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Ode To Otis Grimble

Glen Sharp

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If Otis Grimble left a suicide a note when he shot himself in his home on February 14, 1988, that note has not been shared with the world, and if anyone outside the home knew what had been troubling Otis so deeply that he thought he should take his own life, that person’s silence has been a testament to their loyalty to him.

He was 50 years old on the day he died, and he had been a Sacramento police officer for approaching 25 of those years.

Founder and president of the local Police Athletic League, Otis was also the president of the Northern California Amateur Boxing Federation; the tournament director of the San Francisco Golden Gloves; the director of the Golden Bear Boxing Tournament – one of California’s more prestigious amateur tournaments, when it was held every summer at the State Fair; and the tournament director for the Olympic Trials that were to be held that year in Concord, California.

He devoted countless hours to the development of sports programs for the young in underprivileged areas and so, for all Otis’ concern that there be safe havens for youth to expend their energy and develop habits of discipline, it is the saddest and most tragic of ironies that his youngest son, Eric Grimble, who was 15 when he discovered his father’s body with a bullet in his head, would not fully recover from that sight for the remainder of his short life.

LOUISIANA NATIVE EXCELLED ON THE FOOTBALL FIELD AND AS A BOXER IN COLLEGE

Born August 5th, 1937, in Alexandria, Louisiana, Otis grew up in Vallejo, California, on the northeastern edge of the San Francisco Bay Area. He was in love with sports his whole life, especially football, and as a kid was a teammate of future Los Angeles Rams star, Dick Bass. Otis attended Vallejo Junior College before transferring to Sacramento State, where he earned a BA in physical education in 1960. While attending, he played flanker on the football team and was a natural middleweight when it came to boxing.

His size was a problem for him in college boxing, though, because Sac State had a NCAA champion at 156 pounds, Terry Smith, and another, Jim Flood, at 165 pounds, so Otis had to scramble for bouts as best he could.

College boxing was a team sport, similar to wrestling, in which the victorious school in a meet was the team that won the most bouts. So, coach Hank Elespuru would sometimes have Flood box at light-heavy, 178 pounds, if he was confident of a victory at that weight, so Otis could fight in the middleweight slot. Otis would occasionally cut weight to 147 pounds so he could box as a welter. He always tried to stay active.

He married his high school girlfriend, Alma Marie Grant, on June 28th, 1959. Otis and Alma had three children, a daughter Julie, and sons Chris and Eric. He joined the Sacramento Police Department in 1965, and almost immediately became involved in administration in addition to his patrol duties, assuming responsibilities as president of the Minority Peace Officer’s Youth Athletic Association and secretary of the police department’s golf club.

Having disciplined himself through sports, Otis thought others could be similarly helped. He knew the street life was a hopeless dead end, and opened the first PAL gym on the corner of 14th and P Streets with boxing as his primary focus. He began developing his program by taking his guys into prisons to put on shows. 

Retired police officer Dan Ware knew Otis. “He was always organizing,” Ware said. “He worked with PAL to control some of the gang activity, some of the drug activity.”

Otis himself spoke about what inspired his level of commitment: “When I was a kid, I used to spend a lot of time at the park. There was a guy who used to spend a lot of time with us and he didn’t even get paid. Now I’m on the other end. I’m willing to spend my time.”

His involvement with amateur boxing grew from local to national to international levels. Sacramento area kids were developing with him, competing in larger and more prestigious tournaments. A few would go on to substantial professional careers, the Savala brothers, Richard and Mario, being two examples.

But, beyond there being no consistent funding source for kids’ programs, the city couldn’t even permanently commit a building in which to develop the programs. Otis was banging his head against a world for which sports and the youth who play them were not the major consideration they were to him.  He would at times have to contribute his own money to make ends meet.   

The PAL gym was transferred to the old Lincoln School for a few years, before being moved again, to Del Paso Heights, in the northern part of Sacramento. It would be relocated once more, to Oak Park, again closer to the center of town, but the concern of having to move was always present. Financial limitations were a constant threat. The PAL system was treated like a foster child, with all homes being temporary, no sense of security in sight.

In 1981, the same year the PAL gym had been moved from its second home, land at 8th Avenue and Stockton Boulevard, the old Donner School, was appropriated by the city. Otis thought this was a perfect location for a permanent PAL site. But others had their desires, too. Some wanted the money that PAL would consume for other purposes. Some were willing to stonewall Otis’s plans by saying the city might again want use of the school at some time, so it should maintain the property.

There was some success to balance the political struggle. A longtime dream came true when Otis organized an international competition in Sacramento with the then Soviet Union. He was openly hopeful of one day bringing the Olympic Trials to Sacramento.

Another of Otis’s goals was the creation of a community center in the Meadowview area, one that would also sponsor athletic recreational programs for kids. He and Don Bates, of the Sacramento Job Corps, began the South Sacramento Boxing Club in 1987, temporarily based in an unused room of Goethe Middle School. Otis worked toward the city permanently dedicating a building for the gym, but encountered the same obstacles he had for years in trying in trying to develop the PAL system.

OTIS DID EVERYTHING HIMSELF

Sacramento had ten community centers around this time. Some received federal funding, but Otis experienced difficulty in trying to help direct the flow of government money, and his plans could never seem to get beyond the conceptual stage. He was optimistic and upbeat, but could be impatient, as those who worked with him knew. Politics work slowly, sometimes intentionally so, which is completely antithetical to the way Otis encountered the world. 

Everyone who knew him was aware of his energy and intensity, of how driven he was, even with his physical conditioning. Sill fit and trim in his police uniform, Otis was in striking distance of the middleweight limit, staying in shape by playing handball. Those in the local handball community had such regard for him that for years following his death, the Capitol Athletic Club sponsored the annual Otis Grimble Memorial Tournament. 

Elespuru, his boxing coach at Sac State, said Otis was “just a hard-working, dedicated guy.” And radio DJ Tom Nakashima echoed that thought when he described how Otis ran the Golden Bear Tournament: “The usual tournament committees from publicity, food, transportation, lodging, credentials, etc., are hard to spot at an Otis Grimble tournament. That’s mainly because there aren’t any committees. Otis does everything himself, and somehow it works…There isn’t anyone who deserves more credit than Otis Grimble…”

Otis was, in the words, of friend and fellow community activist Walt Thompson, “fully committed to youth.” Thompson added that a few weeks before Grimble’s death, he had been speaking passionately about not being able to fulfill his dreams of seeing a Meadowview center. “He had tears in his eyes,” Thompson said. 

No one, however, can do all the work Otis was doing – directing, organizing, fundraising and coaching – without spending long hours away from home. He admitted regret over how much time helping the community’s children took away from his own kids. It is easy to imagine, also, how his schedule could strain a marriage. 

The Sacramento Bee reported that city officials who wished to remain anonymous revealed to the paper, following Otis’ death, that he had told them of being worried by problems within his family and at work. Ending his life on Valentine’s Day might be some hint of the personal nature of his troubles. 

But others, with whom he was close, were surprised. John Nunez, a supervisor of amateur boxing officials, said, “I talked with him as recently as Thursday [12th]. There was no indication anything was wrong.” Otis was still outwardly optimistic, and had spoken of again becoming a boxing coach.

His friend Bates, with whom he had founded the South Sacramento Boxing Club, said, “I guess I’ll remember Otis by his enthusiasm. His energy level was always up. He was excited about life in general. He was always optimistic in whatever he did. Otis and I were very close. I will miss him.”

His family missed him, too, although Eric’s suffering was probably most visible for the world to see. Eric had been diagnosed with depression and what is now described as a bi-polar condition. Mrs. Grimble admitted her son did not always take his prescribed medication.

Eric had been on the honor roll at Sacramento City College, but dropped out when sentenced to three years of probation and a drug rehab program for vandalism committed on a neighbor’s home in June, 1994. 

On January 25, 1995, another neighbor, John Thurs, was watching a video when he heard a hissing sound outside his home around 3 A.M.

Trauma can have a nasty ripple effect and announce itself years, or decades after an incident. Thurs, after learning he’d face consequences, in court. Photo from Sac Bee.

Armed with a flashlight, handcuffs, and a hunting rifle – Thurs found the young Grimble hiding in some bushes and shot him in the abdomen. Eric scrambled to escape for about 50 yards before he collapsed, and was cuffed by Thurs. He would be pronounced dead at UC Davis Medical Center.

Thurs told police that he shot when Grimble lunged at him with a knife, but no knife could be located.Describing himself as a security expert, Thurs claimed that the “rules of engagement” allowed him to have responded as he did.

But he was charged with second degree murder. Having previously been convicted of armed robbery and assault with a deadly weapon, Thurs was also charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm and being armed in the commission of a felony.

He was convicted in September, 1995, of involuntary manslaughter and received a sentence of 65 years to life. 

 

–Writer Sharp is the author of the well reviewed effort “Punching From The Shadows: Memoir of a Minor League Professional Boxer.” Click here to learn more and purchase. 

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