Joseph Rutofsky, born in Russia in 1905, moved with his family to Pueblo at the age of twelve, where he learned how to box on the streets and became a boxing pro in his teens. He graduated from Centennial High in 1925 and moved to Denver, where he went to Denver University and won numerous regional titles.
Although this Jewish immigrant stood at only 5’1, he was nicknamed “Joe Awful Coffee,” but really he was a big hearted man who helped start boxing clubs for kids, gave lessons at orphanages, helped open a children’s center and hosted parties for orphans at his restaurant, the infamous Joe “Awful” Coffee’s Ringside Lounge on 17th Street in Denver, which he started in Denver in 1943. He was inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame in 1976. He is photographed here with his life-long friend Jack Dempsey.
The following in-depth article about Coffee appeared in the March 6, 1992, edition of L’Chaim, published by the Intermountain Jewish News, and has been slightly excerpted here, with quotes from interviews with him, before he passed away Passed away on March 7, 1994:
They just don’t make ’em like Joe “Awful” Coffee anymore. The times are different, for one thing. The people are different too. And Coffee himself? Well, they must have broken the mold after they cast him. He’s the kind of guy whose punches were once known and feared by some of America’s best boxers, a good many of whom ended up with their backs on the mat, trying to see through stars. They didn’t call him “Awful” for nothing.
He grew up on Pueblo’s mean streets, back when they really were mean, when a kid selling newspapers on the corner often had to fight to protect his turf. Joe learned to fight well indeed for that very practical reason. Well enough, in fact, to become a pro boxer and to train, when just a teen-ager, with the legendary Jack Dempsey. And, in short order, to become a regional champ in the flyweight, bantamweight and featherweight classes.
Sure, Coffee was a little guy. Still is. But don’t tell that to the boxers he beat, nor to those who beat him. They knew how hard Coffee was to knock down. Very few of them managed it. And you can’t apply the word “little” to Joe Coffee’s heart. He grew up tough and he fought like a tiger, but he’s got a heart as broad as his jabs were fierce.
The father of three children of his own – Judy, Larry and Barbara – he’s always loved kids, especially kids who are poor or disadvantaged in any way. Coffee always had a special place in his heart – always did his utmost – for children who are retarded, like his daughter Barbara.
Years after he hung up his gloves, when Coffee was a big-time restaurant operator in Denver, he used to interrupt his many guests and direct their attention to some 8- or 9-year-old kid, maybe a newsboy like he was, or a retarded kid whose birthday it happened to be. He put the child in the spotlight and asked for applause. If the kid was a newsboy, Coffee would say that tonight he wanted all his guests to buy their papers from this boy, and to forget about the nickel or dime the paper usually cost.
“Let your conscience be your guide,” Coffee would say, and the guests would gladly dig deep into purses and wallets. Usually, the kid would go home to North Denver or Globeville or Five Points or the West Side with an amazing sum of money in his pocket. Money that he could help his family with. Just like Coffee once did.
The best way to tap the life of Joe Awful Coffee is to let Coffee do his own talking, which he does exceedingly well.
Several years ago, with the help of his children, Coffee recorded an amazing oral history of his own life and times. In it, he sketches his autobiography through favorite stories and episodes, like chapters in a fascinating book.
Joseph Rutkofsky was born in 1905 in a small Russian town. He was one of five sons of a man who left Russia to avoid the czar’s military draft. When he was just a boy, Joe and brothers Charlie, Lou, Eli and Jake accompanied their mother to New York to join their father. Not long thereafter, Joe’s father and a brother contracted tuberculosis, causing the family to head westward for Colorado’s sanatoriums and healthier climate. They decided to settle in Pueblo, where Mrs. Rutkofsky had friends from the Old Country.
Joe Coffee was 12 when they got there. “In those days, Pueblo was a pretty tough city. It was considered the second toughest city west of Chicago. It was a hideaway, a hangout, for the mafia, the Ku Kluxers and racketeers. It was a very unusual city. Most of the people there were foreigners and they worked in the steel plant and the smelters … working people, a conglomeration of all kinds of nationalities.”
Coffee’s career as a newsboy began shortly after they arrived. He came home from school one afternoon and his mother told him to scrub the floors. He didn’t want to do it – the floors were bare wood, full of splinters – so he refused and left the house. He took his first walk into Downtown Pueblo, over the First Street Bridge, where he saw a boy selling papers. He located the man in charge of newspaper distribution and soon found himself on the corner, fresh copies of the MDRV Pueblo Star-Journal in hand. “In those days you didn’t have boxes, you had people selling papers, and everybody had his own corner downtown. My first corner was First and Main Street.” But that didn’t last for long. Another newsboy soon claimed the corner as his and forced Coffee away. Soon, however, Coffee had staked a claim to his own corner at Fourth and Main, one of Pueblo’s busiest. He earned it the hard way. “I became the best newsboy in the city. I got the leading corners. The reason I started boxing was because I was pretty proficient with my fists. It was a case of survival of the fittest. In those days, everybody was tough. You had to fight for your corner. You had to fight for everything.”
The money he earned selling papers went to his hard-pressed mother to help support the family, and before long Coffee was supplementing that meager income with money from amateur exhibition and “smoker” boxing matches in Pueblo. His reputation grew. He fought his first professional fight when he was only 13 or 14, on the day he was supposed to be graduating from the eighth grade. He hitchhiked to Colorado Springs, where he was booked in a fight at the old Temple Theater. His opponent: A 25-year-old from Denver who went by the name of Kid Plank. The flyweight champion of the Rocky Mountain region. “We were in the same dressing room and he proceeded to put on quite a show for me, shadow boxing and saying things like, `You don’t belong in the ring with a champion like me.’
I was all by myself, half scared to death. “When I got into the ring, I never saw so many people in my life before. There must have been at least a thousand people there. It was during Prohibition, but everybody was drinking. Everybody had a whiskey bottle in their hands. It was an unusual occasion. It was during the tough days.”
Coffee had billed himself as the “Newsboy Kid” in his amateur fights in Pueblo and intended to use his own name, Rutkofsky, in this, his first pro bout. But Jack Carberry, a Pueblo sportswriter (later a Denver Post sports editor) took it upon himself to confer a more colorful nickname on the young boxer. Carberry told the ring announcer to introduce him as “Awful Coffee,” not realizing that he had just given birth to a lifelong nickname.
Meanwhile, the renamed pugilist was facing down Kid Plank. “I was scared to death. I was backing away from him. Well, at the end of the second round, Big Dan Taylor, who put on the fight, came over to me with a whiskey bottle in his hand and told me that if I didn’t get in that ring and fight he was going to hit me over the head with that whiskey bottle.
“So I went back in there. The guy was making mistakes; I wasn’t making any mistakes. I think I knocked him out that time. And I became a hero. `Awful Coffee! A new sensation! Knocks out Kid Plank, the state champion!’ That Jack Carberry put my name all over the papers.”
The reputation of the new flyweight champion spread rapidly through the Intermountain region as Coffee met opponents like Kid Belt, a guard at the state penitentiary in Canon City. Coffee fought Kid Belt three times in all, winning the first (a 10-round decision) losing the second (and being wrongfully accused of throwing the fight) and triumphantly returning to win the third (in which Coffee won more than $1,000 by betting on himself).
No matter how big his victories nor how far he traveled, however, Coffee always had a problem waiting for him when he came back to Pueblo – his mother. She strongly disapproved of her son’s growing fondness for boxing and had no qualms about forcefully intervening. Once, during a small match at Pueblo’s Grand Opera House, Mrs. Rutkofsky stormed into the ring before the fight and dragged her 18-year-old son out of the hall by his ear. “I always lost the fight when I got home,” Coffee still likes to say. “The fight with my mother.”
Mrs. Rutkofsky’s greatest victory came at an auspicious occasion, the national convention of the Republican Party which took place at the Stratton Park Pavilion in Colorado Springs. Coffee was slated to fight George “Terror” Long as part of their entertainment package for the prominent Republicans.
Confident that he had kept the fight a secret from his mother, Coffee journeyed to the Springs, looking forward to a match against a well-known opponent and an attractive purse. “So I got into the ring, and the referee was there and the announcer. It was quite a picture. The announcer introduced my opponent and when he introduced me, here comes my mother into the ring. A woman about five-foot-one, weighed about 100 pounds. A very determined woman from the Old Country. Couldn’t speak too much English, but she knew what she had to say. “She came up to me and said, ‘Joe, I ain’t going to let you fight.’ I pleaded with my mother. I said, ‘Please mother, let me fight this one more fight and I promise you I won’t fight any more.’ But she wouldn’t go for that story. She’d heard it before. She insisted. “Just picture all these beautiful people. The first two rows, about 250 to 300 people from all over the United States in their evening gowns and tuxes, waiting for this occasion. And here comes this little woman that they don’t know from Adam. They thought it was the greatest thing that ever happened. They just laughed and laughed and laughed.”
The quick-thinking fight promoter soon jumped into the ring, offering Coffee even more than the $250 already promised if he’d go ahead with the fight. “My mother says,
Oh no, I'll give him $200 more if he doesn't fight.' Of course, she didn't have a cent, but believe it or not, that bidding went up to about $700! I'm not exaggerating. This man wanted to see the fight! "But my mother was determined. She wouldn't give up, so they finally said,Well, we give up.’ And they announced that this had happened. Of course, everybody clapped. `Bravo! Bravo for Mrs. Rutkofsky!’ “One writer said, ‘Greatest fight I ever saw.”‘
Coffee laughs about the Colorado Springs debacle today, but he was very angry at the time. Mad enough, in fact, to head out for California, where he soon got himself back into boxing. It was a fortuitous development.
In Los Angeles, Coffee stayed at the Barber Hotel, which happened to be owned by a fellow named Dempsey, whose brother happened to be Jack Dempsey, then heavyweight champion of the world. Coffee began his lifelong friendship with Dempsey when he began training at the champ’s gym. He fought at least four times a week during his California stay, never losing a fight there.
One time two men came up to Coffee while he was training and mentioned a big promotion they had in mind. When he later accompanied them outside, he discovered that they were two agents from Colorado, sent by his mother to retrieve her wayward, and underage, son. Mrs. Rutkofsky had won another battle, but she never won the war.
Coffee would stop boxing only when he decided on his own that enough was enough. He would box in more than 100 matches before that happened. One of them taught him a valuable lesson about defeat.
Coffee was in Denver studying at, and boxing for, the University of Denver. He was booked to fight a student boxer from Regis College, a fighter by the named of Eddie Mack. Coffee had already lost two fights to Mack and was determined to be prepared for him this time. So he hired a man named Ben Judd to be his trainer for this fight, asking him to live in his DU dormitory for more than a week in order to maximize the training.
“When he started training with me, the first thing he said was, ‘OK, Coffee, from now on you’re a tiger.’ In the middle of the night he used to wake me up and say, ‘Coffee you’re a tiger.’ And before he got through with me, after about 10 days, he had me believing I was a tiger! And I was a tiger! I was acting like one and I was training like one.”
The big match finally arrived. “Up until the seventh round it was nip and tuck. I had to take two or three good punches for every one I dished out, because he was tall, lanky, and had a beautiful left hand. He used that left hand to perfection. He jabbed me to death. Thank goodness, I could take it, and I did. “After the seventh round, I came back to sit in my chair. Ben was furious. He kept saying,
Coffee, you're a tiger!' I said,Ben Judd, no I’m not. I’m a pussycat!’ He laughed like hell and I did too. “It went 12 rounds and I lost that night. He got the decision over me and he earned it fair. I didn’t feel too bad losing to a fighter like that. He was very good. You can’t be a winner all the time and you can’t be a loser all the time.”
Mack, who would go on to become a national and international contender in his weight class, later became an assistant district attorney in New Mexico. He would later perish in an automobile accident.
Then there was Fireman Jim Flynn. “He was a heavyweight. They used to say he was the only man who ever knocked out Jack Dempsey. He was a handsome fellow, came from Pueblo. His father had the Italian newspaper.
Jim took the name of `Fireman Jim Flynn,’ which was a fight name. He was a successful fighter. He came back to Pueblo after he quit fighting. “He lived high, made good money, and he stayed in the Vail Hotel, the best hotel in Pueblo in those days. He was married to a beautiful woman who was a ballet dancer, one of the best in the country. They had a little boy. He got himself a job with the city, in the police department.” Coffee and Flynn had been friends for years, so when Flynn asked Coffee whether he’d like to fight a semi-final on a card which he was leading as the main event, Coffee said sure. The fight was going to be held over the Fourth of July in Washington, Kansas, “a small Missouri Pacific farming town.”
“He was trying to make a comeback. Jim was going to fight an Indian. His name was Chief Mataqua, from Oklahoma City, a heavyweight, and a pretty fair fighter in those days. And Jim, of course, was over the hump, just sort of making a comeback.
“I got there early in the morning and the conditions were bad. It was raining and hailing, a very bad day. It was very discouraging and depressing. There were no streets and no sidewalks and it was all muddy and I finally went to the only hotel there.”
He met Flynn at the hotel and they discussed the terms of payment for the fight. Flynn insisted that he would collect the purse for both of them, saying that he would pay Coffee himself. It was an unusual arrangement – boxers usually collected directly from the promoters – and it aroused Coffee’s suspicions.
That night, Coffee fought a left-hander named Hartman, the first southpaw he’d ever boxed. “I took a beating. I got a boxing lesson. I couldn’t fight his style; he was a southpaw.
“After the fight I went into the dressing room and got dressed, went downstairs, saw the promoter and asked him for my money. He was glad to give me my money and I left the hall and walked back to the hotel.” Coffee cleaned up and rested, waiting for the wee-hours train which would take him back to Pueblo. “Who walks in the door but Jim Flynn? He’s very much beat up; he must’ve gotten an awful beating from this Indian. He says,
Where's the money?"' "I said,Jim, you can’t have that money. I took a beating for that money.”‘ But Flynn was very angry that Coffee had collected the purse on his own. He insisted that Coffee turn it over immediately. One word led to another, and soon Coffee found himself fleeing the enraged Flynn – a heavyweight chasing a flyweight – through the dark streets of a small Kansas town, illuminated only by intermittent flashes of lightning. Flynn caught up with him at the railroad tracks. He threw Coffee to the ground and began pummeling the smaller man mercilessly. But suddenly, in the middle of a punch, Flynn stopped. Coffee saw that the huge man was sobbing, crying like a baby. “‘Joe,’ he says, `I’m sorry this happened. Forgive me, but I’m in a very bad situation.”‘
Remorsefully, Flynn admitted to his friend that he’d lured Coffee to the fight in order to take his earnings; that he was desperately in debt and could see no other way out of his plight. It was vintage Coffee. Lying in the mud, having just gotten a worse beating from his own friend than the one he’d gotten earlier from the southpaw, Coffee looked in his heart and found forgiveness. He handed over his $75 without another word. “Jim said, `OK, Joe, I’ll never forget you.’ By that time the train was coming in. I got on it. “Anyway, Jim Flynn never came back to Pueblo. Never came back to the town. I never saw him again, but I heard from him. “When I was going to DU I got a letter from him, and in it was this money. He was driving a taxicab in Hollywood. He went to Hollywood and got into the motion picture business, did some extra parts in pictures to make a living. His wife had divorced him by then. Whether or not his wife and him got together again, or where his son is, I don’t know.”
But Coffee was still Coffee. “I knew he was in bad straits, so I sent the money back to him. It was one of those experiences in my life I’ll never forget. It was very sad.”
The Ku Klux Klan was powerful in Pueblo in the 1920s, with many prominent citizens and government officials participating in its activities. Perhaps because Pueblo was such a multi-ethnic city, however, virtually all Klansmen maintained their memberships secretly. Joe Coffee’s first brush with the Klan was when one of its members, who happened to be the district attorney, decided to keep Coffee from promoting fights. “They were opposed to me promoting fights there, and so they thought that they would intercede. First it was against the law. Technically, it was up to the local district attorney in those days, whether or not boxing was legal. And my being Jewish, they didn’t like it, see? They said if there was a fight they were going to put all the fighters in jail, since this was against the law. Maybe they thought it was good citizenship, I don’t know.”
But Coffee went ahead and promoted his fight, getting away with it because virtually the entire Pueblo police force had been lured to a supposed bootlegging operation in Rye. In fact, Coffee’s allies had concocted the bootlegging story in order to distract the law on that particular night.
The DA, nevertheless, took Coffee and his fighters to court over the boxing match. They weren’t able to get any convictions, but the experience was enough to discourage Coffee from promoting any more fights. It was not enough, however, to discourage him from resisting the KKK’s influence.
Coffee soon joined up with his friends, attorney A.T. Stewart, dentist Dr. Sidney Roth and a number of other Puebloans in a novel effort to expose Klan activities. They hired a Texas newspaperman, Carl Whitehead, to publish a special newspaper whose sole function would be to reveal the names of Pueblo Klansmen. “The gist of this paper was, ‘Know your next door neighbor. Know who they are.’
They were set up to print this paper and they made me circulation manager. Our objective was to find out who the Ku Kluxers were and let the people in the city know who they were. “They used to hide under these masks, and they always held their meetings out in the country, never in the city. They used to hurt people, beat up people and destroy families. They were the judges and jury and everything.
“So we printed this paper. And this Whitehead, he was a tall Texan, mean as the devil, wasn’t afraid of nobody. And believe it or not, our lives were threatened on the phone. They’d call and say, ‘Mrs. Coffee, you’d better get your son out of this thing. If not, we’re going to kill him.’ My poor mother was scared to death all the time, other people the same way.” But they were not deterred. Aided by a friend whom they’d planted in the Klan itself, staffers of the paper, Coffee included, would take their cars to the country roads leading to where they knew the KKK meetings were being held.
They’d write down the license plate numbers of the cars heading out and check the registrations the next day. Publication of the names would follow shortly. “We were responsible for ruining several big businessmen in Pueblo, with big stores, who belonged to the Klan. And even judges and lawyers and schoolteachers. We couldn’t find all of them, but at least we could find who the cars belonged to. That’s one way we tried to break up the Ku Klux Klan in Pueblo.” Klan supporters, however, continued to deliver their telephone death threats. The anti-Klan people eventually got assistance from the telephone company in trying to trace such calls.
At last, they managed to trace one to a house in Pueblo. A number of the anti-Klan people wasted no time in going to the address, where they found a group of perhaps 10 Klansmen gathered. “We beat hell out of them. We didn’t go after them for nothing. They threatened us first. And finally the Ku Klux Klan broke up in Pueblo. That’s how we got ’em.”
Coffee’s early years as a newsboy turned into a career as the Pueblo agent for the Rocky Mountain News and the old Denver Times.
After his graduation from DU, however, he would become a Denverite for good, eventually going to work as a wholesale salesman for the May Co. He married his wife Dorothy here, and became a family man.
After about a hundred fights and winning regional titles in three weight classes, he called it quits as a boxer. He didn’t, however, abandon boxing entirely.
For years, Coffee coached boxing clubs for the Highlander Boys, St. Vincent’s Home, St. Claire’s Orphanage, Clayton College for Boys, the National Jewish Home for Asthmatic Children and at the original Rude Community Center.
In the 1950s, he even had a television show for a period, “Kid Gloves,” which spotlighted youthful boxers.
His belief in the value of athletics and sportsmanship was only the original impetus for his extensive charity work. Over the years, he was a major participant in such institutions as the Wallace Village for Children, Laradon Hall, Hope Center for the Retarded, the Denver Utility Workshop and many other causes.
Nor did he forget his glory days as a boxer when, in 1943, he embarked upon the career he was to keep until retirement. In that year he purchased an old tavern that had obviously seen better days. He named it the Ringside. “It was very dilapidated,” Coffee says of his acquisition, “with only a few old-timers sitting around buying beer.”
To make matters worse, Coffee knew nothing about the restaurant or tavern trades, and getting allotments for food was difficult in those war years. But he persevered, encouraged by the heavy foot traffic on 17th Street.
Just a few blocks away was Union Station, which disgorged hundreds of traveling soldiers and sailors each day. Coffee was determined to lure them into the Ringside with the promise of good food and the draw of his unusual nickname, which adapted well for use on a restaurant. “It was a catchy name, so I had a big sign put up there that said, ‘Joe Awful Coffee’s Ringside Lounge.’ Everybody couldn’t get over it.”
It turned out that his instincts were right. “My business was tremendous. I changed it around two or three different times and I realized it had great potential. I took that business and I built it up tremendously. It became a very prosperous and popular eating place in Denver. I used to entertain athletes from all over. College and high school basketball and football teams. I used to entertain a lot of the military during the war. My place was so popular that I even entertained the big shots. It was known as the steakhouse in Denver.”
Celebrities began coming in – boxers like Rocky Marciano and Coffee’s old friend Jack Dempsey; opera stars; movie stars; politicians.
“I remember one time I had a call from Lowry Field. The provost there asked me if I could entertain about 40 people for steaks. They were very important people. I told him, `Yes, I can take care of them.’ “They came in about 30 minutes, in all different kinds of uniforms, military from all over the world. They had a meeting at Lowry Field, a very important war session, and they were representing all the Allied countries, all the Allies who were fighting the Germans, including General Eisenhower, who was chief of staff at that time. “It was fantastic. Before they went away I met with them. Here I was, just a little businessman, and General Eisenhower was so humane that he could come down to my level. It takes big people to do that, and I admired him for that very much. That was one of the highlights of my life.”
When Coffee’s guests weren’t watching for the famous and near-famous, or buying papers from a newsboy Coffee wanted to help out, they might be listening to the proprietor’s impromptu snatches of song. A lifelong devotee of opera, Coffee would occasionally deliver an aria or two, not that he considered himself a great singer, but just for the love of it. He wasn’t shy about it. He’d often clear a tabletop for a stage. “Some people liked it, some didn’t. It was just an expression of – I don’t know how to explain it – happiness or affection, but I had to get it out of my system. My wife thought I was crazy to carry on that way.”
The Ringside Lounge had been a thriving and boisterous part of downtown Denver for 23 years when, in 1966, Joe “Awful” Coffee finally decided to retire and close it down. It was the end of an era.
Update to 1992 story, Coffee passed away on March 7, 1994. Photos of him at his Denver restaurant and with Jack Dempsey in the day.
See full story in the History section of www.PuebloMag.com