The CBZ Newswire

Danny Womber — a forgotten veteran: Simple burial for former Medina resident with interesting past

by on May.09, 2017, under Boxing News

By MATT LEADER

Originally published in The Daily News, Serving Genesee, Wyoming and Orleans Counties on April 30, 2017

The late Mr. Womber (photo courtesy of boxrec.com)

The late Mr. Womber (photo courtesy of boxrec.com)

Danny Womber’s grave is in a far-flung corner of Bath National Cemetery, where songbirds battle with the drone of cars and trucks rumbling down Interstate 86 below.

At the site of the former Medina resident’s grave, a long strip of turf has been flayed from the otherwise green hillside, exposing the loose soil beneath. An excavator is parked behind a trio of young evergreen trees nearby.

There isn’t yet a headstone, only a temporary metal marker bearing some basic information: his name, Womber, Daniel H., gravesite number, 435, and branch of service, US Army.

It takes two months for headstones to arrive at the cemetery once they’re ordered. But even once it’s arrived, it won’t offer much insight into who Womber actually was.

There will be nothing to indicate, for instance, that on May 2, 1953, Womber stepped into a boxing ring at the Onondaga County War Memorial in Syracuse and won a unanimous decision against Kid Gavilan, the welterweight champion of the world.

Despite the win, Gavilan’s welterweight title didn’t change hands. Womber missed the belt by 9-1/2 pounds, the combined weight by which he and Gavilan exceeded the 147-pound welterweight limit that night in Syracuse.

While Womber never rose to the level of prominence of some of his contemporaries (like Sugar Ray Robinson with whom he shared a manager), to call his boxing career undistinguished would be unfair.

His three most famous opponents — Kid Gavilan, Johnny Bratton and Johnny Saxton — were all champions or former champions when Womber ducked into the ring to face them.

He went 1-2 in those bouts – losing unanimous decisions to both Bratton and Saxton in ’52 and ’53 respectively — and retired soon after, about a month shy of his 27th birthday.

 

Without family

A 2010 story by Julie Sherwood of Canandaigua’s Messenger Post newspaper notes that Womber was a widower and had three daughters. But Kevin Bogan, owner of the Bogan and Tuttle Funeral Home in Medina, said he didn’t have any family.

He made his own funeral arrangements, Bogan said. A line in his obituary, noting that a private service would be held at the convenience of his family, was just a stock line that Bogan puts into every obituary.

“It’s rare,” Bogan said. “Sometimes you get nieces and nephews from California and stuff that have no contact, but to have no one — it’s rare.”

His funeral papers were co-signed by Laura Bruton, the business office manager of the Orchard Manor Nursing Home in Medina where Womber spent the final years of his life.

“I helped him with his funeral agreement — that’s why my name was on there, because he didn’t have another contact person,” Bruton said. “I don’t really know that much about him. I feel really bad because we loved him here, we just don’t know that much.”

It’s hard to glean a complete picture of what became of Womber after his upset of Gavilan. In Sherwood’s 2010 story, Womber said he moved to Brooklyn and became a hair stylist, catering to famous clients like Ella Fitzgerald and Clark Gable.

But his obituary, which Bogan said was approved by Womber himself, states that he went on to become a private investigator.

Maybe he did both — we’ll probably never know.

What’s clear is that Womber died March 26 at the Erie County Medical Center in Buffalo. He was 90 years old.

He was buried April 11 in Bath. There was no committal service, no 21-gun salute, no folded flag. Just a burial in a grave dug by an excavator, now parked nearby behind a stand of evergreen trees.

Duane Mendenhall, director of Bath National Cemetery, said he and his staff receive “quite a few indigent veteran burials” each year where the only person present is the funeral director.

When this happens, Mendenhall said, cemetery staff and personnel and veterans at the Bath VA hospital nearby make a point to attend the burial.

“We do this because we are all veterans and as such all brothers and sisters,” Mendenhall said. “It is one of many ways we honor and remember a brother or sister’s selfless sacrifices and service.”

 

The fight of his life

Womber’s 10-round win over Gavilan came from out of the blue. While only 26, Womber was nearing the end of a five-year professional career and hadn’t won in his last six fights.

Gavilan meanwhile was in the midst of the most successful stretch of his career. He hadn’t lost in more than 2-1/2 years and would have been on a 28-fight winning streak had he not drawn with former champion Johnny Bratton in 1951.

Boxing historian Don Hamilton was in the crowd that night. He was 14 years old.

Now 78, Hamilton was an amateur boxer himself and was deeply involved in the Syracuse boxing scene back in the 1950s. As such, he was able to nab a seat close to ringside.

Gavilan was taken aback by Womber, who mirrored the champion in his habit of rushing opponents near the end of a round in an attempt to seal it up in the minds of the judges.

“Gavilan would fury, the end of a round, maybe 10 seconds to go — he’d really open up on his opponents and in that last 10 seconds, sometimes it got him the nod from the judges,” Hamilton said. “When Gavilan would open up in the last 10 seconds, Womber opened up with him — he wasn’t used to that.”

It was a strategy that Womber, known more for the number of punches he threw than the power behind them, was well-suited to.

“He didn’t knock guys out with one punch, but he had the nickname ‘Bang Bang’ because he threw a lot of punches all the time,” Hamilton said. “That was what made him successful.”

Bang Bang’s punches were plentiful that night. Each of his flurries drew raucous applause and when the judges’ scores were read, the crowd rose as one and roared its approval.

“Listen to that crowd — that was a honey, wasn’t it?” yelled the announcer after the final bell as Womber walked back to his corner, hand raised in triumph. “Womber’s won the fight — there’s a real upset for you.”

 

A quiet confidence

Hamilton knew Womber briefly. He came to Syracuse about a week before the Gavilan fight and worked out at a gym Hamilton frequented.

“He was a nice guy,” Hamilton recalled. “He was very personable, didn’t talk a lot about himself, would talk to you about whatever you wanted.”

That easy manner endeared him to the press, Hamilton said, especially after the Gavilan fight when the David and Goliath storyline practically wrote itself.

“He was an easy guy to write about because he wasn’t a hard guy to get along with,” he said.

While he acknowledged his interaction with Bang Bang was limited, Bogan agreed.

“He was a very quiet man,” he said. “Very humble.”

Desiree Braham was one of Womber’s nurses at the Orchard Manor Nursing Home.

While he didn’t volunteer information about his boxing career, Braham and her fellow nurses were sometimes able to get Bang Bang — “That’s what he preferred to be called” — to open up.

“He’d reminisce about the good old days; he was so proud,” Braham said. “He’d tell you about all the people that he’d met, but you really had to ask him about it, he wouldn’t just offer it up … you had to dig for it.”

Sometimes Womber would bring out a photo album of sorts, its pages filled with old clippings and photos of himself in his prime. He even had a few old posters, likewise bearing his image or advertisements for different cards he was on.

Without any family to take them, or at least any that staff are aware of, Womber’s possessions linger in Medina.

“We kind of just keep it here,” Braham said.

Over the course of Womber’s three or so years in Medina, Braham had “a lot of contact” with him, but never saw family visit.

“He was always really polite and kind — it makes me sad,” she said, before pausing. “I can’t talk about it. It’s going to make me cry.”

 

Muddy records

Sherwood’s 2010 article notes that Womber was a quartermaster in the US Army, responsible for trucking supplies, and that he came to boxing late, only starting in the sport when he saw fighters getting special attention.

Apart from that, not much is known about his military service.

A request for records from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis didn’t turn up anything. It’s probable they were lost in a devastating 1973 fire that destroyed millions of such records.

The center estimates that 80 percent of the records pertaining to US Army personnel discharged between 1912 and 1960 — a span of time that covers all of World Wars I and II, the Korean War and about half of the Vietnam War — were lost. The fire also claimed an estimated 75 percent of records of US Air Force personnel discharged between 1947 and 1964.

In some instances, archivists are able to pull pieces of information from charred pieces of paper, leftover in the fire’s wake. Sometimes, they’re able to reach out to other agencies, like the FBI, for help in piecing together a veteran’s military service.

In Womber’s case, archivists did both.

“We have conducted extensive searches of every records source and alternate records source at this center,” to no avail, said Archivist Kevin Cowan in a statement. “Unfortunately, without any new data, we will not be able to conduct a further search.”

While those who knew or crossed paths with Womber remember him as a humble and kind man, almost reluctant to discuss his own achievements, snippets from Sherwood’s article offer a glimpse at the cocksure confidence Bang Bang must have had when he walked into a ring in May of ‘53 and stared down the world champion.

“I told my manager I could beat him,” Womber was quoted as saying in the article. “I did.”

Sherwood sat down with Womber in the Canandaigua VA Hospital, where he was then a resident, to watch a grainy recording of his unanimous decision victory over Gavilan.

After watching the fight, Womber seemed surprised at his own abilities.

“I knew I was good,” he told Sherwood, “but not that good.”

 

****** Article submitted by Don Hamilton and Mark Irwin ******

 

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