Sylvester Sims never forgot George Vandenberg, whose punch in the face was the answer to Sims' prayers.
One of Milwaukee's foremost artists, whose paintings exhibited and sold in galleries throughout the country and are included in the corporate collections of the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance and Miller-Coors Brewing Cos., Sims died Saturday at his Northwest Side home. He was 83.
His artistry with a paintbrush made Sims a legend in the local African-American community where he was born Dec. 21, 1928, though it is probably more accurate to say that it gilded the legend Sims first forged as a multi-sport athlete in the 1940s.
One of eight brothers and four sisters, Sims attended the Ninth Street School across the street from the headquarters of the Milwaukee Urban League at North 9th and West Vine Streets.
"That was my hangout," he said in a 1994 interview. At the Urban League he got his first formal art training in classes, and also began boxing under iconic coach Baby Joe Gans, whose teams ruled the state amateur boxing scene from 1937 until Gans' death in 1959.
"I'd practice boxing in the gym, go home and eat, then go back to the Urban League for art classes," said Sims.
Sims excelled at every sport he put his hand to. In 1944 he became the first African-American to win a state Amateur Athletic Union high-diving championship, and he also won track, weightlifting and bodybuilding titles. Later he would play semi-pro football for the Milwaukee Brown Bombers ("Every position except quarterback, and I could out-pass all of them").
But all his athletic triumphs didn't trump the frustration and humiliation Sims felt because he was born with severely crossed eyes. As a youngster, he said, "I prayed all the time, believe me. Lots of times I'd be sitting on the river bank praying that my eyes got straight."
When he was 11, Sims underwent surgery on his eyes at Children's Hospital. It was unsuccessful.
In the boxing ring, his crossed eyes were a bigger handicap to the other guy. "They would think I was looking at the crowd or somewhere else, but I was looking right at them," said Sims, who never lost in 19 amateur fights and won the state Golden Gloves novice light-heavyweight title in 1946.
It was in a preliminary round bout that year that Sims faced the unforgettable Vandenberg. In the opening round, Sims recalled in the '94 interview, "I feinted and he hit me with a straight left jab right between the eyes. It felt like he hit me with a bat, and I thought, 'If that's what he jabs like, what if he hits me with a right?'"
To keep from finding out, Sims stepped on the gas and stopped Vandenberg in the second round. Back in the dressing room he went straight to a mirror because he was sure his nose had been broken by Vandenberg's first punch.
It wasn't. And to Sims' even greater astonishment, he wasn't cross-eyed anymore.
The doctor said the punch caused "a severe shock that corrected the (ocular) nerves." But to the future artist, Vandenberg's left jab had painted nothing less than "a miracle."
No Talkbacks for this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Pete Ehrmann
Published Nov. 27, 2015
One hundred eight years ago, a 69-year-old man walked from Portland, Maine to Chicago. A week later, Weston arrived in Milwaukee for a walking contest with political implications that overshadowed its competitive ones.
Published Nov. 6, 2015
I rise now to heap encomiums on Louis Mueller, though he is long gone, and I know him only from a front-page article in The Milwaukee Journal 100 years ago titled, "Milwaukee man Downtown for the first time in 31 years."
Published Oct. 31, 2015
`Tis the season to remember when a Milwaukee judge ruled that a man had no right to beat his wife because she was cheating on him with the ghost of her dead first husband.
Published Sept. 28, 2015
Eliza Blue was hard on the eyes, but not in the way Donald Trump thinks that about Carly Fiorina. In 1905, the Milwaukee woman permanently blinded a man by throwing acid in his face. Ten years later, Eliza blinded another man the same way. She was also Milwaukee's greatest escape artist since Harry Houdini left town.
Published July 28, 2015
On the afternoon of Nov. 30, 1936, people at the busy Downtown intersection of 3rd and Wells Streets were startled by the appearance of a gorilla walking a lion. The former was actually a familiar enough sight in Milwaukee, as William "Gorilla" Jones was a famous boxer who'd fought in Milwaukee seven times. The latter, however, was new.
Published July 22, 2015
The recent Milwaukee lion drama calls to mind two past Milwaukee cat encounters: one with an escaped leopard in the early 1900s and another with a "lion" in 1920.
Published July 1, 2015
Brew City boxing legend Sam Cicerello died on June 28, at age 90.
Published April 6, 2015
It wasn't exactly Cain vs. Abel II, but two Milwaukee brothers earned a footnote in boxing history by fighting each other for a Golden Gloves championship 64 years ago. There'll be no sibling rivalries on display when the Wisconsin & Upper Michigan Golden Gloves tournament starts its 85th annual run in Racine Saturday night at the John Bryant Community Center, but it's all relative.
Published March 27, 2015
When Orville Pitts was elected Milwaukee alderman in 1968, his political future looked as bright as the one that had seemed in store for Pitts in the boxing ring a decade earlier. But unlike the knockout that ended his boxing career, his downfall in the political arena was self-inflicted and a drawn-out process featuring, in random order, booze, drugs, hookers, the devil and Richard M. Nixon. Pitts died Tuesday at 81, after a long illness.
Published March 14, 2015
There is no escaping Scott Walker -- not even by fleeing into the distant past. Our governor's countenance is everywhere lately, and it was disconcerting recently to find a remarkable facsimile of it on the front page of the Dec. 21, 1908 edition of The Milwaukee Journal.