On Sunday, March 13th, Jim Munn, writer, coach and political activist, passed away after putting up a courageous six month fight against an incurable case of malignant melanoma. Jim was surrounded by his loved ones at all times during the months, days and hours preceding his death. From the time he was diagnosed with the terminal illness right up until the day that he decided that he was ready to pass on, Jim lived each day to the absolute fullest, and chose to spend his final months celebrating life. The bravery and unwavering positivity that he displayed while facing death head on were typical of the man who was not afraid to fight passionately for what he believed in over the course of 72 years of life well lived.
Jim was born on November 1st, 1938 in Warren, PA. At an early age, he and his family moved to Erie, PA where Jim spent his boyhood. A great storyteller, Jim would often recount tales of grandiose adventure from those formative years when telling bed-time stories to his own boys. Accounts of escape and evasion exploits up upon the infamous “Devil’s Backbone” ridgeline, full-fledged neighborhood BB gun fights and walking backwards, while blindfolded, over the death defying “skinny bridge,” spurred his young sons’ respective sense of imagination and desire for adventure, much to the chagrin of their mother and even hapless local business owners such as Mac Bell who on more than one occasion were cast as the role of “unwilling participant” in the boys’ overly-adventurous endeavors.
Jim’s enthusiasm for all things adventure related paved the way for his love of activities such as backpacking and mountaineering. He had a particular fascination with Mt. Everest, especially the doomed Mallory and Irvine expedition upon said mountain back in 1924. He was convinced that the men had, in fact, summited before perishing on their descent back down the mountain. He was a voracious reader of mountaineering exploits from around the globe; unfortunately, the same could not be said about his regard for school assigned reading literature and, as such, his parents felt that military high school would be in his best interest.
Whether four years at a military academic institution provided any sort of long lasting discipline for a young man who was not overly-fond of following the rules is still up for debate to this very day, but this much can be said about Jim’s relationship with academics; he did manage to graduate high school and subsequently complete his four-year college degree with a dual major in art and journalism. Post college, his love for both writing and art led him to San Francisco where he quickly immersed himself in the local writing scene. Although he soon made a name for himself with folks like Allen Ginsberg, and seemed poised for a successful career as a writer, Uncle Sam had other plans; draft papers sent him packing for a three year stint in the United States Army.
Upon completion of basic and advanced military training, Jim was assigned to the 503rd military police division. His unit was deployed during the 1962 “Battle of Oxford” at the University of Mississippi, when riots erupted due the planned admission of an African-American, James Merideth, to the school. The extreme, and often violent racism that Jim saw directed not only towards Merideth, but also towards his fellow African-American soldiers throughout his time in the military, served to strengthen his resolve to fight for the rights of the oppressed and less fortunate. And fight on he did; upon discharge from the Army, he moved to Boston and pursued work as a social worker and member of the Boston Boys & Girls club while also becoming heavily involved in the progressive labor party movement.
In the early 1970s, Jim and his soon-to-be wife, Lois Ricci, moved to Gloucester. Lois, born and raised in Lexington, MA, had spent many a day at the beaches of Gloucester with her family while growing up, and always had a deep admiration for the beautiful city along the coast. The pair took jobs at Gorton’s of Gloucester, and it wasn’t long before Jim began “being Jim” once more; serving as a board member on Gorton’s labor union and advocating for worker’s rights.
By 1979, Jim’s family had expanded to include three boys, all born within a four year timeframe. To support his family, he turned to a trade that he had been involved in since his college years; house painting. Seventy plus hour work weeks were the norm for the father of three who placed his commitment to family and social work ahead of his own well-being. Although health and wellness ranked low on his list of priorities, things began to change when his oldest son, Janda, took up an interest in running at age seven. Despite his two pack-per-day cigarette habit, Jim jumped whole-heartedly at the chance to help his son with his newfound interest in running and quit smoking cold turkey in order to do so. The two logged countless hours of training together, and Jim drew upon his experience as a high school and collegiate runner to help Janda to prepare. In doing so, Jim also went on to run an amazing 2:52 marathon at the age of fifty.
Jim’s passion for running led to his appointment as the O’Maley Middle School cross country coach back in 1987. A little known fact is that the program was actually slated to be cut from the school’s athletic program due to low participation numbers. Former Principal Anthony Marino was kind enough to give Jim a chance to turn the program around however, and within 2 years, “Coach Munn” had done just that; between 1987 and 1989 the program had grown from just 6 annual participants to nearly 60. The road had been paved for what was to come.
Jim continued to serve as the O’Maley Middle School cross country coach, while also accepting the assistant track coach position at Gloucester High School in 1990. When head coach Bob Roland accepted the athletic director’s position in 1994, Jim assumed head coaching responsibilities for the program and racked up a performance record the likes of which have never been seen in Gloucester’s athletic history: 257 wins and just 10 losses between his indoor and outdoor high school track & field squads and nearly 200 consecutive wins as the longtime O’Maley coach. His programs produced numerous state champions, state records, state and class titles and even a national championship title along the way. The 2000 GHS quartet of Ngai Otieno, Shawn Milne, Josh Palazola and Tristan Colangelo not only won the National distance medley relay title during the 2000 U.S. Indoor Track & Field Championship, they set a record that still stands to this day and remain the only team in U.S. history to ever run under 10 minutes for the distance indoors.
Coach Munn’s greatest attribute was his ability to inspire the athletes under his care to believe that they were capable of greatness. “Why not us?” was one of his favorite rhetorical questions. He challenged his athletes to never settle for anything less than their absolute best and to set the bar high. His support for GHS students transcended athletics; he was adamant that art, music, theatre, and vocational studies, along with athletics, all provided tremendous, life shaping opportunities for young people and that their continued support was an absolute necessity that Gloucester had a responsibility to uphold.
Although Jim’s life came to a close this past Sunday morning, his actions, and ideals, will never be forgotten. He took pride in the fact that his opinions, whether expressed via his writing as a journalist for the Gloucester Daily Times, or in front of the school board or athletic director, encouraged debate. Although some may have referred to him as a “socialist,” “communist,” and, at times, even “radical,” the fact of the matter is that he loved his country, his community and his family above all else and that he gave far more than he ever received, financially and materially, at least. Although an adopted son of our proud city, Jim was a true Gloucesterman in every sense of the word. He will be greatly missed but shall forever be remembered for living an honest and meaningful life.
Jim is survived by his sons Janda, Corey and Kansas Ricci-Munn, his daughter-in-law Michelle Carrancho, and by his ex-wife Lois, who cared for him 24 hours per day, 7 days per week in the months preceding his death. Although his family is terribly saddened by the loss, they are proud of all that Jim accomplished with his life and will always cherish the incredible love and support that he provided. As his sons will attest, it was a great privilege and honor to have Jim as a father.
As per Jim’s wishes and those of his family, there are no immediate plans for a memorial service as the family has chosen to deal with their loss privately. In lieu of flowers and cards, the family respectfully asks that well wishers consider making a donation to the Gloucester Fisherman Athletic Association’s Renewal Newell Stadium initiative.
For donation information, please visit the GFAA at: http://www.gloucesterathletics.org/
or the Renewal Newell website at: http://www.gloucesterathletics.com/newell_stadium/