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 April 28, 2014
126 years ago today, Downtown streets were mobbed with people intent on witnessing a crime they'd looked forward to for three years. They ended up seeing two: an illegal prizefight and the underhanded plot that stole victory from the apparent winner and left him blubbering like a baby.
Published April 17, 2014
Jacobina Rautenberg's repeated arrests for public drunkenness from the late 1890s up to her death in 1935 made headlines and, consequently, her first name became as familiar in its own right around town as Pabst, Miller and Schlitz.
Published April 4, 2014
The semi-finals of the Golden Gloves tournament in Racine is upon us this weekend, which is a good occasion to remember Milwaukee's Eddie Brooks, who once floored Muhammed Ali in a sparring session after winning a Golden Gloves of his own.
Published March 12, 2014
Did Ad Wolgast take it in the shorts at the Milwaukee Auditorium 100 years ago this month? That's the question - literally and figuratively - that still hangs over one of the most famous events in local sports history.
Published Feb. 15, 2014
The news that boxing is back at the University of Wisconsin as a club sport 64 years after it was banished has made a big media splash. It also reminds us of the Marquette University's boxing program, which spawned one of the most controversial U.S. senators in American history.
Published Feb. 14, 2014
Senators John McCain and Harry Reid don't agree on much, but they do agree that a presidential pardon for Jack Johnson is way overdue. On Wednesday, the pair again asked for a full presidential pardon as "an important step in repairing the legacy of this great boxer and a rare opportunity for our government to right a history wrong."
Published Nov. 30, 2013
In the excitement surrounding the end of the sadly mislabeled "War to End All Wars" 95 years ago this month, some people did things they wouldn't otherwise have done. In the case of Walter H. Liginger, it was allowing one of the greatest boxers in history to fight in Milwaukee in spite of his black skin.
Published Nov. 2, 2013
Harry Houdini not only began his craft on the streets of Milwaukee, he cut his teeth in the Cream City's boxing rings. That all came together years later when he called out the heavyweight champion of the world.
Published Oct. 25, 2013
Ron Marsh, a gentleman and a boxer, won eight fights in Milwaukee in his career in the late 1960s and early 1970s. A fan favorite here, he once blocked for future Chicago Bears Hall of Famer Gale Sayers at Kansas, boxed and then became a schoolteacher. He passed away recently at the age of 70.
Published Oct. 12, 2013
Ninety years ago a Chicago boxer came to Milwaukee to fight for the junior welterweight championship of the world and got the beating of his life. Not in the ring, though. It happened on a Downtown street the night before the big fight scheduled for Oct. 11, 1923 at the Auditorium.