The Bendix plant that opened in South Bend, Indiana in 1923 quickly established itself as the world’s largest manufacturer of automobile brakes. The factory soon began to incorporate the engineering and production of power steering systems, in addition to aircraft landing gear and controls for reciprocating gas turbine, rocket, and nuclear engines. Operations went into heavy overdrive during the war years and well beyond which was beneficial not only to the U.S. military and government contractors, but scores of recently returned servicemen seeking steady employment.
Bendix also provided welcome opportunities to women looking to enter an especially challenging workplace. A lovely young sandlot baseball player by the name of JoAnn Verhagen was one of them.
With her wavy blonde locks, devilish smile, and athletic figure, it should come as little surprise that JoAnn had no problem attracting potential suitors. The problem, though, was that a large portion of these advances were uninvited and, therefore, not terribly appreciated. Such was the case with one especially persistent co-worker who refused to take “no” for an answer. Left with little alternative when her countless verbal rebuffs failed to make an impression on this Bendix lothario, JoAnn came to the conclusion that a sock on the jaw would do the trick. She guessed right.
Georgie Nate, a former boxer of some renown in the Midwest region and a fellow factory worker, saw the whole thing happen and couldn’t wait to go home and tell his brother Johnny about the incident. A bantamweight Golden Glover turned promoter, trainer, and manager, Johnny mentored aspiring female pugilists in the makeshift gym located beneath his tavern on North Hill Street where the girls would work out, hit the heavy bag, and knock one another about in spirited sparring sessions. JoAnn became a regular at Nate’s training establishment, recruiting and befriending another notable future pioneer named Phyllis Kugler. ‘The Bashing Blonde from South Bend’ had begun her boxing career after first shortening her last name to Hagen.
Because less than progressive authorities had a reputation for shutting down boxing shows featuring women on the card, Johnny Nate would attempt to creatively circumvent such illogical bias by billing Kugler as “Phil” rather than Phyllis, for example. Therefore, it is completely within the realm of possibility that JoAnn Hagen might have truncated her first name to simply “Jo” for just such a purpose.
“Pat” was a gender-neutral moniker adopted by Arvilla Emerick, yet another native of South Bend who took to the bruising business. Pat was a carefree high school student who had her first job taking tickets at The Strand movie theater and indulged in typical youthful pastimes like softball, sledding, roller skating, and bowling. She had never given any serious thought to pursuing an athletic endeavor until, at the age of seventeen, the petite five-foot-four, 123-pound Emerick was recruited by Johnny Nate to join his boxing gym. One of nine children, Pat reasoned that having to fend for herself against five brothers in a crowded household was suitable preparation for a venture into pugilism.
Then working at a bakery by night, Emerick trained during the day. She would alternate between running five miles daily on a path alongside the railroad tracks crossing through South Bend and doing her roadwork on the campus of Notre Dame University. Quickly becoming one of the star pupils in Nate’s gym, Pat was quite adept at smacking the speed bag, jumping rope, and sparring—mostly with men. “To be a lady boxer, we thought this would open the door for other women. We did,” professed Emerick in a later recollection. “The men treated us fair. They accepted us and were willing to help us.”
Shortly after turning eighteen, Pat participated in her initial outing at the Palais Royale Auditorium in downtown South Bend, decked out in blue and gold trunks fashioned after Notre Dame’s school colors, a white turtleneck with tennis sneakers to match, and a hairnet that was nearly invisible to the naked eye. Despite being well prepared, Emerick lost the fight, chalking up her defeat to “a case of nerves and the jitters.”
This setback was a temporary one, and Pat would take advantage of plentiful opportunities to put the ledger in her favor. “After that, 18 more,” she said of what followed her unsuccessful pro debut. “All wins,” Emerick boasted. Earning paydays ranging between $200 and $250, some of Pat’s bouts were benefits for widows and children of firefighters or policemen, and she got to meet Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano prior to one such event.
Most of her matches occurred in or adjacent to South Bend, but there would be road trips to Nebraska, as well as Iowa which is where she would ultimately tangle with JoAnn Hagen. Despite the fact that both women hailed from the same hometown in Indiana, Hagen and Emerick would not share a ring together until each were barnstorming through the Midwest in November 1949 and crossed paths in Council Bluffs two days before Thanksgiving.
How she earned this distinction isn’t clear, but nonetheless JoAnn Hagen was billed as the World’s Women’s Champion for her showdown with Pat Emerick. Theirs was a six-round primary support bout to the men’s main event pitting Orville Bitney against Len Craig in a matchup of two middleweights from Nebraska. The scrap between Hagen and Emerick was the first ever in Iowa to put the spotlight on “Girl Boxers” as they were referred to in an ad that ran in the Council Bluffs Nonpareil.
Tickets were conveniently available at local establishments like Dairy Lunch, Clark’s Drug, and the Waycarr Inn at prices of one or two dollars. A mere sixty cents bought you a kids’ seat, for whomever was inclined to bring the youngsters along to the Moose Auditorium for a good old family-friendly evening of prizefighting. Originally known as the CB City Auditorium, the venue was constructed in 1907 for the express purpose of hosting the first annual National Horticultural Congress. The Council Bluffs local fraternity of Moose took out a lease on the building in 1944 and frequently played host to wrestling and boxing shows.
The November 22 card featuring JoAnn Hagen and Pat Emerick was promoted by a colorful character who went by the name of Champ Thomas. A former boxer from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, Thomas allegedly engaged in more than one hundred amateur contests before going on to lose just eight of fifty-three fights as a professional while competing against the likes of Steve Belloise, Jack Chase (aka Young Joe Louis), and Reuben Shank. A Navy man during World War II, he was assigned to the Pacific theater where he served as athletic director to more than 100,000 enlistees and promoted 318 boxing shows in which the sailors he trained had participated.
Champ would later gain notoriety by switching to wrestling and becoming one of the most disliked heels on the independent circuit. One newspaper article out of St. Cloud, Minnesota noted, “In the past, local fans have turned out hoping to see him soundly thumped—but that doesn’t happen very often.” Among the grunt and grapple luminaries Thomas is said to have pinned for a three-count are ‘Nature Boy’ Buddy Rogers, Gorgeous George, Jack Guy, Bobo Brazil, Bob Andorff, The Black Panther, and Jack Witzig. None of these claims, incidentally, can be cross referenced or verified.
The boxer, wrestler, and promoter also added the designation of author to his resume, penning pugilistic instruction manuals that bore sensational titles such as How To Create a Super Boxer, Boxing’s Dirty Tricks and Outlaw Killer Punches, and, the best of the bunch, How To Be An Ass-Whipping Boxer.
700 spectators turned out to the Moose Auditorium on this Tuesday night to gorge on a pre-Thanksgiving smorgasbord of boxing. The quartet of four-round prelim matches saw lightweight Jimmy Triggs win his pro debut opposite fellow novice Bob Battles, Pat O’Grady earn a unanimous decision over Jimmy Grimes in a welterweight bout, Dave Bryson score a TKO against Red Kelly when Kelly was unable to answer the bell for round two after striking his head on the canvas as a result of a knockdown at the end of the first, and Iowa’s own Young Autroy emerge victorious in his first and only fight by outpointing Frankie Craig in what was described as “a lively go.”
In the main event, Orville Bitney notched his second consecutive knockout at the Moose Auditorium in one week’s time, putting away Len Craig in the seventh frame whereas he had dispatched Young Joe Louis inside of two rounds at the very same venue seven days prior. Having become something of a short-term house fighter at the Moose Auditorium, Bitney would return on two subsequent occasions before 1949 came to a close, winning both before embarking on a four-bout winless streak to wrap up what would turn out to be an unremarkable 13-4-3 career.
“JoAnn Jolted” headlined the caption of a photo in the next day’s Council Bluffs Nonpareil that showed Pat Emerick connecting with a right hook to JoAnn Hagen’s chin during the fourth round of their title fight which preceded the Bitney/Craig feature attraction. “The punch was one of several which helped stop JoAnn who failed to come out for the next round,” continued the brief summary.
An accompanying writeup of the night’s event reports that Hagen had started strong, dominating the action over the course of the first three rounds. The more petite Emerick then turned the tide and “belted around” Hagen so badly that JoAnn passed out in her corner after round four had come to a close. She was resuscitated by her seconds, but declined to continue with the bout.
“I went at her with a combination attack. Left jabs to the head and hard rights to the body,” said Emerick in 1972. Living then with her husband Robert Lancaster in a small town in rural Tennessee populated by 150 people, Pat was a mother of ten children ranging in age from two to fifteen. “Girls can be beaten with body punches,” she elaborated to her interviewer.
“After three rounds of all the punches I could throw, Miss Hagen was finished, couldn’t answer the bell for the fourth round,” she continued, misremembering the conclusion, numerically anyway. “They gave me the championship trophy on a TKO.” In addition to the trophy, awarded to the winner in lieu of a title belt, Emerick had also been presented with a boxing sweater by the Indiana Golden Gloves Association.
Not long after her win over JoAnn Hagen, Pat was out for an innocent joyride with friends that turned into a near-fatal nightmare. A jagged piece of the roof severed arteries in Emerick’s wrist and head when their car crashed. If not for the rapid response time of the Indiana State Police, Pat would undoubtedly have bled to death from her grievous injuries. A well-trained and quick-thinking patrolman applied constant pressure to the wounds and rode with her in the ambulance all the way to the hospital where he stood just outside the door.
“I asked the nurse why he was still there,” Emerick told a reporter well after the fact. “I found out he was waiting to write in his report that I had died.” She credits her survival to both the trooper and the fact that boxing was responsible for her above average physical condition. Pat was in danger of losing a leg to gangrene, but recovered after seven surgeries and thirteen grueling months of therapy and rehabilitation. She was fortunate indeed to have won this existential battle, but would unfortunately never compete in a boxing ring again.
“It seems to me there is more resistance to women doing the things they want to do now more than there was back then,” said Emerick when asked to reflect on her past as well as the general state of female representation in sports and society in 1972. “A woman should be allowed to do the things she is capable of doing.”
Having just recently turned 90, Pat Emerick is happily still with us and was enshrined in the International Women’s Boxing Hall of Fame in 2019. It is unfortunate, though, that almost every single personal memento from her boxing career was destroyed in a fire set by children playing with matches. The only thing left intact was the golden glove that sat atop the trophy she won be defeating JoAnn Hagen.
Hagen wasn’t allowed much time to wallow in the disappointment of her loss to Pat Emerick, seeing as though she had a mere six days to prepare for a “Rasso-Boxing” match which was the brainchild of Champ Thomas. It’s not known whether Hagen made the eight-hour journey home to South Bend so that she could spend Thanksgiving with her family, but she would have had to turn right back around and trek back to Council Bluffs for her second appearance on a Champ Thomas promotion at the Moose Auditorium in very short order.
“The local promoter who introduced girl wrestlers and boxers to Council Bluffs in the last two cards will present a girls mixed bout Tuesday night,” stated the Nonpareil in its post-Thanksgiving Saturday edition. This would be Champ Thomas’ third consecutive Tuesday night show at the Moose Auditorium, the first of which two weeks before had featured the hometown debut of a childhood polio survivor turned professional wrestler named Beverly Lehmer, a seventeen-year-old junior at Thomas Jefferson High School who defeated Betty Marks.
On a card that was to once again feature Orville Bitney in the main event, Lehmer and JoAnn Hagen would square off against one another in a “five-round semi-windup” on November 29. “Each girl will use her favorite tactics,” declared a Nonpareil article the day before the event. “It will be the first time in ring history that girls have battled in a mixed match.” As an added attraction, Bev’s younger sister Carolyn signed on to face Jenny Lynn in a wrestling contest scheduled for one fall with a 20-minute time limit.
The manager of the Moose Auditorium not only employed Carolyn as a babysitter, he had gotten both her and Bev jobs at the venue working the ticket booth, concession stand, and bingo hall. It was Carolyn who first expressed an interest in wrestling, so the Moose Auditorium’s manager arranged for her to train with male grapplers with her sister Bev initially tagging along as a reluctant workout partner. Bev quickly took a liking to it, relishing one particular session in which she was paired up with Shirley Temple’s brother George, who had been a pro wrestler for three years at that point, and hoisted him onto her shoulders for an airplane spin.
The day prior to fight night, JoAnn Hagen and Bev Lehmer came together for a cordial photo opportunity and shook hands for the cameras. With her hair done in a matronly style unflattering for a girl her age and dressed in somewhat overly modest, ill-fitting formal wear, a black jacket draped over a dark gray floor-length dress, Lehmer gives the impression of someone more mature than her seventeen years. Hagen stands perhaps two inches taller than her adversary, outfitted in a fashionably slim white coat with black collar and piping that coordinates nicely with the color of her skirt.
“The question ‘Can a girl wrestler defeat a girl boxer?’ remained unsolved Tuesday night,” began the account of the match between Hagen and Lehmer in the December 1 edition of the Council Bluffs Nonpareil. After having “pitched and tossed” around for the duration of five 3-minute rounds, the bout ended in a “stormy” yet anticlimactic draw before a record crowd for the Moose Auditorium, a paid attendance of 875.
After being body slammed by Beverly several times in the early going, Hagen cleared away the cobwebs enough to make the necessary adjustments, using her long left jab to keep Lehmer at arm’s length for the most part. The action spilled through the ropes and outside the ring in the fourth round, as the two women tumbled to the floor while intertwined in one another’s arms. JoAnn preceded Lehmer back into the ring, but both easily avoided being counted out by the referee. Being that the nature of their tussle was unprecedented, not to mention unchoreographed, it is easy to understand why the two women, approaching things from two different disciplines, were awkward and uneasy in their shared navigation of this rather peculiar terrain.
Bev’s sibling Carolyn put on a much more convincing show in her bout with Jenny Lynn which ended with the younger Lehmer sister being disqualified at the 16:20 mark for one too many altercations with referee Joe Smogye. An irate Carolyn gave Smogye one more kick for good measure before chasing Lynn out of the ring and down the aisle where she delivered a back body drop to Jenny on the concrete floor before being restrained by police. Now that’s entertainment.
A local boxing director by the name of Blaine Young “danced to a six-round decision over Jim Bovee” on the undercard, which also featured Pat O’Grady knocking out Jimmy Triggs in the third of four scheduled frames. Joey Gaiten was floored twice in the first sixty seconds of the evening’s main event by Jimmie Watson, substituting for the injured fan favorite Orville Bitney, a left hook being the coup de grace at 1:03.
The Lehmer sisters were back at the Moose Auditorium on December 12 to share another bill on a Champ Thomas promotion, this time teaming together to take on 215-pound Tiny Duke in a handicap match that went the full distance. Carolyn had presumably displayed better behavior on her last outing there in the meantime, wrestling to a 20-minute draw with Arky Martin.
Soon after, Bev had become so enamored of the sport that she dropped out of school and moved to Toledo, Ohio where she would embark on a full-fledged journey into pro wrestling which would take unforeseen twists and turns—some good, others not so much.
She grew out her hair and dyed it blonde which she felt was a good look for the villainous ring persona she had crafted. For a finishing maneuver, Bev went with a full-nelson which was described as “a dangerous and devastating weapon.” Feuding with Penny Banner, Judy Glover, June Byers, Dot Dotson, Mae Young, and other fellow women’s wrestling pioneers, Lehmer joined the traveling troupe overseen by Billy Wolfe.
A former grappler who turned his attention toward promotion, Wolfe was both husband and manager of Mildred Burke and would later become notorious for his improper conduct, both sexual and financial, involving the female wrestlers supposedly under his care. Although she appears to have endured her two and a half-year association with Wolfe without falling prey to his physical lechery, Bev did say that he took 50% of every woman’s earnings and concluded succinctly but categorically, “I didn’t like him.”
Lehmer’s career was cut short by an ill-advised marriage to a man she had known only one week and a prolonged struggle with alcoholism. Beverly would eventually beat the bottle, craftily repel a stalker who had read about her in The Ring magazine, and, in her later years, undergo three replacement surgeries for her hip and shoulders. Somewhat embarrassed about her wrestling past at 77 years old, she died at her home in Estes Park, Colorado on August 30, 2010. This was, coincidentally, the very same day she was to have received a coin commemorating 34 years of sobriety.
In the years following her pair of debacles in Council Bluffs, JoAnn Hagen continued to make a name for herself in the fight game and beyond. Wearing heavily-padded 16-ounce gloves to appease the local athletic commission, she won a six-round decision over Nancy Parker, a Chicago-based fighter, in June 1950. Staged at the Radio Center in Huntington, West Virginia by a regional boxing and wrestling promoter named Dick Deutsch, this was the first female bout in the state’s history.
Unquestionably, the highlight of Hagen’s career came in 1954 when she bested trailblazer Barbara Buttrick over eight rounds in front of 1,200 eyewitnesses at the Victoria Pavilion in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. The first women’s bout to be broadcast over the radio, this would prove to be the only time Buttrick would go down to defeat in 31 fights.
Hagen was a guest on the July 22, 1956 broadcast of the popular game show What’s My Line? where she shocked the panelists and studio audience alike by divulging her vocation as “professional boxer.” Four months later, JoAnn was invited along with her friend and fellow South Bend native Phyllis Kugler on to The Steve Allen Show which billed them as “Champion Women Boxers.” Coming onstage in evening gowns, they were asked to change into their boxing gear behind a screen as Allen continued the interview while playfully shielding his eyes with one hand. After emerging, Hagen exchanged a few mock punches with Allen before sparring lightly with Kugler.
During her stay in New York for the Steve Allen taping, JoAnn paid a visit to Jack Dempsey’s Broadway Bar and Restaurant where she was flabbergasted by the fact that the legendary heavyweight champion asked for her autograph after she had first requested his.
While on The Steve Allen Show, Hagen and Kugler announced that they would be meeting one another for a fight the following month. A supposed championship match, it was booked for December 13 as a four-round featured attraction on a variety show taking place at St. Joseph High School in their shared hometown of South Bend. Hagen was the obvious aggressor for the duration of the first three frames, scoring a knockdown and bloodying Phyllis’ nose. Kugler, who had been allowed to wear headgear for some strange reason, did manage to mount a comeback and stunned JoAnn at the end of the fourth and final round. Boos resounded throughout the auditorium as a split decision was rendered in Phyllis Kugler’s favor.
Rumors quickly circulated that the fix was in on Kugler’s behalf and, worse yet, that it had been her and JoAnn’s co-manager Johnny Nate who was behind it. Whether true or not, Hagen felt irreparably betrayed by her two former confidantes and, disgusted about the whole affair as well as being denied a rematch, never again laced up a pair of gloves. She enlisted in the Marine Corps, got married, and started a family which she raised in South Bend where she remained until her death in 2004 at the age of 73.
Rare was the occasion when JoAnn Hagen spoke about her journey in the fight game, up to and including her historic 1949 misadventures in Council Bluffs, Iowa when she boxed and grappled her way through the Thanksgiving holiday.
Ken Beck. Lady Boxing Champ of the World (Wilson Post, May 10, 2016)
Greg Oliver. Beverly Lehmer Was Woman Wrestler of ‘50s, ‘60s Slam Wrestling, September 9, 2010)
Tim Rohwer. CB Woman Beat Polio to Become Professional Wrestler (Council Bluffs Nonpareil, September 9, 2010)
Malissa Smith. A History of Women’s Boxing (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014)
Before the Battle (Council Bluffs Nonpareil, November 29, 1949)
Bitney to Meet Gaiten Tuesday, Mixed Match to Involve Girls (Council Bluffs Nonpareil, November 27, 1949)
Bluffs Girls Will Wrestle…Lehmers on Goodfellow Program (Council Bluffs Nonpareil, December 9, 1949)
Boxing Tuesday, 8:30 P.M. Moose Auditorium (Council Bluffs Nonpareil, November 19, 1949)
Champ Thomas (The Marysville Advocate, May 20, 1954)
Champ Thomas Is No Stranger Here (St. Cloud Times, October 7, 1953)
Eating Leather (Council Bluffs Nonpareil, December 1, 1949)
Ex-Boxer Says She’d Let Her Daughters Box (The Ithaca Journal, March 22, 1972)
Girl Gladiators Settle Nothing, Jimmie Watson Chills Gaiten (Council Bluffs Nonpareil, December 1, 1949)
JoAnn Hagen Profile (WBAN—accessed at https://www.womenboxing.com/Hagen.htm)
JoAnn Hagen Fails To Last…Orville Bitney Kayoes Len Craig (Council Bluffs Nonpareil, November 23, 1949)
JoAnn Jolted (Council Bluffs Nonpareil, November 23, 1949)
Lehmer, Hagen In ‘Rasso-Boxing (Council Bluffs Nonpareil, November 26, 1949)
Links to the Past: Michiana History—Record Detail: Bendix Facilities in South Bend (St. Joseph County Public Library—accessed at http://www2.sjcpl.org/db/historydb/recorddetail/rec/603)
O’Grady Signed for Ring Card, Champ Thomas Is Rounding Card (Council Bluffs Nonpareil, November 28, 1949)
If you enjoy hearing from the legends of pro sports, then be sure to tune into “The Grueling Truth” sports shows, “Where the legends speak”
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