The diminutive (5 foot one and a half inches) Joseph Rutkofsky Coffee was born in Russia in 1905, but began his distinguished citizenship in the United States when his family moved to Pueblo at the age of twelve. Coffee became a newsboy to help with the family’s finances, and his first job was to sell Pueblo Star-Journals on the street of his hometown. The choice newspaper corners in those days included Fourth and Main streets in downtown Pueblo, and the only way to get one of those choice spots was to fight for the right to do so. During his colorful newspaper career, Joe fought more than one hundred matches, and by learning the boxing of the street, became a boxing pro at seventeen. Because the future of boxing lay in Los Angeles, he traveled there and began a long-time friendship with Jack Dempsey.
Coffee returned to Pueblo to continue boxing, but also graduated from Pueblo Centennial High School in 1925. He then entered Denver University where he was serving as boxing coach and trainer. While in Pueblo, Coffee assisted in the founding of the Pueblo Athletic Club and became involved in Steel Works YMCA. His boxing career saw him winning regional titles in flyweight, bantamweight and featherweight classifications.
Joe recalls one of the greatest moments in his boxing career as a fight with Don “Terror” Long. “I won a twelve round decision, which gave me the featherweight championship for the Rocky Mountain Region. Long was strongly favored to win the match; however, I was more fearful of Long’s manager than of Long. I refer now to Gentleman James J. Corbett, former heavyweight champion of the world.”
Coffee fought some of his biggest fights while attending Denver University; his opponents included Eddie Mack, Don “Terror” Long, Buddy Hamilton and Charlie Lupica. During his enrollment at DU, Coffee was instrumental in starting boy’s boxing clubs for the Highlander Boys, St. Vincent’s Home for Boys, St. Claire’s Orphanage, Clayton College for Boys, the National Jewish Home for Asthmatic Children and at the old Rudy Community Center. He also created the “Kid Gloves” Television show, the stars of which were the children to whom he gave lessons at various orphanages.
In 1943, Joe opened his restaurant, Joe “Awful” Coffee’s Ringside Lounge. During his twenty-three years in the business, he continued to take care of the various boxing programs at the aforementioned homes.
When Joe was inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame in 1976, he retired from the restaurant business. He remained active working for and with mentally challenged and handicapped individuals. His civic contributions are numerous, including his participation in the founding of Wallace Center for Children, Laradon Hall, Hope Center and Pet Pride Palace. He served on the boards of each and has been involved with the Denver Utility Workshop, which employs handicapped adults and recent immigrants to the country.
While none of his immediate family members have meritorious sports careers, Joe said, “They are athletically active and shine in my eyes for their enthusiasm for life.” Along with wife Dorothy, they had three children, Barbara, Larry and Judy. Larry, a dentist, was Executive Director and founder of the National Foundation of Dentistry for the Handicapped.
Induction into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame was indeed a great honor for Joe Coffee. “The Hall of Fame is an outstanding organization which pays recognition and homage to individuals who have made worthwhile contributions to the world of sports and to their communities. To be considered was very gratifying, especially because this honor has also been given to my friends, Jack Dempsey and Dutch Clark. They richly deserve such recognition, and I felt great pride in receiving an award previously given to these gifted men.”
Coffee has been awarded numerous citations for his athletic endeavors which include, an award from the National Jewish Home for Asthmatic Children, the University of Denver Athletic Recognition Award, induction into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame, recognition by the Denver Kiwanis Club, the American by Choice Award, the U.S. Marines Certificate of Appreciation, and a Resolution of Appreciation from the State of Colorado General Assembly.
They are athletically active and shine in my eyes for their enthusiasm for life.