STEVE FLAIRTY: Discussing Interesting Folks, Including Louisville Boxer Rudell Stitch & Kentuck
In the 1950s and early into 1960, Louisville’s Rudell Stitch was a highly successful amateur and professional boxer. He ranked as high as second in the world as a welterweight and later found renown as a lightweight. He won 45 of 57 amateur bouts, with five Kentucky state titles along the way.
As a professional, Stitch won 27 out of 34 matches, including 13 by KOs. These are numbers his contemporary, fellow iconic Louisville boxer Muhammad Ali, might well respect. Additionally, Ali was known to have sparred with him and, in fact, was called “one of Ali’s heroes.”
But most importantly, Stitch is regarded as a good and decent person. He took care of his wife and six children, even as he pursued his boxing career, working a full-time job at a meat-packing plant. On an occasion when he fought Gasper Ortega in Madison Square Garden, it is reported that the the two accidentally bumped heads.
Stitch backed away to let Ortega’s “head clear,” an act of sportsmanship not often seen today. Stitch lost the hard fight on a split decision, but gained respect from the boxing world.
However, the mark of Stitch’s character is demonstrated most clearly in the way he died–too soon–on June 5, 1960, while trying to save his friend Charles Oliver, who slipped and pulled him into the water. Ironically, in 1958, Stitch saved a stranger in rough currents near Louisville’s McAlpine Dam at the Falls of the Ohio River, according to a (Louisville) Courier-Journal article.
In the 1960 tragedy, Stitch had gone fishing with his manager/trainer, Bud Bruner, along with Bruner’s son and Oliver. Oliver slipped, pulling in Stitch. Stitch began to swim to shore, but turned back to help the struggling Oliver. Both perished in turbulent water in the Ohio River.
Stitch was recognized with two Carnegie Hero Medals from the Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Hero Foundation, both for the years 1958 and 1960. More recently, his likeness was added to the “Hometown Hero” mural in downtown Louisville, and in June 2014 he was inducted into the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame. The tributes are well-deserved and long overdue.
Byron Crawford profiled the boxer in a 2005 Courier-Journal article titled “Louisville’s Other Greatest.” Crawford’s praise is effuse. “There is no athlete in Louisville I admire more than Rudell Stitch. They say Muhammed Ali is ‘the greatest,’ but I don’t know if they come any greater than a man who is willing to give up his life for someone he doesn’t even know.”
Sadly, Stitch’s wife, Rosa Mae Stitch, died in 1964 in what was reported to be a murder-suicide incident.
Resources for portions of the article are from Wikipedia.com, along with the mentioned Courier-Journal.
* * *
Since I’m sports-minded, especially about Kentucky ball teams, it makes sense that Gary P. West would be one of my most-read authors. West has written a number of good books on the subject, and he covers high school, college and even pro level in doing so.
I got to know him in 2005 when we met at the Kentucky Book Fair. Though we both were writers for Kentucky Monthly, we had not met. The book festival changed all that, however. We had both written our first books, both biographies. His work was about Kentucky high school basketball icon “King” Kelly Coleman; my book was about public television’s Kentucky Afield host, Tim Farmer.
Each of our bio subjects appeared with us at KBF and signed books, helping us break into authorship with good sales. West struck me then as a true gentleman and has remained so over the years I’ve known him.
I particularly like his 2013 The Boys from Corbin: America’s Greatest Little Sports Town. In it, he calls the Southern Kentucky community “a sports town, one of the greatest in Kentucky.” It is Redhound country, the launching pad for such noteworthy sports families as the Birds, with Calvin, Billy, Jerry, Rodger and Steve. The Selvys, with Frank, Marvin, Edd and Curley, are also prominent, along with former Eastern Kentucky University Hall of Fame football coach Roy Kidd.
All played either football, basketball or both and kept the pipeline of talent and championship flowing from the Laurel County town that today has only a population of about 7,200.
Other sports books West has authored are King Kelly Coleman Greatest Basketball Legend (2005); Kentucky Colonels of the American Basketball Association: The Real Story of a Team Left Behind (with Lloyd Gardner, 2011); and Better than Gold: Olympian Kenny Davis and the Most Controversial Basketball Game in History (2014). All the books, including his Kentucky-related travel ones, were published by Acclaim Press (Morley, Missouri).
A sampling of West’s resume over the years includes serving as the sports editor of the student newspaper, the Kentucky Kernel, while a journalism student at the University of Kentucky. He graduated from UK in 1967. Later, he spent 12 years at Western Kentucky University as executive director of the Hilltopper Athletic Foundation.
Also at WKU, West was the color commentator for broadcaster Wes Strader and the men’s basketball games. West is also a popular speaker across the state.
He is always quick to point out his conditions he sets for his writing focus. “I only take on a project that I will enjoy writing about and I only write about something I think people will enjoy reading,” he says.
* * *
Author Ron Elliott, another with books published by Acclaim Press, has gotten to know West as a colleague and a well-rounded person who offers much to those around him.
“Gary West is one of the most interesting people I know. An excellent writer, a knowledgeable sports personality and an all-round good guy, it’s always an adventure being in his company. The conversation may range from Greek mythology to Abraham Lincoln via Kentucky basketball, but it’s always pleasant and interesting. The fact that Gary is liked and admired by many whom I like and admire is the best recommendation one can earn. I’m honored to count him as a friend.”
* * *
The Bluegrass State has long held serve as a place of great oral story-telling tradition. One of my favorite chroniclers of humorous Kentucky stories is Joe Creason, who, like Byron Crawford, was a long-time Courier-Journal columnist.
Following is one of my favorites, offered from his 1972 book, Joe Creason’s Kentucky:
When he was a boy in Central City, reports John Harrelson of Louisville, “Dad” Hunt of nearby Graham was one of the premier storytellers of the area. One day, Harrison recalls, he got all wrapped up in a big tale about having seen two blacksnakes engaged in mortal combat as each tried to swallow the other whole.
“Finally,” he ended the narrative, “neither one of them was there.”
Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of five books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and four in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. He is currently working on “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” due to be released in spring 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Read his KyForward columns for excerpts from all his books. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.”