GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

March 15, 2011

Jim Munn: 1938 to 2011

Coach, activist, writer dies at 72

By Matt Burke
Sports Editor

Jim Munn, the longtime Gloucester High track coach, community activist, writer and regular Opinion page contributor to the Times, has passed away after a near six-month battle with brain cancer.

Munn, 72, passed away Sunday, some four months after he announced his resignation from his coaching post at the high school.

It was truly a full 72 years of life for Munn, as "intensity" was the one word that best described the incomparable coach, father and friend.

"He wasn't one of those 'sleeping in' types of people," his 35-year-old son, Janda Ricci-Munn, said Monday. "He really attacked each day of his life. He woke up around 4:30 every morning and lived every minute of that day until he collapsed at 8:30 or 9 at night.

"Whatever it was that day — writing or coaching — he would exhaust himself each and every day he lived."

Ricci-Munn said that, for now, services for his father will be private.

Exactly one week before his passing, the ever-adventurous Munn tackled one more issue in his life. Allergic to shellfish, Munn waited decades to again taste one of Cape Ann's best-known products.

"We literally carried him to (J.T.) Farnham's so he could have a plate of fried clams," Ricci-Munn said. "He said it was one of his best days. That really summed up how he lived. No fear, address the issues in your life."

Early Life

Born in Warren, Pa. on Nov. 1, 1938, Munn would tour the country throughout the first 25 years of his life.

Though he always wrote about his childhood fondly, Munn by no means had an easy life growing up as his father, a musician, and his mother, a homemaker, did not have much money to work with.

"He always talked and wrote about the adventures he had as a boy," Ricci-Munn said. "But he had a hard life early, with his father always traveling for work."

A small kid, described as "feisty" and "a fighter," Munn was sent off to military school when the family moved to Rome, N.Y. and was admittedly "not much of a student."

In fact, in one of Munn's Times columns he talked at length about throwing his books in a nearby stream after being so fed up with school.

Munn took up wrestling for the school as well as track and excelled quickly at the latter, developing his love of running.

"You have to remember that this was before formal training where they would show up to meets in dress shoes and having eaten steak the night before," Ricci-Munn said. "But he was the best runner on his team, he was naturally gifted."

Munn, who studied Journalism and Art, would go on to run all the distance events for Hillsdale (Mich.) College, and was a captain on the team. His love of running took a hiatus, however, when he began smoking cigarettes. It was a habit he would quit cold-turkey, some 25 years later.

'I have an opinion'

Munn would love to get into debate with just about anyone on just about any topic at just about any time.

"People have not always agreed with his writing, including myself, but he's touched a lot of lives over the years," Ricci-Munn said.

"His writing addressed a lot of issues and always encouraged public debate," he added. "He's been called every name under the sun, from a communist to a socialist and everything in between. But his main political objective was that in this country no one should go without a roof over their head and without medical care. It is every person's responsibility in this country to take care of each other. The bottom line with him was that no one should have to live without care."

After college, Munn moved to San Francisco, where he would be a big part of a progressive-thinking scene through his writing. Despite many of his friends at the time telling him to move to Canada to escape being drafted into the military by the United States, Munn stayed put. Of course, he was soon-after drafted by the U.S. Army.

He was part of a battalion sent in to Oxford, Miss., to break up riots at the University of Mississippi after James Meredith became the first black student at the school. Two people died in the riots, and hundreds were wounded.

After the Army, Munn moved to Boston to work for the Boys' and Girls' Club — and he finally landed in Gloucester in the early 1970s, where he went to work for Gorton's of Gloucester.

In a March 2 column largely defending Gorton's against some local criticism, Munn added a tag line, saying that "operated a band saw at the Gorton's production facility," described his coworkers as "the salt of the earth," and called the work there "hard but always interesting and productive."

"Of course, just after starting at Gorton's he had to try and start a union," Ricci-Munn said. "He infuriated some people there and I don't think it was more than five years after that he started painting houses full-time."

Coach Munn

Aside from writing, Munn's passion was athletics, particularly running. With no formal coaching training, Munn learned he could channel his track knowledge in a different way when a 7-year-old Janda asked him for some help one day.

"I saw a poster in downtown Gloucester for a 1-mile race and I told him I wanted to do it and that we have to train for it," Ricci-Munn said. "He took me to the track at O'Maley (middle school) and we started running. He was still smoking two packs a day at that time and he went half way around and was half dead."

The next day, Munn gave up smoking forever. It was his small sacrifice to get into a career of teaching athletics.

Years later, Gloucester High was extremely close to cutting its cross country and track and field programs. It was just the beginning of years of trying to save Gloucester athletic programs and facilities for Munn.

After leading the O'Maley Middle School cross country team, Munn would take over the varsity track and field reigns for the Fishermen in the mid-1990s.

"The principal said, we'll support you the first year, you just have to build something," Ricci Munn said. "In a two-year period, we had the best team in the conference. The main thing was that he wanted to give back and that he just took pride in the program."

Munn would go on to compile an astounding record of 235 victories against just nine losses in his GHS coaching career, capturing 10 NEC championships in outdoor track. His most prized coaching accomplishment came in 2000, when four of his pupils made history — world history.

Munn later wrote of the accomplishment, "The four, seniors Tristan Colangelo and Shaun Milne, and juniors Ngai Otieno and Josh Palazola, were in New York to compete in the National Scholastic Indoor Track & Field Championships, and by the time they completed their 20-lap circuit around the Armory's steeply banked, 200-meter oval, they had accomplished what no other high school runners had ever done before.

"Competing in the top seeded heat of the distance medley relay (DMR), an event consisting of 1,200-, 400-, 800-, and 1,600-meter legs, not only had the boys from Gloucester finished first," Munn wrote, "they also literally obliterated the national record of 10:10.30 with an astounding, off-the-charts 9:59.94 clocking, the first and still only sub-10 minute DMR ever run indoors by a high school team anywhere in the world."

Saying goodbye

Munn was depressed for exactly one day following the news in late October 2010 that he had inoperable brain and intestinal cancer, according to Ricci-Munn. After that, it was the same old Munn. Still writing opinion columns for the Times, giving his athletes advice, living his life.

"I was on a camping trip with my wife when he first found out but he told me we needed to talk in the backyard when I got back," Ricci-Munn said. "He had a bottle of wine with him when he told me and he just said, 'let's just celebrate life and not sulk.' He had 10 tumors in his brain and he never once caved emotionally. He lived life the same way he always did until last Saturday morning when things took a turn."

In his final months, Munn was instrumental in the Newell Renewal project, an effort to build a new athletic stadium at Gloucester High, and has been outspoken against high school user fees for athletes. In November, Munn was honored and greeted by some 200 well-wishers in a special Gloucester Fishermen's Athletic Association reception at Cruiseport Gloucester.

"He felt you're closing the door on opportunities for young people when you make families pay for their kids to play sports," Ricci-Munn said. "He lived life to give back.

"No matter what you thought of his politics, he was always focused on giving back to people," Ricci-Munn said, "I think he maybe lost a decade of his life because of fighting all those issues over the years."

Matt Burke can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3444, or at mburke@gloucestertimes.com.