First published in The Wichita Eagle Sunday, December 1, 2002
At Johnny Papin's house this week, the telephone rang and people sent mail. "I'm gettin' called to death," Johnny said Friday.
At The Cedar, the eatery and saloon where he enjoys meals and conversation, he walked up to the bar to pay his tab Wednesday night and listened in disbelief as the bartender pointed to a stranger at the end of the bar and told him that the man had picked up his tab.
Johnny's enjoying this.
"I can't hardly believe how good people are and how much they want to talk," he said.
Dozens of people have stopped him, in the Dillons store, on the street, in The Cedar, on the phone. They want to talk about his past as a pool hustler and boxer. They want to talk about his boxing club, his effort to use boxing to draw youngsters away from trouble, and about the past.
The story of Johnny's relationship with a wealthy and generous friend - and how he transformed that man's generosity into the mentoring of youngsters in a boxing club - was reported this past week in a serial narrative called "Hope City" in The Wichita Eagle.
People are sending him money, a few dollars at a time. Old friends, like Robert Gomez, who graduated with Johnny from Newton High School in 1970, are calling to wish him well.
"I thought he might have been dead," Gomez said with a laugh. "He was into a lot of stuff when he was young."
Immanuel Thompson, the 14-year-old eighth-grader at Coleman Middle School who Johnny helped turn into an honor roll student, said he intends to continue to get good grades.
"I don't have a choice," he said.
His mother sat beside him at home as he said this, smiling and nodding.
Nearly 50 readers sent e-mails or called the newspaper to comment. Several readers pointed out that the story revolved around seemingly small acts of kindness, and how such acts can ripple through the years in ways unforeseen.
More than half the readers who wrote or called said that the media nearly always overlook such stories, and that is a mistake.
One teacher and one parent said one of the key players in the story of turning Immanuel around was Brenda Thompson, his mother. Immanuel's change, from flunking sixth grade to making the honor roll in the eighth grade, took place after Brenda threatened to pull Immanuel out of Johnny's boxing club unless he turned his grades around.
"If anyone wants to know how to turn around a kid, the scenario described in that story is the best," said Cynthia Tonry, a sixth-grade language arts teacher from Garden City who read the story last week while visiting Wichita.
"In that story you had someone outside the family, the coach, putting pressure on the kid, but inside the family is where the discipline needs to come from. No one outside the family can do what the parent can do. A lot of parents do not understand that."
Tonry said she intends to show the story to her students in Garden City and to sports coaches.
"Maybe we can help each other," she said. "About two-thirds of my students are Hispanic. Some of them struggle; most of them are sports crazy. Maybe we can find a way to get through to them."
Gomez, Johnny's former classmate, called Johnny on Friday and asked for a reunion.
"He was a hustler even in school, and he had a heart of gold even then," Gomez said. "He taught me boxing when we were both only about 16, and, man, he could hit hard.
"He kept telling me the main thing about boxing was to not get hit, to keep your hands up. One day he got on me about that, and then he just went after me. Spun me around, 180 degrees, and when I came out of the spin, he hit me in the head about as hard as I've ever been hit, and I've been hit hard a few times. I saw stars, man.
"I got mad at him a little," Gomez said. "But then I thought: 'Hey, he warned me.' "