Youth is not a time of life; it is a state of mind. Nobody grows old by merely living a number of years, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul.
Herb Odom, a devotee of the sayings of the obscure aphorist cited here, has a soul less wrinkled than most. Unwrinkled? It's permanent-press. Indeed, absolutely, positively nothing dilutes Odom's conviction that he can do anything. "He is," says a friend, "the perfect example of what a person can be if he tries."
Odom, a dentist on Chicago's South Side, is wealthy going on rich. "A lot of people are millionaires," he says over a tall carrot juice while admiring the view of the Chicago skyline to the north and Lake Michigan to the east from the windows of his 14th-floor condominium. "Me? I'm a millionaire only if you figure it just right."
And Odom figures everything just right. He has had to. Ever since his boyhood in Flint, Mich., where he slept on a wooden pallet in front of a coal-burning stove to keep warm in winter. And the time when Michigan State wouldn't let Odom enroll because of a few technicalities—among them, the fact that he couldn't read—and he had to figure a way to get in. And the time when he asked for a letter of recommendation to help him get into the Meharry Medical College dental school in Nashville and the Michigan State president, John A. Hannah, wrote, "This young man's overall academic record is not outstanding."
In sum, seemingly every time Herb Odom has set out to do something, somebody has been right there telling him no, get lost, it can't be done, you can't do it, it doesn't make sense.
Which brings us to Herb Odom, 1981: dentist, investor, real-estate entrepreneur, civic leader, poet, painter, man-about-town, grandfather—and professional boxer. A fighter at the age of 48! Most boxers are old at 30 and wizened at 35, but if youth is a state of mind, why not? After all, Odom was the NCAA welterweight boxing champ while he was at Michigan State in 1954 and '55—his record was 29-2-1—so all he's doing is making a comeback. Never mind that 26 years have intervened between then and now. Fighting at 147 pounds, he so far has had three professional four-round bouts and has won them easily, two by knockouts. Larry Puchta of Minneapolis was the opponent who survived four rounds with Odom. He says of their bout: "I have never been hit harder than by Doc. It felt like he was hitting me with bricks. I've never enjoyed a fight less."
Naturally, Doc plans to fight a lot and eventually get himself a championship bout. Naturally, everybody tells him it can't be done. People who should know, like Angelo Dundee, the manager and trainer of WBC welterweight champion Sugar Ray Leonard. Does Dundee have any advice for Odom? "Sure. He should forget it. It's dangerous and it's crazy."
But Odom says he could stay in the ring with Leonard. Dundee agrees. "Sure, he can work the corner with me."
Ah, yes, derision. Counters Odom, "Leonard would be scared of the embarrassment. I knew they'd just try to laugh me off." In point of fact, Doc "O"—as the fight posters bill him—fought a four-round exhibition with Tommy Hearns last September and will tell anyone within earshot how he bloodied the WBA welterweight champion's nose. Emanuel Steward, manager and trainer of Hearns, does give Odom a pat: "He's a good fundamental fighter and better than a lot of them."
But isn't Doc too old to fight?
You are as young as your faith, as old as your doubt, as young as your self-confidence, as old as your fear, as young as your hope.
Driving over to the Windy City Gym in his silver 1981 Cadillac and wearing his Black Diamond mink coat to blunt the wind roaring off Lake Michigan, Odom explains his quixotic venture. "I'm not trying to prove anything," he insists. "I'm just living a fantasy. And if you have the opportunity to live a fantasy and let it slip by, that's painful." Therein lies the truth about Odom. It's a fantasy now being lived out after half a lifetime spent wrestling with crushing realities.
At the old gym, up the rickety and worn stairs above Select Grocery, Cedric McEwen, 20, has just gone three rounds with Doc "O" and is awash in sweat. "I feel a little funny that I can't hit such an old guy," he says. "I should dust him off, but it's like he's 19. You got to be in some kind of shape to box him. I tell you, he ain't no chump."
Because Odom went to college when he should have been working hard on a boxing career, because he went to dental school when his boxing career should have been flourishing, and because he opened his practice when his boxing career should have been in full flower, Doc "O" is only making up for opportunities missed. "I swear that I don't feel any different than I did at 25," he says.
To understand where Odom thinks he's going, it's instructive to know where he has been. Growing up poor, down but not out, in Flint, he was fortunate to have a father who went to work every day on an auto assembly line. More important, he had a father who taught him crucial lessons about living, like never start a fight or run from one.
Driving through Chicago streets—Odom always seems to be driving through Chicago streets, on the way to yet another appointment—he puts a dollar in a companion's hand. "Close your fist," he instructs. "Now look at you. You won't lose that dollar, but you're not going to get anything else either without opening that fist. My father taught me that." Indeed, it is often the case that a man's reach should exceed his grasp, so if Odom dreams of championship fights, is that folly? Or bad? When Odom had his first fight, he was a 16-year-old in Flint. And when he climbed into the ring—5'11", 109 pounds, size 11½ AAA shoes—"people laughed." More derision. Michigan State wanted Odom to box for it. Three times he took the entrance test; three times he failed to measure up. "I cried," says Odom. "I'd look at myself in the mirror and say, 'You can't go to Michigan State because you're too damn dumb.' " It was suggested he go to a junior college for brightening up. Odom wanted Michigan State or nothing. Finally it was agreed he could get in if he took nine hours in summer school and earned a C average. So he arrived in East Lansing carrying everything he owned in two cardboard boxes. He had a C average. Exactly. The athletic department wanted him to major in phys ed, the traditional hiding place for dimwits. No, said Odom, he would major in chemistry and become a dentist. He did terribly for a while, finally attaining a grade average that might charitably be described as mediocre.
People looked at Odom back then and called him stupid. They had their reasons. After all, he admits that to this day he has never read an entire book because he reads so slowly. A speed-reading course helped; he now reads 75 words a minute. An average reader can handle 250 words a minute. But Doc "O" isn't a dope. He simply has a perception problem. To learn something, he must write it down, "because then it seems like I'm writing it on my brain." His determination is obviously off the charts. So when he talks about writing a novel, why not? He writes faster than he reads.
No dental school wanted Odom, but Meharry finally took him. Predictably, he did poorly at first. But because demonstration is more important than books for a lot of dentistry, Odom watched carefully. He was so fast and so good at working on the instructional wax teeth that he became known as "The Tooler." He slept so little (three hours a night; now five) that his roommate, Maston A. Nelson Jr. who is now on the Meharry staff, says, "I never saw him in bed."
Abruptly, in the second quarter of his second year at Meharry, Odom was notified that if he failed to come up with $815 in past-due tuition in two days, he'd be kicked out. He begged on the streets. He talked his way in to see the late John Cain of the Cain-Sloan department store in Nashville; he convinced Cain that he was honest. Cain gave him $200—and another $200 a day later when the nervy Odom returned and said he was still that much short.
During the summers, Odom continued scuffling to make a buck. He'd spar for $3 a round in Chicago. He talked a dentist into lending him his office at night for "research." In truth, Odom handed out cards, hustled patients and played dentist for real money.
Odom graduated from Meharry and opened a proper office in Chicago in 1962, but he was so poor he slept at night in his dental chair and took showers at the YMCA. But he was a shameless promoter. He'd go to a different place for lunch each day and meet a new person, i.e., new patient. He boasted then and does now that he is painless. "I take that cold, raw needle and, pop, no pain." He insists on proving it to a skeptical visitor. Pop, no pain.
Back in those desperate days, Odom would tell himself each morning, "Hey, you're Dr. Herbert Odom and you're going to make a lot of money." Today he grouses, "People seem to act like it's a bad thing to be rich. Why can't you make money and have fun and do good?"
Recently, Odom put $450,000 of his own money into a $6.3 million nursing home he is building—despite continuing difficulties—on Chicago's South Side. Previously he funded a $450,000 medical facility that houses offices, including his own.
Odom earned an MBA from the University of Chicago in 1977. Still a pitifully slow reader, he put key words on flash cards—like "debit" and "credit"—and committed them and their definitions to memory. Why did he do this? Well, for one thing, he's on the board of directors of Independence Bank, and, as he says, "I didn't know what they were talking about. I just had to know more." Now he's learning Spanish because of Chicago's large Hispanic population. Says Odom, "I think it's an insult and shows great laziness not to be able to converse in someone's language."
By comparison with what went before, then, perhaps making it as a boxer at 48 is a challenge of lesser magnitude.
Why do they keep saying
That he's too old?
Have they looked at his body?
Have they checked out his soul?
From the song Doc "O," The Renaissance Man
When the man with the unwrinkled soul applied for a boxing license in 1979, Paul Patterson, chairman of the Illinois State Athletic Board, sent him a brief letter denying the application, because of his age. "This action is being taken in your best interest and in the best interest of boxing," Patterson wrote. Odom asked, insisted, really, that Patterson at least give him a look. Patterson did. What he saw that Sunday afternoon was Doc "O" running five miles, sparring six rounds, going six rounds on a heavy bag, three more rounds on a jab bag, three rounds on a speed bag, doing three rounds of jumping rope and then ending up with 100 sit-ups. Said a stunned Patterson, "We got ourselves a 46-year-old boxer." Odom is the oldest man ever to be given an Illinois boxing license.
A cabby, catching bits of Odom's conversation, asks, "Are you a boxer?"
"No, I'm a dentist."
"Oh, yeah, you're the Fightin' Dentist."
"Well, there is a correlation between knocking 'em out and pulling 'em out."
All sorts of people now recognize Doc "O." He has become a kind of symbol in Chicago of how high the human spirit can soar despite ever-present wing clippers. One of Odom's large circle of friends, Thomas King, general manager of the Merchandise Mart and the Apparel Center, who happens to be a Samuel Ullman admirer himself, says, "Herb Odom has to extend himself or he won't be fulfilled." Clarence Griffin, owner of the Windy City Gym, and Odom's trainer, told the dentist when he first walked in, "I sure would have liked to have had you 20 years ago."
Said Odom, "Don't worry. You got me now."
Nick Kerasiotis of the Illinois Athletic Board worries that "an old boxer is like a tire that has hit a lot of ruts but keeps going. Then, suddenly, while going down a smooth highway, it blows. Fortunately, we've been able to keep our boxing senior citizens to one."
Odom's fights are small potatoes (he donates his $100 to $150 checks to the Windy City Gym and to charities), but he trains for each one as if a world title were being contested. He admits that before each fight "I wonder, 'Have I slipped?' " Then he proceeds to prove that he hasn't. His punches are crisp, especially his jab. More significantly, he can punch while backing up, and that's generally conceded to be one of the first skills to desert a fighter.
So long as your heart receives messages of grandeur and power from the earth, so long you are young.
The toughest hurdle, Odom admits, is that "people put doubt in your mind." Seemingly, all his friends have the attitude that he has proved he can fight professionally, and they wish he would stop proving it. No chance. Odom plans to fight another bout in June.
One friend, Joseph Thomas, president of St. Bernard Hospital, says, "Somebody will run a ringer in on him who'll lace Herb's boots. He doesn't have a single friend who wants to see him fight." Thomas points out that damage to a hand or eye could impair Odom's ability to practice dentistry. Says Thomas, "What good is a one-eyed dentist? They're bad enough two-eyed. Right now he could stop and say, 'I've never been defeated as a pro fighter.' "
State Senator James C. Taylor agrees that Odom has proved his point, but is more enthusiastic about his friend continuing his ring career, saying, "He lets us old guys know we can still produce if we have to. Frankly, we think Doc has forgotten how old he is." Doc's fiancèe, De-bra Nichols, 24, who was Miss Black Illinois in 1978, says, "His eyes will never get old." One thing Odom has failed at is marriage—three times. But even his ex-wives speaks well of him, although Betty, No. 2, says, "He doesn't understand that you can fool Mother Nature but Father Time tells the tale."
Back in his condominium, surveying Chicago's nighttime glories, Odom mixes up another carrot juice. He talks about his paintings, his poetry, his photography. "Each time you can overcome something," he says, "it makes you bigger and stronger."
But, Herb, you don't need boxing.
"Yeah, I do. It's nice to be somebody. I don't just want to be an unidentified object out there. What I love about boxing is the victory. You just don't know how good it feels when the referee grabs your hand and raises it and the announcer shouts, 'The winnnaaaaahhh.' That doesn't happen often in life."