The Fighting Marine: Champion Boxer Gene Tunney Visits Olympia, 1927

Crowds thronged the roads as six state patrol motorcycle officers escorted a convoy into downtown Olympia. The convoy stopped at the newly built state capitol. A tall athlete got out of the first car along with Governor Roland Hartley, Lieutenant Governor W. Lon Johnson and Speaker of the House Ralph Knapp. The athlete was given a quick tour and posed for pictures before the party left for the Hotel Olympian for a luncheon with members of the state legislature. The athlete’s name was Gene Tunney and he was one of the most famous boxers in the United States at the time.

James “Gene” Joseph Tunney (1897-1978) was born in New York City to Irish immigrant parents. He began his professional boxing career in 1915. Tunney enlisted as a marine during World War I, where he became a champion boxer, earning him the nickname “Fighting Marine.” After the war, he returned to the professional boxing circuit. Tunney held the American light heavyweight title from 1922 to 1923 and was world heavyweight boxing champion from 1926 to 1928. A highly technical boxer noted for his strong defense, Tunney fought many of the famous boxers of his era, defeating Jack Dempsey in 1926 and 1927.

Boxing was a popular sport in Olympia at the time. Local boxing matches were sponsored by the Olympia post of the American Legion at their Hall. Residents eagerly followed national matches in the newspapers and Gene Tunney was a household name.

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Gene Tunney was world heavyweight boxing champion when he visited Olympia. Photo courtesy: Library of Congress

Tunney was in Spokane in early February, 1927 when he announced that he would visit Olympia to speak in support of a pending bill being debated by the state legislature. This proposed bill would allow people to hold amateur boxing, sparring and wrestling matches without a license if no admission fee was charged. It was nicknamed the “10 Round Boxing Bill.”

On February 8, Tunney flew down from Seattle. The plane was piloted by Major Jack Fletcher, head of the National Guard air force in Spokane. When they landed at Camp Lewis (now JBLM) the champion was greeted by a crowd and artillery maneuvers. Waiting for him was a fleet of six cars that had carried state officials, legislators, members of the press and others from Olympia. They escorted Tunney back to Olympia, reaching the city about 11 a.m. The cars were on loan from Leon Titus, Southwest Washington distributor of Lincoln cars. He rode in the lead car with Tunney.

After visiting the state capitol, the party moved to the Hotel Olympian for a noon luncheon. Over 200 legislators filled the dining room. Members of the public crowded the lobby to have a look while dozens of young boys thronged the balcony over the dining room for a chance to catch a glimpse of their hero. Parts of the luncheon were filmed, but that footage, like most early film, is now lost.

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The Hotel Olympian in 1954. Gene Tunney spoke there at a luncheon with state legislators in 1927. Photo courtesy: Washington State Digital Archives, Susan Parish Photograph Collection, 1889-1990

Representative Lester Edge of Spokane served as toastmaster. He co-sponsored the boxing bill with Charles A. Moran of Seattle. Several other officials spoke, including the governor, who joked about wishing he was a boxer, too. Then it was time for Tunney to speak.

Tunney thanked the governor and the people of Olympia for their support. The Olympia News newspaper quoted him as saying: “This is my first visit to the Northwest, the great Northwest. But in my short visit here I have discovered why it is great.”

The Morning Olympian reported him stating that: “This is a wonderful state and you have in Olympia as fair a community as I have had the pleasure to visit. The climate, scenery and people of this section are wonderful, in fact it is just the kind of country that I would be willing to leave home for.”

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Gene Tunney (left) and Governor Hartley (right), are seen here in this February 9, 1928 Morning Olympian photo. Photo courtesy: Washington State Library

The luncheon ended at 1 p.m. so Tunney could return to Seattle in time for his 3 p.m. speech at Pantages Theater, driving back to Camp Lewis and flying from there to Seattle. On his way from the Hotel to his car, he was mobbed by the crowds eager to shake his hand.

Tunney’s boxing career was nearing its close. He was voted Ring Magazine’s first ever Fighter of the Year in 1928. That same year he married Mary “Polly” Launder (1907-2008). Some sources say that he promised his bride that he would stop fighting. Indeed, he successfully defended his title one last time against Tom Heeney of New Zealand, before retiring from boxing that same year. The couple moved to Connecticut. They had four children. Tunney passed away in 1978, never fulfilling the promise he had made in Olympia to come live in Washington.

Gene Tunney’s 1927 visit to Olympia was a major event in the capitol city. Although the boxing bill he came to support did not pass the state legislature, Tunney met with an enthusiastic reception. Many people greatly appreciated the rare opportunity to see in person the heavyweight boxing champion of the world.

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