Billy Lochner, Forever Fifteen

BY Pete Ehrmann ON April 15, 2006
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Even with a world war going on, life must have seemed sweet and full of promise to Billy Lochner when he woke up on April 4, 1944.

Another long Wisconsin winter was past, and in a little more than a month he would celebrate his 16th birthday. Living on a farm involved lots of hard work, but unlike his older brothers and many other farmboys at that time whose formal education ended after sixth grade so they could help out at home full-time, Billy went to high school. He was a sophomore. Thanks to his quick smile and upbeat disposition, he had lots of friends. And now there was something else new and exciting in his life. That night he was going to suit up for the first time as a member of his school's most popular athletic team.

First, though, there were daily chores to do. Some things never changed.

"I'd better do my chores now," Billy told his father, "because tomorrow I probably won’t be able to because I’ll probably have two black eyes!”

In the 1940s, Wisconsin was one of the few states with sanctioned high school boxing. The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association, which governed preps sports in the state, approved boxing in 1935, undoubtedly spurred by the tremendous popularity of the University of Wisconsin boxing team that went undefeated in National Collegiate Athletic Association competition that year. The UW team would, before boxing was dropped by the school and the NCAA after the death of Badger boxer Charlie Mohr in 1960, win an unequaled eight national team titles, and meets held at the UW Field House drew bigger crowds than a lot of heavyweight title fights.

But the approval of high school boxing came with a warning from WIAA Executive Secretary P.F. Peterman: "Let's not get carried away here."

According to WIAA records, most of the 120 high schools that had ring squads at boxing’s prep zenith in 1941 were located in rural areas and small towns in the central, west and northeast portions of the state.

The high school ring season started after the basketballs were put away. Schools usually scheduled five or six meets against other teams in their area. Each meet consisted of at least 10 bouts in weight classes ranging from the 70-pound "dot-weight" class, to the 170-pound heavyweight division. Each match was worth one point. The school with the most points at the end of a meet was the winner.

Bouts were three one-minute rounds, with a minute-and-a-half rest period in between. Boxers weighing 140-pounds and less wore 12-oz. gloves; the heavier guys wore 16-oz. mitts. The WIAA didn't require boxers to wear headgear or even mouthpieces until 1948.

When Lodi High School fielded its first boxing team in 1938, there were fewer than 200 students in the whole school. But the program was an immediate success.

"We packed that gym every night. It was just fabulous," recalls Paul Dalton, who won WIAA tournament titles fighting for Lodi in 1940 and '41. "Boxing, being the sport it was, was exciting and a tremendous crowd-pleaser."

Located in south-central Wisconsin, about 25 miles north of Madison, Lodi had about 1,200 residents then, and on fight nights they snapped up tickets priced at 11, 20 and 30 cents to watch the local boxers square off against rivals from schools in nearby Poynette, Middleton, Portage, Sauk City and Spring Green.

In 1943, the Lodi Bluedevils won three meets, lost two and had one tie, and in spite of the sudden departure of the team’s popular coach there was great anticipation as the 1944 season opened because, as the Lodi Enterprise pointed out in its issue of March 2, “Boxing here has advanced to the point where, to many local sport fans, it stood first in popularity” among high school sports.

The paper reported “a record-breaking crowd" at Lodi’s opening meet against at home against Poynette. It ended in a 5-5 tie. A week later, Lodi lost to Portage, and then came a tie with Spring Green. “The bouts were well staged, well refereed, and the brand of sportsmanship displayed by both teams helps make boxing an asset to school athletics,” reported the Enterprise.

When Billy Lochner stepped into the ring pitched in the gym at Middleton High School on April 4, he had never been in a real fight wearing boxing gloves. He didn’t read The Ring magazine, follow the boxing news in the sports section and have dreams about boxing glory. He had friends on the Lodi team, and probably went out for boxing because of them.

He lost his 124-pound match by decision to Middleton’s Orville Lampe. Newspaper accounts indicate it was close, and that in the second round Billy “was sent reeling against the ropes by a blow.”

Another Lodi boxer that night was Virgil Wetzel, a junior, who won his 156-pound match. Over a half-century later, Wetzel would not remember anything about his own fight, but he clearly recalled Lochner’s.

“It wasn’t boxing,” he said. “They just went out and pounded one-another.”

The meet ended up a 6-6 draw. Afterwards the Lodi boxers boarded a bus to return home, and if Billy Lochner was feeling depressed about his debut, it wasn’t evident. He “seemed to be his usual jovial, light-hearted self,” according to the Enterprise.

Back home, the team and its supporters gathered at the Log Cabin restaurant, as they did after most of the boxing meets. It was about 10:30 at night, and Virgil Wetzel went to the table at which Lochner was sitting and told him, “You did a good fight there.”

In response, Lochner put a hand on his jaw and said, “Gosh, it’s funny. I feel worse now than I did during the fight.”

Then he collapsed. Wetzel and others carried him outside.

Mary Lochner happened to be walking with some girlfriends near the restaurant and saw somebody being carried out. Her last name was different then, because at the time she was only 17 and not yet married to Henry Lochner, Billy’s older brother, then serving with the U.S. Army in Iceland. Today she remembers Billy as “a jovial, outgoing person who enjoyed having fun.” He looked, she says, like his mother.

Now, though, his problems were much more serious than a couple black eyes. After they took Billy's unconscious body out of the restaurant, his boxing teammates gave him artificial respiration while a doctor was summoned. But there would be no more boxing, high school, chores, birthdays or tomorrows for him. Fifteen-year old Billy Lochner was pronounced dead outside the Log Cabin restaurant. An autopsy later disclosed that he had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage caused by “at least two blows to the left side of the head.”

“It devastated everybody,” recalls Mary Lochner. “It was such a shocking thing.”

“Out of respect to William Lochner, all remaining boxing matches on the Lodi High School boxing schedule for the season have been cancelled,” announced the Lodi Enterprise.

In Milwaukee, about 100 miles away, the newspapers gave what happened just a couple graphs, about as much as was devoted to the victories in the East the night before of Willie Pep and Al "Bummy" Davis. But the Madison Capital Times published a guest column by a former judge named P.L. Lincoln in which he called boxing an affront to common decency and a “perversion of education and of our school system.”

The WIAA agreed. Calling boxing “at best a questionable high school sport,” it instituted new guidelines for it that were plainly aimed at discouraging schools from participating.

By 1948, when Paul Dalton became coach of the Lodi prep mitt squad (which had resumed competition three years earlier), the number of public schools in Wisconsin with boxing was 45 and falling fast. After that season, the Lodi School Board agreed with the growing number of critics who said boxing had no place in high school, and voted to permanently shut down the Bluedevil ring program.

A year later only 24 schools had boxing. By 1953, just four schools were left, and the WIAA put prep boxing in the state down for the count.

What happened to Billy Lochner 62 years ago “has never been forgotten by our city,” says his sister-in-law, Mary Lochner. Now 83, and still living in the Lodi farmhouse his great-grandparents built in 1881, Paul Dalton would like to establish a college scholarship to be presented annually to a Lodi High School student in the name of Billy Lochner.

“We’re trying to do something as a memorial,” Dalton says, “so he isn’t forgotten for giving up his life.”

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