He stood in front of the crowd with his suit pressed and his hair gelled, his eyes fixed on his diary with words of poetry scribbled down from the day before. He called himself “one of those kids everybody gave up on.” Twenty years ago he was struggling with drugs and alcohol on the tough streets of East Oakland. He thought his life was over until he strolled into the gym on 98th Avenue and met Stanley Garcia, who taught him how to box. “Stan saved my life,” said his student.
Garcia, founder of the East Oakland Boxing Association, died last Friday. Although he never married he was far from alone, and on Thursday afternoon at his memorial at Lake Chalet on Lake Merritt, the tributes poured in. His apartment on East 7th Street was a “hub” for family and friends, said nephew Danny Garcia—his door was always open but, most importantly, so was his gym.
In Stanley Garcia’s own experience, boxing breathed life, maturity, and hope into the lives of young boys. His younger brother, Eddie Garcia, said they grew up with the sport, that it “opened doors into prosperity.”
“You learned the skills of living through boxing,” Eddie said. “You have to learn to control your temper in a fight and the best chance you have is to box clever.”
Stanley Garcia was born in 1940 in Peralta, New Mexico. The family moved to the Bay Area when he was 10, during what Eddie describes as the “tail end of the Grapes of Wrath” in San Jose, and spent summers in Santa Cruz picking fruit. He was the eighth out of nine children and grew up on the streets of East Oakland. To escape their treacherous surroundings, the boys found boxing. It was a way to fight without engaging in the violence of their community, Eddie Garcia remembers, and it taught them to eat right and stay in shape. He remembers the 2.5-mile run the boys would do around Lake Merritt, appropriately the backdrop of Thursday’s ceremony.
Following in the footsteps of his older brother Art, Stanley became the strong side of what Oakland came to know as “the Garcia brothers.” At the top of their game in the late 50s early 60s, the boys were always touted as the top of the card at local venues such as the Ringside Boxing Club, the Oakland Auditorium, the Oakland Army Terminal, the San Francisco Civic Auditorium, and Pier Six. In 1959, Stanley Garcia won a Golden Gloves Championship for his weight class and represented California in the Ohio-based National Championships.
But that was just the early years; Garcia’s true legacy was what he brought to the inner city kids of East Oakland. His contemporaries remember him going door-to-door from 1984 to 1987 to ask for contributions of start-up cash to open his gym, which now goes by E.O.B.A Smartmoves, on 98th Avenue. Throughout the 23 years of the boxing association’s existence he would apply for grants and be supported in a large part by the East Oakland Community Foundation.
When the gym opened in 1987 it was equipped not only with boxing equipment but with computers as well. Homework always came first. The gym was a place to develop your mind as well as your body. Stanley was more than just a coach. He was a life coach as well, according to accolades given by close friends at the ceremony.
Friends and family remember Stanley as grumpy but generous. He was serious about boxing, but he had a soft side for children, be they nieces and nephews or the kids that crawled into the gym after school, and they often drained his wallet: he was known to always be good for a handout. At the memorial service, Rev. Dr. Arlene Nehring of the Eden United Church of Christ called Garcia “a dedicated servant to the community.”
Mentees and protégés at the service remembered the long hours of maintenance repairs at the gym. When Garcia held tournaments for his young fighters, his family would work the hot dog stands and usher in the crowds and Garcia would stand proudly in the middle in a three-piece suit—the master orchestrator.
Garcia is credited with having founded an organization that has touched the lives of 50,000 kids from East Oakland. In 1991 and 1992, the gym was selected to host the Junior Olympics and it continues to thrive. “Stanley was simple in his approach but he achieved miracles,” said one gym patron at the service.
Garcia ran the gym until about three months ago, when he had a stroke and started looking into assisted living homes in Santa Cruz. He passed away at the age of 69.
On the cloudy day of the memorial, Lake Merritt was still. Inside the boathouse, friends and family admired a collage of old photos of Garcia and his “kids.” People embraced with joy in their eyes as if grateful that Garcia had brought them together. At the front of the room was a recent photograph of Garcia framed with flowers and a candle. A blow-up poster of a boxing tournament with his name on the bill was set up to the left of the podium. For the most part the tributes brought laughter and warmth but when the young poet got up to speak there was not a dry eye in the house.
A long time ago, the young man in the pressed suit said, he was afraid. Garcia told him to look at the eyes of everybody in the crowd and fill himself with that fear and then fight his way through it. True he’d end up with a few bloody noses—one broken nose that Garcia himself would set back into place in the gym shower. But ultimately, he said, a fight would be won.