First published in The Wichita Eagle Sunday, November 24, 2002
Twelve years ago, after they met at the Wichita Country Club, a rich man befriended a poor man who'd made his living boxing, hustling pool and tending bar.
The rich man helped the poor man. He gave him a sack full of clothes, a part-time job - and a third gift that had nothing to do with money.
In the rich man's memory, the poor man last year hung a punching bag in his back yard and founded the boxing club he calls Hope City.
In June 2001, a skinny 12-year-old boy walked up to Johnny Papin's back yard in the Ken-Mar neighborhood of Wichita.
Immanuel Thompson leaned on the fence, watching as Johnny put nearly a dozen boys through calisthenics.
The boys were sweating, kicking up dust where grass had grown just two weeks before.
One of the boys began the four-count cadence of jumping jacks: ONE, two, three, FOUR! TWO, two, three, FOUR!
Manny watched, blinking occasionally in that strange way of his, and rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet.
He was wearing all the summer clothes he had: a thin T-shirt, worn-out tennis shoes, ratty cutoff jeans.
Johnny looked the boy over.
Thug material, he thought.
A good kid, but distracted, angry. The kind of kid street gangs love to recruit.
Johnny had known Manny since he was a baby. He knew the boy had nearly flunked out of sixth grade at Coleman Middle School that spring.
He knew Manny's parents had split up three months before. His mother was working in a restaurant, stretching too little money over too much week.
Manny looked as if he'd been crying. Johnny walked over to the fence.
"Manny," he said. "What you doin'?"
Manny looked at him.
"What . . . you . . . d-d-doin' here?" Manny had a stammer. "Football?"
"No." Johnny pointed to a heavy punching bag hanging from a dead limb of one of the locust trees in the yard. "Boxing."
Manny looked at the jumping-jack boys. Then he looked up at Johnny, a pudgy, big-shouldered 49-year-old with a shaved head, a gold tooth and a hearing aid stuck in his right ear.
"Boxing?" Manny said.
"Boxing," Johnny said. "We're training. To fight."
Manny nodded. For a few moments he stood silent, leaning against the fence.
"Would . . . you . . . t-teach me to fight?" he asked.
"Teach you? Why?"
Manny asked again, the words coming slowly.
"Would . . . you . . . teach . . . me?"
"Look," he said, after a moment. "Maybe I teach you to box. But this is a sport, not a reason to go whuppin' on somebody. You hear? It's a sport."
"And when I train you, I make you work, and I mean work."
"Go home and ask your mama if it's all right."
Johnny walked back to the middle of his yard.
Manny watched part of the workout. Then he walked away.
Johnny watched him leave.
Maybe he would come back.
If Manny did come back, Johnny thought, there was a chance he could keep the kid away from the street thugs that drove by here or hung out not far away.
Crime in Ken-Mar had declined in recent years, and it hadn't been that bad to start with.
But at 13th and Oliver was a convenience store that had been the scene of several shootings. Three months before, a man named Dameon Townes had been shot 11 times there. A few blocks to the northwest was Fairmount Park, where gangs gathered to fight on some weekend nights.
Thug stuff, Johnny called it.
Johnny knew about thug stuff. He'd walked the walk himself, as he put it. He was ashamed.
That was part of why he sweat out here with these boys, part of why he wanted Manny Thompson to come back.
In his back yard, he hung heavy bags from tree limbs and taught what he called Coach Johnny's laws:
There will be no cussing here. No disrespect, no lettin' your pants hang down around your HIPS, no more of that THUG stuff, you hear me?
It was a crazy way to pay back a friend, Johnny thought.
* * *
Johnny Papin was tending bar at the Wichita Country Club when he met Bill back in 1990.
Bill would always order a chardonnay and then talk with Johnny about golf, the news, the stock market.
He was the heir and manager of a family fortune, an investor who served on the boards of several banks. His real name is not used here because his widow requested anonymity, citing personal reasons, among them that the family never sought publicity in helping Johnny.
Johnny noticed that Bill, a man in his mid-50s, didn't put on airs. He was matter-of-fact, considerate, polite.
Johnny, 15 years younger, liked Bill immediately. He felt drawn to him, though he teased him good-naturedly about his classy clothing.
"You're looking very CLEAN today, sir," Johnny would say.
Bill thought this was funny.
He lingered when Johnny told tales about his days in the boxing ring, how he'd trained in Ken Norton's camp.
Bill had played golf all his life. He was good. But Bill liked all sports, and he knew boxing.
The two men studied each other: the man with the impeccable clothes and a name, and the man who had once earned a living hustling pool.
One day, Johnny told Bill that he disliked bartending.
Bill suggested, quietly, that perhaps Johnny should ask whether he could tend the golf carts at the country club instead.
Johnny asked and was given the job.
Johnny found himself wanting to please Bill.
When he realized Bill liked to talk about the news and the stock market, Johnny began to watch the news on television at night so he could discuss those things.
Johnny began to confide in Bill. He told how he had grown up in Newton, left home at 14 and became, by his own account, a supermarket grocery sacker, a dice thrower, a pool hustler, a bootlegger and a boxer.
He told how he acquired from boxing what he thought was a career.
By 1973, when he was 22, he had moved to Los Angeles, trained under Earl McClure and Bill Slayton in the same gym as Ken Norton, who fought three close fights with Muhammad Ali. Those trainers nicknamed him "Smalltown Johnny" because of where he came from.
Johnny boxed as a flyweight and bantamweight. He won a lot of fights. He thought he would become a champion.
But what boxing didn't give him, crime sometimes did. He liked women, money, clothes and parties.
His conscience didn't bother him then. He fathered children out of wedlock and committed crimes 3/4 selling drugs, robbing people 3/4 without remorse.
One day, he wrecked a motorcycle and got hurt. He had to give up boxing and the money that came with it. He didn't give up thugging.
He came home to Wichita in 1981 and took up pool hustling again.
Over the following years, more bad things happened.
In 1984, in Los Angeles, one of the children Johnny had fathered was shot to death, a 14-year-old victim of a gang shooting.
Johnny said bad things like that were probably punishment for the bad things he had done, and for how, in spite of those things, he changed only slowly.
* * *
Johnny told Bill that he despised his old life.
He tried to do better.
After he came home to Wichita, he tried to give up sinning and cursing. He went to church again.
He worked with church youth groups, speaking out against gangs. That's part of what drew Brenda Webb to him. In 1984, she joined him in a marriage that would last.
But by 1990, when Johnny met Bill, he had been hanging around Wichita for nine years without a full-time job.
He thought the best part of his life was over, and that he'd accomplished little.
Now here he was, at the Wichita Country Club, tending golf carts, playing golf - he was very good - and trying hard to befriend an unpretentious man.
Johnny continued to tease him about his wealth.
"And now the $164,000 question," Johnny announced one day. "How many pairs of pants do you have in your bedroom closet?"
Bill grinned and looked at the ground.
"Johnny," he said. "You know, it's my wife who picks out all my clothes."
One day, Johnny told him why he teased him about the clothes.
He said he was sick of looking "like a clown."
Bill always dressed like a successful businessman. Johnny dressed like a successful pool hustler: flower shirt, big wide collar, three gold chains.
He told Bill that, someday, he would change his image with his clothes. He didn't want to dress like a hustler anymore.
The next day, Bill showed up at the country club, carrying a sack.
"Here," he told Johnny. "You can have this."
Johnny reached into the sack: Polo shirts, Polo pants. Hats. Nice stuff, almost new, from Bill's own closet.
"Take it," Bill said. "It's yours."
* * *
It's hard to know why Bill did the kindnesses he did.
His widow, Mary, says her husband was not a man given to self-reflection. He simply acted. One day it was snowing, so he drove to a store on the way home, bought blankets and dropped them off at a homeless shelter. He was like that.
He was a practicing Catholic who believed that helping people was a duty and talking about it afterward was shameful. So he never talked, even to her, about why he donated to charities, or why he performed acts of kindness, or why he did what he did next for Johnny.
Whatever his motivation, it would shape several lives.
* * *
A year or so after they had met, Bill heard that Johnny was going to be laid off.
The snow season had arrived, and the country club would not need Johnny until the spring.
Bill sought Johnny out. "What will you do now?" he asked.
"I don't know," Johnny said. "Probably hustle me some pool."
"Maybe you could come to my house," Bill said. "Shovel off part of my drive."
"I'll do that," Johnny said.
Johnny went to Bill's house, surrounded by tall maples and oaks and sycamores.
He found a wide, long, winding driveway. Bill had said to shovel off only the small section where the car sat.
Johnny shoveled the whole drive.
"For heaven's sake," Bill said when he came out. "You didn't have to do the whole thing."
"Come in," Bill said. "Warm up."
Johnny came into the house, where he met Mary.
A few days later, they hired Johnny as their house caretaker. The job, like the friendship, would last.
* * *
At the house, if Bill happened to be home when Johnny was working there, the two men would talk - about golf, the news of the day, the stock market.
Johnny talked as though he knew as much as Bill.
But one day, in the kitchen at the great house, Bill called Johnny over.
Johnny watched as Bill put down the business page of the newspaper, pulled out a knife and cut a cantaloupe into slices.
Bill took one for himself. He handed another to Johnny.
"Johnny," he said. "Have a piece of this melon and read this newspaper story and tell me what you think about it."
Johnny felt a flutter of panic.
"Come on," Bill said. "Read it."
About this series
Events described in these stories were witnessed by the reporter or drawn from interviews conducted over a two-month period with the story subjects.
Accounts of events were independently verified with police and school records and with more than a dozen sources, including law enforcement, school officials and boxing aficionados.
The real names of the couple who befriended Johnny Papin are not used here. The widow requested anonymity, citing personal reasons, among them that the family never sought publicity in helping Johnny.
About the staff
The series was written by Roy Wenzl, an Eagle writer and columnist.
Wenzl, 47, joined The Eagle in 1996. He is a graduate of Kansas State University and has worked as a reporter in Kansas City and as an editor in Illinois and Florida.
Photographs were taken by Fernando Salazar, an Eagle photographer since 1988. Before that, Salazar, 44, worked at Golden West Publishing in Californ ia.
Wenzl and Salazar previously teamed up to produce "Karen: Lost and Found," the story of a former runaway, published in May 2000. They also did "His Laboring Few," a series about former bikers ministering to the poor on South Broadway Avenue, which ran the week of Christmas 2000.
The stories were edited by Polly Basore, news editor, and Marcia Werts, assistant managing editor. Copy editors were Nicole Stockdale and Nicholas Jungman.
Brent Castillo, Sara Smith and Cory Graham designed the series.
Photo editors Bo Rader and Monty Davis edited hundreds of Salazar's photographs.