The Stivers Athletic Hall of Fame features lots of folks who have accomplished plenty.
There are those who took their all-city and state title acclaim and went on to become big-time college athletes, others who were celebrated coaches. There’s an Olympic medalist, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a famed cartoonist known nationwide for his popular comic strips.
But as of today, no one in that august body has a more colorful, more impressive resume than Bobby Joe Cox.
The 1958 Stivers grad — one of 15 new enshrines to be inducted this afternoon in a gala luncheon at the Presidential Banquet Center — is part Nature Boy Buddy Rogers, part Perry Mason and maybe a little bit of Dirty Harry, too.
Sounds a little over the top? Well, read on.
After humble beginnings in Crossville, Tenn., and a life-altering family tragedy, the 9-year-old Cox came to Dayton in 1949 with his mother and younger brother.
If you checked their bank account and cupboards back then, you’d have seen they didn’t have much, but Bobby Joe possessed the two great tools for making it in his strange new town:
He had the solid work ethic ingrained in many people who migrated here from Appalachia, and he had dreams that knew no bounds.
“I had two occupations that always intrigued me,” he said with a reflective smile. “Primarily I wanted to be a professional rassler. My idol was Nature Boy Buddy Rogers.”
He watched wrestling on TV and went to the live matches regularly held here at Memorial Hall, a now-defunct arena on South Ludlow St. and in a park at Rosedale and Western.
“I sold rassling magazines at shows and got a nickel for each one,” he said. “I got to see all the guys. Nature Boy, Argentina Rocca, Professor Roy Shire, Man Mountain Dean Jr., Don Eagle with his headdress.”
Cox started wrestling semi-pro at shows at the VA Center, the Eagles on Valley Street and a couple of places downtown. He billed himself as Jimmy Fox from Tombstone, Ariz.
“I’d never been to Tombstone,” he said with a grin. “It was about being a showman and I could do that, Finally, though, I had to accept the fact I just wasn’t large enough to be a professional wrestler.”
He still had a big sense of stage, though, and that brought him to the other pursuit that intrigued him.
After 12 ½ years as a Dayton police officer — during which time he also went to college and law school — he decided to become a trial attorney.
“My other idol was Perry Mason,” he said. “When I was a kid I started reading all those Erle Stanley Gardner stories about Perry Mason. I must have read 100 of them. And then finally I am a lawyer and I promptly lose my first case. It wasn’t like Perry Mason at all. I never got anybody to stand up in the court room and confess.”
Maybe not, but he has had a 40-year career as one of Dayton’s best-known criminal defense attorneys. He’s taken on some of the toughest clients ever to come through local courts and has been involved in many of the city’s most famous cases. And through it all he remains universally embraced by the legal community here.
“Bobby Joe Cox is just a great guy and a stand-up lawyer,” said Dayton Municipal Judge Dan Gehres. “He doesn’t play lawyer tricks. If you got his word, it’s as good as gold.
“And he always has that twinkle in his eye. I don’t know a single judge who will say anything bad about Bobby Joe Cox.”
‘My kind of people’
When he was a boy growing up in Tennessee, he lived with his grandparents in the mountains and went to classes in a one-room school.
“We didn’t have electricity at my grandma’s,” he said. “We used coal oil lamps, carried in our water and had outdoor toilet facilities.
“We did have a battery-operated radio and my grandpa would let us listen to it for a few minutes in the morning and maybe an hour on Saturday night to the Grand Ole Opry.”
For a while his father ran a tavern in Crossville — a small town situated on the Cumberland Plateau between Nashville and Knoxville — but in 1949 he was killed in an auto accident and soon after Delphia Cox moved her two sons to Dayton.
The family eventually settled on Fairground Avenue. Delphia got a job at the Miami Valley Hospital cafeteria carrying trays and Bobby Joe took on three paper routes, delivering The Journal Herald in the morning, the Daily News in the afternoon and in between he would encamp on a gate at NCR and sell papers to the thousands of workers who passed by.
Once he got to Stivers High, he found a home: “I loved Stivers. They were my kind of people. It was basically Appalachian — kids from Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia. Some people called us hillbillies, ridge runners, but we all had a work ethic and we succeeded.”
He made the varsity football team as a freshman and became the starting left guard in the second game of his sophomore year. But prior to his junior season, he said his mom began to worry about some of the associations he was making on the street and she found a solution on a back page of Boy’s Life magazine.
That’s where she saw a small ad for the Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia. Bobby Joe spent a successful year there but returned home because of the cost. Back in Dayton, he got a job at the YMCA, moved back into the Tigers starting lineup and on Oct. 19 — the morning before Stivers played Colonel White — he and Shirley Coover, a junior at Patterson Co-Op, were married by a justice of the peace in Vandalia.
That night, with his new bride sitting in the stands at Welcome Stadium, Bobby Joe helped flatten the Cougars.
What about a honeymoon?
“Oh, our honeymoon was the next day,” he chuckled. “At 6:30 in the morning we went down to Union Station and took the train that went to Piqua and back. I sold pies to the passengers for Mrs. Paul from the Y and Shirley rode along.”
Although theirs was an against-the-odds teen marriage, Bobby Joe and Shirley will celebrate their 56th wedding anniversary Saturday. Instead of huddling around the radio for an hour, Bobby Joe will take her to Nashville for two days at the Grand Ole Opry.
Disarming a gangster
Now the Dirty Harry part of this tale.
After graduating from Stivers, Cox got a job at Dayton Scales packing potato peelers. He said he tried to get in at NCR “30 or 40 times” but had no connections and finally he spotted an ad in the paper that the city was looking for policemen.
He applied and three months later — “back then you just had to have an eighth-grade education and they tried to make sure you were basically honest and not a coward,” he said — he was sworn in as a Dayton cop.
Although he doesn’t bring it up, you find out from others that he received the police department’s two highest honors during his tenure.
He got the Medal of Valor when he and his partner, arriving at a serious house fire on Ferguson Avenue before the fire trucks, ran into the burning building and carried several children out to safety.
Another time in the early 1970s, he heard about an armed standoff on the East End. Police had surrounded the place for three hours but the guy inside, a local gangster with whom Bobby Joe had gone to school, refused to come out.
“I got on the bullhorn and told him who I was and he finally said, ‘Bobby, they’ll shoot me if I come out!’ ” Cox said. “I guaranteed him that wouldn’t happen and after about 45 minutes I was able to take off my gun , walk in and bring him back out with his hands up.”
For that he was awarded the Medal of Merit.
Although he said he “loved” being a police officer, it wasn’t his dream and, so when the department offered a chance to go to college, he saw an opportunity.
“Because of the disturbances — the racial uplift in the mid ’60s — they wanted to better educate policemen and they started a law enforcement program at the University of Dayton,” he said.
After he got that associates degree, he continued on for a bachelor’s in social sciences and then got his Juris Doctor degree at the Salmon P. Chase Law School.
At the same time Shirley was following suit. She had quit high school to get married but while raising their two kids, William and Teresa, she got her GED and then a pair of degrees from UD.
“All we did back then was go to school and work,” Bobby Joe said. “I see television shows today that were on back in the ’60s and ’70s and I know nothing about then. I never saw them.”
All the world’s a stage
“Bobby Joe Cox is one of the nicest guys you could meet, just the sweetest person, and he’s got the biggest heart in the world,” said Dave Greer, the much-acclaimed Dayton attorney who has teamed with Cox.
“Bobby Joe defends the defenseless. He hangs in there with them when some others would not.”
Greer drew a parallel to John Temple’s “The Last Lawyer – The Fight to Save Death Row Inmates,” a book primarily about Ken Rose, a North Carolina attorney, who successfully defended a mentally handicapped farmhand charged with murder:
“Bobby Joe is The Last Lawyer around here.”
Cox estimates he’s had 125 to 150 murder cases over the years and close to a dozen capital cases. He was the first here to successfully use the battered-woman defense. Defending some of his court-appointed clients, though, has been challenging, but he believes everyone deserves a robust defense:
“I always say a good trial attorney is a frustrated actor. You’re playing a role. As Shakespeare says in As You Like It: ‘All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.’
“Being a good lawyer is kind of like being a good rassler. You’ve got to connect with the jury. If the jury likes the lawyer, the client at least has a chance. Then again, when they hear all the stuff he’s charged with, they may wonder.
“I’ve had to look juries in the eye and tell them stories where I had to bite my lip — with blood running down my throat — as I talked up my client, but we advocate for our clients. That’s our job.”
Another thing Cox doesn’t bring up — but others do — is the pro bono work he has done for the poor.
“I know what it’s like to be poor, to have nothing and struggle,” he finally said.
Although he is 73 and says he’s “semi- retired,” he’s already handled two capital cases this year and has lots of other work. That’s why every day — with Shirley alongside handling his calls and schedule — you’ll find him in his eighth-floor, West Second St. office where the big windows overlook the city.
Yet the view that strikes the real chord with him is in the small painting atop a bookshelf next to his desk.
A fellow lawyer and artist painted the small cottage, smoke curling from the chimney, that’s surrounded by an autumn-colored mountain setting.
“I keep it up there to remind me not to get too big for my britches,” he said. “The person who knows where he came from knows where he’s going.”
And sometimes — like today — that journey goes in glorious full circle.
2013 Stivers Athletic Hall of Fame inductees:
1925 grad – Joe Cox
1938 – John Blesi
1942 – Bobby Wolfe
1943 – Darwin Helmbold
1948 – Charles Smith
1951 – Ray Lamb
1953 – Peter Streuber
1955 – John Moore
1956 – Gary Butts
1957 – Gary Tanner
1958 – Bobby Joe Cox
1975 – Eric Sutton
2007 – Jessica Swope
2009 – Nathan Davis
Teacher – Samuel Chasens