February 2011 - Getting Up

by Justice William W. Bedsworth

The middleweight champion of the world from 1907–1910 was a fella named Stanley Ketchel. They called him the Michigan Assassin, and a few years ago Ring Magazine named him the fourth best middleweight of all time.

That information is not going to get you MCLE credits. And if, like most Americans, you watch boxing once every decade or two, it’s probably not even interesting to you.

But if you graduated law school, you spent a lot of time reading things without really knowing why. And if you come to this space regularly, you’ve raised it to an art form.

So bear with me a minute. I’m not gonna spend that much time on boxing. Mostly I’m gonna talk about the indomitable human spirit. Consider this MCLE for the heart.

Stanley Ketchel was born Stanislaw Kiecal, the son of Polish immigrants. By the time he was 16, he was orphaned and eking out a hand-to-mouth existence in Butte, Montana.

But just when things looked bleakest for Stanislaw, he saw a poster for a barnstorming boxer. The offer was simple: If you could last three rounds with this guy, you could win $3.

The guy outweighed Stanislaw by thirty pounds, but he was disadvantaged by the fact he was eating regularly, and Stanislaw was not. The chance to win a week’s worth of room and board was a pretty powerful motivator to a starving teenager. The barnstormer knocked Stanislaw down five times, but the little orphan kept getting up. Battered and bloodied, he was still standing halfway through the third round.

Not wanting to lose three bucks, the barnstormer moved in for the kill and got reckless. His guard lowered for a second and Stanislaw landed a thunderous left hook. The barnstormer went down like he’d been pole axed. He was unconscious for fifteen minutes.

Stanley won $3 and a steady job: the barnstormer’s manager signed him to a contract and began taking him from town to town. “Last three rounds with Stanley Ketchel (Stanislaw Kiecal just didn’t sound like a boxer’s name) and win $3.”

Stanley turned pro a year later. He knew nothing about boxing and his fights were all the same as his first one against the barnstormer. Stanley would absorb punishment for as long as it took to land that big left hand, at which point the fight would instantly end.

That became the theme of his career. He was knocked down seven times in the fight in which he won the world middleweight championship. He was twice knocked down eight times defending it. He was so badly beaten in one fight that he took a swing at the referee because his vision was almost completely obscured by his own blood.

But he never stayed on the canvas. He always got back up and stayed on his feet until he could land that left. As one frustrated opponent lamented, “The sonofabitch just keeps getting up.”

He was middleweight champion of the world twice, always a fan favorite because of his legendary unwillingness to quit. He was training for a title fight when he was shot to death by a man incensed because Ketchel had berated him for beating a horse.

Upon learning of Ketchel’s death, Wilson Mizner, the playwright who was co-owner of The Brown Derby restaurant in Los Angeles and an admirer of Ketchel’s fighting spirit, pronounced one of the most famous epitaphs in sports history, “Nah, you can’t kill Ketchel. Start the count; he’ll get up.”

Last month I saw the second coming of Stanley Ketchel. His name is Jon Alexander and he is the new District Attorney of Del Norte County.

I know this because I swore him in on January third. Otherwise I would never have believed it.

I first met Jon in 1983. He was a law student, applying for a summer clerkship in the District Attorney’s Office here. He was 33.

His background was unremarkable. Played soccer at a state college in Kentucky, Dharma-bummed around after graduation. Chased the perfect wave, waited tables, worked jobs at Keeneland and Churchill Downs, commercial fisherman for awhile, ran a nightclub in Nag’s Head, North Carolina. Came to the law late.

In fact, he came to the law by accident. Fishing accident. He was working on a fishing boat when a two-ton dredge knocked him ass over teakettle into Chesapeake Bay. Broke a couple ribs.

Pretty easy call for the boat captain. Guy with broken ribs can’t work but still eats. They put him ashore in Norfolk.

Jon knew no one in Norfolk. He was sitting in a bar with $40 in his pocket, trying to figure out how to get back to North Carolina, when he picked up a Washington Post somebody had left behind and saw an ad for Western State College of Law. “Three weeks later I was in California, on my way to the Registrar’s Office.”

When Jon applied for a clerkship, I was used to hiring top students. Three of our law clerks (Manuel Ramirez, Patricia Bamattre-Manoukian, and Carol Corrigan) beat me to the Court of Appeal. Several became judges, more became first-rate lawyers. Jon did not have their kind of resume.

But he had that “big left hand.” He could communicate. Boy, could he communicate.

I read some incendiary stuff he had written in the Western State student newspaper taking on the administration over some peccadillo—real or imaginary—and knew two things about him: he could write and he gave a damn. I brought him on board in a heartbeat.

He did great work for us. And he played a dynamite center field for our softball team.

After law school he went into criminal defense. Worked with Gary Pohlson for awhile, and if you can’t learn from watching Pohlson, you can’t learn. Then he opened his own shop. He was born for jury trials and was doing well until he got hooked on meth.

Yeah, you read that right. It said, “got hooked on meth.” He was a meth addict. It chewed him up and spit him out.

He blew through thousands of dollars. Hundreds of thousands. Lost his practice, lost his ticket to practice when the State Bar suspended him. Lost a coupla houses worth well into seven figures. Lost pretty much everything he had.

I later learned he was living in the crawl space of a home in Laguna Beach. He was working on the tear-off crew for a roofing company. All he had left was his mom’s dog, a Fender guitar, and a coupla trashbags full of $900 suits he was saving for his comeback.

One night a dope deal went south on him. When he went to pick up, somebody whacked him with a baseball bat and knocked him down a flight of stairs at a fleabag motel. He was hospitalized with a broken neck when Lloyd Freeberg, a criminal attorney with the mind of Thomas Edison and the heart of Albert Schweitzer, found him.

Lloyd called me and we held an intervention in Jon’s hospital room. We gave it our best shot. After his surgery, Lloyd got him into a rehab program. He worked on the Salvation Army loading dock for five months—broken neck and all—and I thought he was on his way back.

I was wrong. He was on his way out. He walked away from the loading dock and disappeared. Vanished.

He went north to be with his mother, who was dying in Oregon. But nobody knew that. We thought he’d fallen off the planet.

After awhile, we thought he was dead.

A little over a year passed and I got a phone call. Jon was trying to climb up off the canvas again. He was hitting daily 12-step meetings in Brookings, Oregon and was making amends. He was calling to apologize.

He started as a dishwasher in Brookings, then traded up to a job in a lumberyard, where he said the workers, “really need organization.” I told all of Jon’s many friends in Orange County it was time to give up on him. If he was gonna try to unionize a lumberyard, he’d probably be face down in a mill pond before long.

Wrong again. Sometime later I got a call from the District Attorney of Del Norte County. That’s the northernmost, westernmost county in California. Crescent City, the county seat, is a driver and a five-iron from Oregon.

The DA was in a bind. He had two death penalty cases and no one qualified to try them. He desperately needed a lawyer who could try a death penalty case. He knew about Jon’s problems with meth, but also knew he’d been sober for a year, and had his license to practice back.

As he put it, “I have two choices here. I can lose my next election because I lost two death penalty cases or I can lose it because I hired a meth addict. If he can try a death penalty case, I’m inclined to go with the meth addict.”

I assured him Jon could try death penalty cases. “He can try just about anything. He can talk the birds down out of the trees for prom night with snakes if you give him five minutes and an English-Sparrow dictionary.”

Sure enough, Jon got back into the ring in Del Norte County and began landing punches. After winning everything the DA put in front of him, he went back into criminal defense and won a contract as one of the county’s public defenders.

And then, last year, he ran for District Attorney. By now he’d been practicing in Del Norte for six years. He knew everybody. And he’d helped damn near everybody.

For six years, he’d thrown himself into Crescent City. He bought uniforms for little leaguers, sponsored football teams, the high school band, the high school baseball team. He bought a heifer at a Grange auction (which he then gave away; “What’s a Polack from Jersey gonna do with a heifer?”). He was there any time anybody asked.

And he continued his own personal war against substance abuse. Only now he was the puncher instead of the punchee. He’s run 12-step meetings in town for five years, he runs one for juveniles, he helps with the Jobs 4 Kids program, the youth boxing program, his own anti-meth program, the Relay for Life . . . you name it, he’s been there to help.

The people of Del Norte County took him in when he was down, and he never forgot it. He poured every nickel he had—and he’d accumulated a nice pile of nickels in six years of practice in Del Norte—into the campaign because he really wanted to be their District Attorney. He wanted to be a part of this place.

And the voters of Del Norte gave him that chance. He won a 10,000 vote election by 196 votes.

He’s determined to make Del Norte better than it was when he got there. He thinks it’s a great place—he stayed there rather than come back to Orange County—but he knows it can be better. And his life’s mission now is to polish it up and give it back shinier than ever to the people who gave him first kindness and acceptance . . . and now trust.

Somebody started the count . . . and Jon Alexander got back up. He’s off the canvas now and ready to go into the ring every time the bell sounds. Last three rounds with Jon Alexander these days and you’re a good bet to come out of it with state-provided room and board for a lot longer than Stanley Ketchel had in mind when he first stepped into the ring.

It’s too soon to predict the end of this rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches story. But I’ve seen this guy take all the punishment life can dish out and refuse to stay down. As they once said about Stanley Ketchel, “The sonofabitch just keeps getting up.” My money’s on Jon.

I wish you all a wonderful 2011. But if it goes south on you, if you get knocked down this year, if your life turns into an adversary who knows more about boxing than you do . . . I wish you the resilience and fortitude of Jon Alexander. May you just keep getting up. 

William W. Bedworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. He can be contacted at william.bedsworth@jud.ca.gov.