One member of the Hillsboro High School class of 1936 is in the school's athletic hall of fame,Tony Corso, who won the state championship in shot put in 1935 and was honored by his alma mater in 2014, but if it weren't for a tragic accident, another member of that class might be right there with him.
On Monday, May 2, 1938, just 11 days before the biggest match of his still young boxing career, Hillsboro grad John Frkovich, known as Jack Fargo in the ring, passed away at Emmerson Hospital in Winnetka from injuries sustained when the motorcycle he was riding on collided with an automobile. He was just 21 years old.
The crash cut short a promising boxing career and left fans of the sport and of Frkovich with thoughts of what might have been.
The son of Anton and Josephine Frkovich, Frkovich was born on Jan. 21, 1917, along with his twin sister Mary Catherine (Frkovich) Fargo. The family, which included seven other children, would settle in Taylor Springs, where Frkovich would attend school before moving to Hillsboro Community High School.
The center on the 1936 Hillsboro football team, Frkovich also played basketball and track in high school. But in 1935, he received his first boxing training from Tom Mizera of Hillsboro and that winter he entered two Golden Glove tournaments, winning two matches in both Springfield and St. Louis.
"Football was okay," Frkovich said in an interview with the Chicago Daily News in 1938, as quoted in the May 5, 1938 edition of The Hillsboro Journal, "but fighting is more fun. No, I don't know why. I just like it better, that's all. Of course, training for a fight is lots harder than conditioning for football."
After leaving his hometown, Frkovich found out just how hard boxing was.
"One day the boys here in Chicago were talking about the fun they had boxing in the gym and persuaded me to come down and join in," Frkovich said. "I did - and got my ears punched off. 'Gee,' I said to myself, 'you better learn something about this business of fighting before you get killed.'"
The young boxer proved to be a quick study as he hooked up with manager Al Eckhart in April 1936 and had his first pro fight on March 5, 1937, according to boxrec.com, winning by knockout over Verne Galbreath in the second round.
Frkovich would go undefeated in his first ten fights, with two draws and eight wins, two of which came by knockout. He would lose three of his next five fights, but avenged one of those losses in that span as he ended 1937 with a record of 10-3-2.
Those losses made Frkovich stronger though, as he continued to work on his skillset.
"I learn something every start," Frkovich explained. "Perfect balance and timing are the hardest things to master, but I think I'm getting them. I always had a pretty good punch." Which The Hillsboro Journal said that Tom Mizera vouched for.
The young heavyweight would catch fire to start 1938, winning three matches, including one knockout, in the first two months. The hot streak made it tough for Frkovich to get much quality competition, according to a clipping from the March 31, 1938, edition of The Chicago Tribune.
"Jack Fargo, Winnetka heavyweight, whom every available opponent refused to meet on the Joe Louis-Harry Thomas card in the Stadium tomorrow, will meet Andy Miller of Des Moines in Ottumwa, IA, April 14."
While Frkovich wasn't on the card, he did spar with Thomas in preparation for his bout with the legendary Brown Bomber. Louis would win the match by knockout in the fifth round, the last match before his historic rematch with Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium, where Louis would knock out the German champion.
Frkovich would get his own shot at the big time in May, as he was scheduled to meet Max Marek, the state heavyweight champion at the Rainbo Fronton in Chicago. Sadly, that day in the spotlight never came and a promising career came to a close.
"The pugilistic circles had never known a cleaner fighter than Jack Fargo," Frkovich's manager Al Eckart told The Hillsboro Journal. "He would have gone far in fistic fame and his ambition was spurred on by the unfailing desire to be able to do something for his parents. He often planned that when the time came and he had realized his first big money from fighting he would buy a farm for his parents."
On Thursday, May 5, 1938, Frkovich was laid to rest in St. Agnes Catholic Cemetery in Hillsboro.
While the young boxer's dreams were never fulfilled, his accomplishments are just as impressive today as they were 81 years ago.
You never know where story ideas are going to come from, but sometimes you get lucky and an idea just walks through the front door. That's what happened with the story of John Frkovich.
Keith Helfer of Taylorville came in The Journal-News office and said that he was looking for information on a fighter from Taylor Springs, but unfortunately he didn't have much to go on. The only thing Mr. Helfer had at the time was a last name, Ferkowitz, or something close to it, and that the man had been in the Army in 1946. He also mentioned that he died in a motorcycle accident just before he was to fight Chicago knockout artist Bob Satterfield.
After some searching online and in the newspaper's "morgue," I was coming up empty. The breakthrough finally came on Monday, July 8, with a trip to the Hillsboro Veterans Memorial, where I found the name "Frkovich" on the wall.
That opened up all kinds of doors, although I discovered that the Frkovichs that served in the military were the boxer's brothers, Emil and Antone. The more research I did, the more interested I became in Frkovich's story. I learned that he was to fight Max Marek, not Satterfield, who didn't have his first professional bout until 1945.
What I didn't learn is why he went by the name "Jack Fargo." I have some suspicions that the name was borrowed from his twin sister's husband, but I couldn't find when the late Mary Catherine Frkovich married Mr. Joseph Fargo, so that is just speculation.
Regardless of how Frkovich became Fargo, I'm glad I was able to share at least part of his story with our readers.