Vai's View: Vai's View: Farewell to Charles Woodworth, a champion, inside and outside the ring

Published: Friday, Dec. 23 2011 12:00 p.m. MST

Elder Charles Woodworth as a missionary on the Tongan island of Ha'apai. Months after this photo, Woodworth would make international news in the ring.

One of the great, yet unknown men of this generation passed away last Sunday evening. His name was Charles Woodworth.

Woodworth was 79 and will be buried next Wednesday in Lindon, Utah. His obituary will appear in Sunday's and Monday's Deseret News.

I've known Chuck and Marsha Woodworth since I was a boy and his story is worthy of his legendary status among the Tongan people.

Chuck grew up in post-war Missouri, raised by a single mother, along with his five siblings. It was a hardscrabble life where children didn't just help with the chores, but the older ones, like Chuck and his older brother Richard, worked to help their mother pay the bills.

The national Golden Gloves boxing tournament was created in 1937, preceding the youth sports leagues that dominate suburbia today. There were no movie theaters, malls, a Boys & Girls Club or Little League teams in Joplin, Mo., to create childhood memories — just a musty, old gym with a boxing ring, mismatched gloves, a few jump ropes and a heavy bag. Joplin's second-story gym belonged to a fella named John Grau, who owned the auto parts store underneath the gym.

That's where the Woodworth boys spent their free time.

With no other form of entertainment, the Chuck and Richard Woodworth got pretty good with their fists. Born two years apart and tired of their constant fighting, their mother bought them each a pair of boxing gloves hoping they'd learn to fight fair and learn some discipline.

In the 1950s, before Title 9, boxing was a popular collegiate sport and most of the top schools like Notre Dame, the Ivies and the service academies fielded teams and many offered scholarships. Chuck Woodworth was good enough to attract some offers but his heart was set on going to Utah to attend BYU. Because BYU didn't have a boxing team, Chuck paid his tuition, books, room and board by boxing at club events along the Wasatch Front.

If he was lucky, he'd make $100, but most of the time it would be $10-20 for a three- to four-round match. Once, Chuck was the main attraction as a light heavyweight in the brand new George Albert Smith Fieldhouse on a card that also featured football player Famika Anae, a heavyweight on the undercard, whose sons would play football at BYU decades later.

While at BYU, Chuck shared a room with a young man from Idaho named John Groberg. When Groberg received his mission call to Tonga, the idea of following his friend to serve the Lord intrigued Chuck. Naively, he thought that if he simply submitted his paperwork, he too would get to go to Tonga with his pal. He didn't realize the Tongan government only allowed a total of eight American LDS missionaries in the country a year.

Typically, only two or three a year were ever called to Tonga from the States to maintain the government's quota, making it one of the rarest mission calls in the Church. Despite the odds, Chuck received his call to the Tonga Nuku'alofa Mission a year after Groberg. Chuck was 22, already graduated from BYU and had gotten a year of graduate school in at the University of Utah when his call came in 1955. For two-and-a-half years as a missionary (foreign Elders at that time served an extra six months because of the language barrier), Elder Woodworth never sparred, skipped rope or laced up gloves, fully committing himself to the work. Boxing seemed to be behind him.

However, as his mission wound down, he was offered a unique opportunity to return to the ring that would make him a legend in Tonga and throughout the Pacific.

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