JENKINS, VERLIN ELMER [LEW]

Jason Franklin, rev. by Gene Pantalone
Verlin Elmer Jenkins [Lew] (1916–1981).
Texas boxer Lew Jenkins won the Lightweight Title in a bout versus Lou Ambers at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1940. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

JENKINS, VERLIN ELMER [LEW] (1916–1981). Lew Jenkins, professional boxer and army sergeant, was born Verlin Elmer Jenkins near Milburn, McCulloch County, Texas, on December 4, 1916. He was the third of seven children and grew up impoverished during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl.

He was the son of Artie James Jenkins and Minnie Lee (White) Jenkins. While he was still a child, his parents moved to Sweetwater, Texas, where he worked in the fields and picked cotton to help his family make a living. According to his record in the 1940 census, Jenkins only attended school through the seventh grade. It was from his hometown that he drew one of his many boxing monikers, the “Sweetwater Swatter.”

At age sixteen and following the death of his father, Jenkins joined T. J. Tidwell’s traveling carnival in order to bring in money to support his family. He fought up to four times daily against challengers who sometimes outweighed him by more than a hundred pounds. Tidwell often gambled his entire carnival that Lew could knock out any man who stepped into the ring with him. This stint in the carnival was one of his first forays into the ring. In 1936 when he was nineteen, Jenkins joined the U.S. Army and was placed in the Eighth Calvary Division at Fort Bliss, where he worked as a blacksmith and drew a monthly salary of twenty-one dollars, of which he sent ten dollars to his mother. Though he had a small-framed wiry build, he was known for his extremely powerful punches, especially his right-hand punch, and won the welterweight championship of Fort Bliss. 

Lew Jenkins' Boxing Robe
Lew Jenkins' Boxing Robe. Courtesy of Gene Pantalone.

During a furlough from the army, Jenkins went to Dallas, Texas, to continue fighting professionally. He met Fred Browning, a wealthy sportsman, Dallas sports promoter, and businessman who owned a ranch, racing stable, and the Top O’Hill Terrace Casino. Excited by the talent he saw in Jenkins, Browning purchased the fighter’s discharge from the military and became his manager. Jenkins began using the nickname of “Lew” based on the suggestion of promoter Dick Griffin who was financed by Browning. Jenkins fought several matches at the famed Sportatorium. At around the same time that Jenkins met Browning, he met a feisty midget car racer—Katie Lucile Jenkins (same last name but no relation)—the woman who would become his wife. Three years before they met, Katie was the girlfriend of the notorious outlaw Raymond Hamilton, who was a member of the Bonnie and Clyde gang. After a brief courtship, Lew and Katie married on May 4, 1938, in Durant, Oklahoma. Soon after their marriage, Katie became involved in managing his boxing career, which consisted largely of fighting as often as possible to meet living expenses. They traveled to matches in Houston, San Antonio, Corpus Christi, St. Angelo, Pecos, Los Angeles, Indianapolis, Mexico, and New York City. 

Fred Browning, Lew Jenkins, and Hymie Caplin
Fred Browning, Lew Jenkins, and Hymie Caplin. Courtesy of Gene Pantalone.
Lew Jenkins' defeat of Lou Ambers
Lew Jenkins' defeat of Lou Ambers. Courtesy of Gene Pantalone.

From 1939 to 1940 Jenkins’s career ramped up to its highest point. Browning still owned his contract, but he hired Frank Bachman and “Howling” Hymie Caplin as managers in New York City, while Willie Ketchum trained Jenkins. As a result, Lew won thirteen fights in a row as an underdog, including his first-round knockout of Tippy Larkin at Madison Square Garden in New York City, which earned him a shot at the title. The lightweight title fight against Lou Ambers on May 10, 1940, was a short one with Jenkins scoring a third-round knockout; it was the first time the rugged, two-time champion Ambers had even been knocked out. Jenkins held the title for nineteen months despite losing and drawing some non-title fights, which included three fights against the heavier welterweight champions Henry Armstrong, Fritzie Zivic, and Freddie Cochrane. 

Katie and Lew Jenkins
Katie and Lew Jenkins. Courtesy of Gene Pantalone.

Jenkins lost his title in a bout against Sammy Angott on December 19, 1941, while fighting with a fractured neck from a motorcycle crash. He said that every time he threw a punch he nearly blacked out. His many defeats during this time can be chalked up to heavy drinking and partying. His misadventures included car and motorcycle crashes which caused him to fight with injuries. The once supportive fans booed him, and sportswriters wrote derisively about him because of his lackluster efforts in the ring. He and Katie divorced in 1942, and Katie later became the first woman to hold a boxing manager license in New York. Jenkins married Lupie Marie Galarza in Reno, Nevada, on March 2, 1947. They had one son, Lew. Jenkins continued fighting until his retirement from boxing in 1950. He fought his last bout in a televised event on April 14, 1950, against another former lightweight champion Beau Jack; Jenkins lost due to a painful low blow. His official professional boxing record was 73–41–5 with 51 wins by knockout. Jenkins contended that he fought more than his record indicated. 

Lew Jenkins in Korea
Lew Jenkins in Korea. Courtesy of Gene Pantalone.

Lew Jenkins was a great boxer, but his more important achievements came on the battlefield. In 1942 he enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard. His unit was responsible for putting troops ashore at Tunisia, Gela, Calcutta, Palermo, Burma, Salerno, Sicily, and at Normandy on D-Day. He later commented on his frustrations at watching men die upon entering combat but not being able to join the fight himself. Jenkins abstained from alcohol after World War II. He attempted a final comeback in the ring, but never matched his previous heights. Following his retirement from professional boxing, Jenkins re-enlisted in the army and served in the Second Infantry Division during the Korean War. He served as a first sergeant and was awarded a Silver Star for leading a squad that held off an entire North Korean battalion while a trapped American battalion escaped. Medal of Honor recipient Ronald E. Rosser recounted that Jenkins, under intense enemy fire, completed several dangerous trips to an ammunition dump during the engagement.

 The Life of War Hero Lew Jenkins by Gene Pantalone
From Boxing Ring to Battlefield: The Life of War Hero Lew Jenkins by Gene Pantalone. Courtesy of Gene Pantalone and Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

In later life, Jenkins worked as a groundskeeper for a golf course in Concord, California, to supplement his army pension and lived comfortably. Lew Jenkins died on October 30, 1981, at Oakland Naval Regional Medical Center in California. For his service to America he was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. Jenkins was inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame in 1974, The Ring magazine’s Boxing Hall of Fame in 1977, the World Boxing Hall of Fame in 1983, and the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1999. In 2003 The Ring magazine named him one of the “100 Greatest Punchers.”

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

BoxRec: Lew Jenkins (http://boxrec.com/boxer/9466), accessed May 20, 2017. Dallas Morning News, March 12, 1956. Houston Chronicle, October 6, 2013. New York Times, November 1, 4, 1981. Gene Pantalone, From Boxing Ring to Battlefield: The Life of War Hero Lew Jenkins (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018). James B. Roberts and Alexander G. Skutt, The Boxing Register: International Boxing Hall of Fame Official Record Book (Ithaca, New York: McBooks Press, 2006).

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, Jason Franklin, rev. by Gene Pantalone, "JENKINS, VERLIN ELMER [LEW] ," accessed April 22, 2019, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fjenk.

Uploaded on May 23, 2017. Modified on March 19, 2019. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

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