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."
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