He had seen every major boxer since the 1930s and had a vivid visual memory of almost every fight he had ever seen. He could tell you, for instance, what happened in the seventh round of the 1940 Henry Armstrong-Fritzie Zivic welterweight fight (or their 1941 rematch, for that matter). He remembered every flurry and every damaging punch; he knew which boxer was backed into a corner in which round, what punches led to knockdowns and how a particular match fit into a fighter's overall career.
There was simply nothing about boxing that Hank didn't know, whether it was about training methods, movies, deaths in the ring (he documented about 1,200 in the past 200 years) and quirky habits of boxers. Sports Illustrated kept him on retainer for years, and he was an oft-quoted source for writers around the country. If he didn't know the answer to a question off the top of his head, he promised to have it in 10 minutes. He wasn't always easy to understand, since he tended to mumble, and his ever-present pipe never left his mouth, but every word was worth hearing. He could speak off the cuff in well-wrought paragraphs full of vivid verbs and adjectives that created an evocative word picture that made you want to know more. It was almost as if he were quoting from some wonderfully archaic book of history that only he had read -- and in a way, he was.
When I was working on my profile, Hank agreed to sit with me for several long interviews -- but never before 2 or 3 p.m., since he worked on his boxing collection all night and usually didn't get to bed until 5 or 6 in the morning. Later, after I had completed my story, I used every possible excuse to call Hank and talk about boxing. He was a key source for me when I wrote a book about Muhammad Ali's years in Miami, where he began his professional boxing career.
Sometimes, when I found myself in Miami working on other stories, I'd call the offiice and tell my editor I'd be a little late getting back. Then I'd go to Hank's house, and we'd talk about boxing -- or about writing or life in general -- for a couple of hours.
Hank was under no illusions about his sport and acknowledged its dangers, its venalities and its descent into a a kind of carnival of corruption. Boxing, like so many things, was better back in the old days, and Hank could tell you why. He never wavered from his mission to document his sport's long, colorful history, and his lonely but honorable quest should not be forgotten.
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