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Color Him Orange
The Jim Boeheim Story
By Scott Pitoniak
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2011 Scott Pitoniak
All rights reserved.
Putting Down Roots in Upstate New York
It doesn't matter from which direction you journey. North or south through the rolling cornfields and apple orchards on Route 14, or east or west on Route 31, which runs parallel to the historic Erie Canal. The eye-grabbing orange signs are there to welcome you to Lyons, New York, and inform you immediately and proudly that this Wayne County town of roughly 6,000 inhabitants, equidistant from Syracuse and Rochester, is where it all began for its most famous son, Jim Boeheim, coach of Syracuse University's 2003 national championship basketball team.
"When he finally won it all after those painful close calls, nobody felt better for Jimmy than the people here," said Mike DeCola, a high school basketball and Little League baseball teammate of Boeheim's, who's been friends with the Hall of Fame coach since they were about six years old. "The town had a big celebration for Jimmy that summer. We had him and his family ride to the ceremonies on a fire truck and gave him one of the signs that we were going to put up. And he told us that that recognition from his hometown meant more to him than the visit to the White House to meet the President of the United States. And we believed him because no matter how much success Jimmy's had, he's never forgotten his roots. Lyons will always be a big part of who Jimmy Boeheim is, and he'll always be a big part of Lyons."
Actually, the Boeheim name became synonymous with this town south of Lake Ontario long before the legendary basketball coach was born. Jim's great-great-grandfather, Friedrich W. Boeheim, and his wife, Phillipina, arrived in this upstate New York settlement on a canal boat in 1853. A native of Wuettenberg, Germany, Boeheim, like many immigrants, had boarded the mule-towed vessel and headed west on the 363-mile long canal that connected the Hudson River with Lake Erie. He likely had been told that boom towns and villages had sprouted along the famous manmade waterway and that there were opportunities to make money and own land. It's not known how far west Friedrich and his wife had intended to travel. All we know is that a help wanted sign convinced them to get off the boat in Lyons. The sign had been held aloft by Hiram Hotchkiss, an enterprising entrepreneur who was on the verge of establishing himself as the "peppermint king of the world." Hotchkiss was looking to hire a cook, and although Boeheim possessed carpentry rather than culinary skills, he apparently was willing to give it a shot in hopes that he would be able to establish a cabinet-making business on the side. Plus, of all the places he had seen along the canal, this was the area that probably appealed most to him. The town seemed bustling and vibrant, the land fertile and scenic, and there were a number of German immigrants to make him and his young bride feel at home in a new land.
Boeheim would come to learn that the settlement originally had been known as "the forks" because, in the southern part of town, Ganargua Creek, or Mud Creek as it was called, and the Canandaigua Outlet joined to form the Clyde River. But it was renamed Lyons by early settler and land agent Charles Williamson, because the junction reminded him of the bucolic town of Lyon, France, where the Rhone and Saone rivers meet.
It's not clear how successful a cook Boeheim became, but the job Hotchkiss offered must have tided him over long enough for him to get his furniture business up and running roughly a year later. In 1854, the German-born carpenter opened a small cabinet shop on Jackson Street where he also made caskets. From today's perspective, this might seem a strange, almost humorous business combination, but it was quite common in the mid-nineteenth century for furniture makers to also construct caskets and even perform burials. Word of the high quality of Boeheim's cabinets, tables, chairs, dressers, and caskets spread quickly throughout the town, and it wasn't long before Friedrich moved into a building on Canal Street that was three times larger and where he began grooming his 14-year-old son, Frederick B., to follow in his footsteps. By 1880, the younger Boeheim had joined the firm, and several years later the business was moved again to more spacious surroundings, this time to a three-story brick building on Water Street. Because it bordered the canal path and featured a freight elevator, the location was better suited to gather supplies and ship products to other canal towns in either direction.
Two signs adorned the new building, which occupied nearly an entire block. The one painted above the second floor read: F.W. BOEHEIM & SONS, while a larger sign, above the first floor, read: FURNITURE AND UNDERTAKING. Following his father's death in 1905 at age 80, Frederick took over the business and expanded sales even further by doing more newspaper advertising. An ad in the October 10, 1906, edition of the Wayne Democratic Press urged readers to go to Frederick Boeheim's for furniture, undertaking, and picture frames. Talk about life-and-death, one-stop shopping.
Like his father before him, Frederick groomed his son to take over the business, and that occurred in 1926 when a third Frederick Boeheim — the coach's grandfather — became the new head of the firm. He had married Lettie Armeda Taylor in 1911, and they had five children. Their second child — the coach's father, James Arthur Boeheim — was born in 1917 in Lyons. He began working for his father when he was 12, helping pick up chairs and loading furniture into the delivery trucks. He attended Syracuse University before transferring to the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science, where he received a degree in 1939. Upon graduating, he joined the family business full time, and following their father's death in 1951, he and his older brother, Frederick T., took over the firm — making them the fourth generation in a family that Lyons' residents fondly referred to as the "Burying Boeheims." But the brothers' partnership would last only three years. When Frederick left to become a traveling salesman for an embalming supply company in Westport, Connecticut, James Boeheim, known to everyone in town as Jim, became the sole owner and operator.
The first Jim Boeheim was a driven man in every endeavor he pursued, and some surmise that his fierce determination and competitiveness was not only inherited but also shaped by a life-changing event when he was a young boy. The story goes that he and one of his brothers discovered their father's revolver one day and began fooling around with it. The gun accidentally went off and a .22-caliber slug sliced through Jim Sr.'s lower back and came to rest near his spine. Though they knew there probably would be complications, doctors determined that the location of the bullet made it too risky to remove, so they decided to leave it be. As a result of the wound, one of Jim's legs wound up being two inches shorter than the other, and he spent the rest of his life walking with a limp and started using a cane in his early forties. "It could have been worse," Boeheim said years later. "I could be bones and dust over in a field in Africa or someplace like Guadalacanal. Maybe I was lucky." Lucky because his injury prevented him from being drafted into the service during World War II.
Despite the handicap, he still managed to play baseball and basketball with friends, but he mainly sated his competitive appetite with games that did not require running and jumping, such as golf, ping-pong, pool, and bridge. Those who knew him say he was a poor loser and told stories of him arguing and stomping away after defeats, no matter how insignificant the contest.
Boeheim viewed business as a competition, too, so it wasn't surprising that he became regarded as a demanding boss, who, like his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, expected perfection in the furniture he sold. The result was a line of high-quality chairs, tables, and cabinets that earned the family business the respect of their customers. "You walk around our house and you'll see a Boeheim table here and a Boeheim hutch there," says Lee Boice, a retired history/physical-education teacher and golf coach at Lyons High School. "And you'll probably see furniture that was purchased from Boeheim's that was made 60, 70, 80 years ago in a lot of homes in the area. The craftsmanship was very good. The stuff was made to last."
The high quality of the furniture wasn't the only thing that earned the Boeheims respect, according to Boice. "Lyons, like most communities in America in the 1930s and '40s, was still kind of a prejudicial town, where people on the south side of the bridge — primarily the Italians — were looked down upon by the German- and Dutch-Americans, who lived on the north side and were considered the high society members of the community," Boice said. "To his credit, Jim Sr., never looked down on the Italians. He treated them as equals, sold them furniture, gave them jobs, and let them slide on their payments when they were experiencing tough times. It was, of course, the right thing to do, but I can tell you that not everyone was doing the right thing back then. There was definitely an ethnic bias, and it took a while for the melting pot to catch up to a lot of places, including Lyons."
Although he was involved in two of Lyons' most visible businesses — the furniture store and funeral home — and was active in a number of service organizations, including the Chamber of Commerce and local service lodge, Boeheim did not care one iota for the limelight. "He was what I would describe as austere," said Boice, who occasionally had Boeheim and his wife, Janet, over for dinner. "He was respected in the community, but there was an aloofness to him. A lot of people knew of him but didn't really know him, and that's the way he wanted it. I think it was a just what he was comfortable with. He was kind of a private person."
There were times when he could be downright nasty in public, especially at restaurants if his order wasn't just right. "There is a classic story of him once being upset because his dish came with parsley as garnish," recalled Tony Santelli, a lifelong friend of Jim Boeheim the coach. "And he took the parsley off the plate and threw it on the floor. He could be moody and intimidating. There were times he was tough to deal with."
His stoicism, punctuated by occasional outbursts of anger, was in stark contrast to his wife's personality. Janet Kay Knapp, who married Boeheim on December 6, 1941 — the day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor — was a tall, slender woman with brown hair, described in glowing terms by those who knew her as a kindhearted, nurturing person.
"I think she offset some of the hard edges of her husband," said Isabelle Hartman, one of young Jim's aunts. "I think she was the best thing to ever happen to him, because a lot of people regarded him as a prima donna. Janet was so generous and personable with everyone, even total strangers. To be honest, I don't know what she saw in him, but somehow it all worked out between them."
Interestingly, decades later, friends of James Arthur Boeheim Jr. would say that his second wife, Juli, had a similar impact on him, softening many of his hard edges.CHAPTER 2
Like Father, Like Son
In the decades immediately following World War II, Lyons, New York, was quintessential small-town America. Sort of Mayberry, R.F.D. plopped down on the banks of the Erie Canal — without Sheriff Andy Taylor and deputy Barney Fife, of course. Farmers would come to town to sell their fruits, vegetables, milk, and meat at street markets. Doctors made house calls. Residents flocked to businesses in the three-to-four-block downtown area, not yet lured away by the shopping centers and mega-malls that would sprout in nearby Syracuse and Rochester in the 1970s and '80s. Churches usually were packed on Sunday mornings. Youth and high school sports were supported rabidly, sources of community pride and identity. "Lyons back then was a real close-knit place," recalled Earl Buchanan, a retired teacher and superintendent who has called the Wayne County seat his home since the late 1940s. "Everyone knew everyone's name, and neighbors looked out for one another. Serious crime was almost nonexistent. Heck, nobody bothered to lock up their houses or their cars. It really was sort of an idyllic place, a great place to raise your kids."
Jim and Janet Boeheim thought so, too, and on November 17, 1944, they welcomed their firstborn, James Arthur Boeheim Jr., into this "idyllic place." It became apparent to the townsfolk early on that the apple hadn't fallen far from the tree. The boy everyone called "Jimmy" would be profoundly influenced — good and bad — by his domineering, hyper-critical father. From the get-go, Senior and Junior seemed to have a competition rather than a relationship. Father would teach son how to play a game, then proceed to beat him at the game as decisively as he could. "It was amazing to watch," said Tony Santelli, a lifelong friend of the famous basketball coach who went on to run a successful lumber business in Lyons and nearby Newark. "He was relentless. Here's this adult playing this six- or seven-year-old in ping-pong, and he's hitting the ball as hard as he can and is intent on not letting him score a single point. The old man was hard on Jimmy. Very hard."
The elder Boeheim believed the world was extremely competitive and that you had better become fiercely competitive, too, or it will eat you alive. "I had an aunt who let me win at cards, and that bothered me," the father once told a reporter. "No one is going to let you win as a man, so you better learn to win as a kid. Jimmy got his competitive edge from me." Although the two argued incessantly, they were in complete agreement about that point. "I got to be the competitor I am because my father beat me like a drum every game we played, all my life," the younger Boeheim said. "And every game we played, when I beat him, he wouldn't play me anymore. But I eventually got him in every game, except cards. It took a long time. I got him, starting in ping-pong, pool, golf. It took me a long time to catch him, but I finally caught him."
Although Jimmy's abhorrence for defeat was ingrained in him by his overbearing father, his athletic genes came from his mother. The long-and-lean Janet Boeheim walked with the grace of an athlete and had excellent hand-eye coordination. She became a top-notch golfer, winning several local club championships. She also was a loving, nurturing woman, and her encouragement helped balance the daily barrage of criticism that Jimmy received from his dad. "She was a beautiful person, an absolutely beautiful person," Santelli said. "She was always smiling. She was one of those personalities where the day was always rosy, even if it was minus-25 outside." Years later, in a rare moment of introspection, Jim Boeheim Jr. discussed the disparate personalities of his mother and father in an interview with the Syracuse Post-Standard. "I had very, very different parents," he said. "I do tend to be a little too much like my father. I hope I have some of the good qualities of my mother. My father and I, we're both opinionated, stubborn, and very, very competitive."
Barbara Boeheim, the coach's younger sister, occasionally witnessed the sparks fly between her father and big brother. But she also experienced her father's generosity and kindness. "That big heart that everyone saw in Mom was there in Dad, too," she said. "It was just more hidden beneath a tough, outer veneer. Me, being a girl, I'm sure I saw the softer side of Dad much more than Jim did." She also saw the softer side of her brother more often than others did. "We pretty much had your typical older-brother, younger-sister relationship," said Barbara, who is seven years Jim's junior. "He'd call me 'Brat,' and I would do annoying, little-sister things like turn off the lights while he was shooting baskets out back," she said, chuckling at the memory. "But it was all pretty innocent stuff. He actually was a great big brother and still is. When I was little, I remember some kid was taunting me, and Jim came running out of the house and yelled, 'You better leave my little sister alone or else.' He was very protective." Friends and relatives who knew both Senior and Junior say there is a great facial resemblance between the two. Especially when they are agitated. "When Jim glares at an official with that I'm-not-too-pleased-with-you look of his, I say, 'Wow, that's Dad,'" Barbara said. "Of course, Jim doesn't like hearing that because he saw that look from my dad a lot more than I did, and he didn't like it one bit."
Excerpted from Color Him Orange by Scott Pitoniak. Copyright © 2011 Scott Pitoniak. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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