“The Fishing’s Pretty Good”
by Bill Weaver
If you’re an Our Brown County regular you’re familiar with the writing of Tony Coppi. What you don’t know, but probably suspect, is that Tony has led a life every bit as interesting as that of his subjects. A talented athlete, a boxing judge, a family man dedicated to his career in pharmacy—throughout it all Tony has doggedly pursued his interest in writing.
Coppi grew up in Royalton, Illinois, an old coal mining town, the son of Italian immigrants. “They were from a little town called Modena. Dad came over during the bad times in 1910 and got a job in the coal mine.”
There was no chance that the son would follow the father. “I went in a coal mine once—not for me,” he says grimly.
“I guess I got interested in writing because my first job was with a newspaper. I worked as an ‘ink boy.’ After that I got to be a newspaper carrier then graduated from carrying papers to working in a drugstore.”
He quickly developed an interest in pharmacy, applying for admission to a couple schools of pharmacy. He chose the one that offered him a job “in a stock room for, I think it was, six dollars a month. Pretty good money back then! That was the Indianapolis College of Pharmacy. It’s now called Butler.”
An athlete in high school who lettered in baseball, basketball, and track, Tony chose school over an offer for a tryout with the St. Louis Browns but “I didn’t take him up on it, that was a hard way to go. I wanted something for sure. I wanted a career. Besides,” he adds, “I didn’t think I could hit good enough for the major leagues.”
I ask him how he met his wife, Nancy. “In my fourth year in college I worked in a drug store on the south side. She caught the bus right in front. When there was time she’d drop in the store and that’s how we met. We’ve been married 61 years this August.”
After graduating from college he bought a small drugstore on the south side of Indianapolis. “We used to go to the fights and I noticed in The Ring magazine (which was the bible of boxing) that they didn’t have any results from Indiana. I wrote and asked them if I could be their correspondent.” They not only agreed but made him, “the editor for Indiana. I went all over the state from Gary to Evansville.
“One night one of the judges didn’t show up and the ring announcer came over and said, ‘Would you like to help us out?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ I guess I did a good enough job.”
Good enough that during the late 1940s and early ’50s Coppi was asked to judge three nationally televised world championship fights that took place in Indianapolis.
He met Jack Dempsey when the former champion was in town as a guest referee. “We got to talking about his career and I did maybe four articles on him.”
He also worked with Barney Ross, Joey Maxim, and Tony Zale from Gary, “A great fighter. He was middleweight champion for years.”
One day, “A fellow called the store and said, ‘I want you to meet Primo Carnera, he’s going to be here for a wrestling match.’” From Italy, Carnera had been heavyweight boxing champion in 1933 and an actor in several Hollywood films as well as a professional wrestler. “We talked at length and when he retired from wrestling in the United States we corresponded.”
It was while in New York City to see Joe Louis fight Joe Wolcott that Tony received a unique honor. “The editor of The Ring magazine said, ‘I’ve got something for you to do.’”
To his surprise the man asked him to autograph a huge plaster boxing glove. “It had all the former boxing champions’ names on there and great writers like Grantland Rice. That made me feel pretty good to have my name with theirs.”
He met another boxing legend near the beginning of the young man’s career. “On Saturday nights, Channel 8 sponsored amateur fights. They would invite a team from Louisville to meet a team in Indianapolis. They had a low budget and all of us guys would go up there and work without pay. I would go to the dressing rooms to call the boxers in to be introduced. I asked this young kid, I said, ‘‘You’re on next, tell me your name and I’ll give it to the announcer.’ He replied, ‘Cassius Clay.’
“He got in the ring and looked pretty good!” Tony remembers of the future Muhammed Ali.
Tony was appointed to the Indiana State Boxing Commission. “At one time boxing was the major sport in Indianapolis but then comes the Pacers, and the hockey team, and the baseball team. Boxing kind of faded out.”
I ask Tony why, after 16 years, he left boxing.
“I had to spend more time at the drugstore. Our second store was big and took a lot of time. I also got pretty active in pharmacy. One year I was president of the Indianapolis Association of Retail Druggists and then publicity director for the Indianapolis Pharmaceutical Association.” He felt great pride and accomplishment when the Pharmacists Association celebrated his 50th anniversary in pharmacy with a commemorative plaque.
Writing has allowed Coppi to continue meeting interesting people. While working on an article about Roger McCluskey for Auto Racing magazine at the Salem Speedway he noticed an unknown young driver “Just buzzing around, all over the track. Everybody started watching this kid breaking the speed limit. Finally, he pulled into the pits and I walked over to him and I said, ‘I’d like to introduce myself,’ which I did. ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Mario Andretti.’”
What Tony didn’t realize until much later was that he’d met two racing legends that day. “As we were walking out after the races,” Tony recalls, “he and his wife and a small child were walking out, too. He said, ‘I want you to meet my wife, Dee Ann, and this is my son, Michael.’”
Tony’s retirement gave him the chance to focus on his writing. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications including Outdoor Indiana, The Indianapolis Star, and the AAA’s Home and Away. “I contacted Cindy after she started Our Brown County. I’ve been fortunate. I’ve also had a lot of rejections. A lot of them. Cost me a lot of postage,” he adds wryly. “I keep trying and I’m glad that I can do it.”
Tony lives near the Monroe Music Park where he has met performers like Alison Krause and written at least “a half dozen articles on Bill Monroe. When they first opened the Bluegrass Museum I was lucky enough to meet him. Later, when he was ill, the last appearance he made, I went over and talked to him and took some pictures. A lot of people said he was hard to get along with but I had no problem with him. He liked to be interviewed.”
Tony and his family discovered Brown County after a friend invited them to Woodland Lake, near Bean Blossom. “We liked the scenery and the lake. There was a lot for sale there so we bought it and a year later we started building. It was our weekend hideaway retreat.” They moved permanently in 1986. “One reason that we moved down here is because we liked being here. The kids love the lake that we’re on and the fishing’s pretty good.”