This story comes courtesy of Bruce Frank, the area’s guru on boxing history. He sent me a photo of a boxer in a Virginia uniform with a note that said “Frank Null, 1942, 3rd place in nation, middleweight.” He said he didn’t know any more than that about the man so I began researching.
When I set off on these historical journeys, I never know where they are going to end up. In a funny twist, this story wound up with a connection to my husband’s elementary school days. And that is why I continue to contend that all history is connected.
The story starts on December 3, 1920, when George and Elizabeth Null had a bouncing baby boy they named Francis Maurice Null. Frank or Frankie, as the boy came to be called, was quite athletic, especially in baseball.
Being a local boy, Frank Null went to Lee High as a freshman, but he was attracted to the sport of boxing, something Lee did not offer but Staunton Military School (SMA) did have. The campus of the now defunct SMA, founded in 1884 and closed in 1976, has been absorbed into the campus of Mary Baldwin University. SMA’s boxing teams were perennial powerhouses.
Null approached SMA Coach Joseph Taylor about learning the sport of boxing. For a year, Null studied under the SMA coach and then the following year (1936-37 school year) attended SMA. In his debut season, Null showed lots of promise according to newspaper write-ups. Eventually Null became captain of the Hilltoppers. Another local boxer, Art Weir, was also considered to be in the same elite class of SMA boxers.
SMA boasted a tough team and rarely lost. They played the junior varsities of a number of collegiate teams, including the University of Maryland and the University of Virginia. However, their biggest rivalry was probably the boxing team from Augusta Military Academy in Fort Defiance.
In their senior year at SMA, both Null and Weir were eyed by the University of Virginia “leather pushers” and invited to try out for the college boxing team in November of 1941. Null made the boxing team and also played baseball at U.Va.
Null quickly became one of its stars and a caption. Boxing season started in January and the Staunton athlete ended up competing mostly as a junior middleweight (136-140 pounds) welterweight (140-147) and a middleweight (154-160) for two seasons.
Null actually fought in the 165-pound class in one of his first matches as a freshman in January of 1942. The occasion was the South’s oldest intercollegiate boxing rivalry (since 1925). The tournament, hosted by U.Va., was again the University of North Carolina.
For the record, Virginia came from behind to win the matchup, 5-3, in front of a crowd of 4,000 people. Null’s contribution was anticlimactic…he won on a forfeit.
Perhaps Null’s crowning achievement his freshman year came in March when he defeated the top-seeded boxer from Army, Jimmy Rippin, to advance in the Eastern Intercollegiate Boxing Championship. The newspaper described that bout: “The local boy [Null] fought in masterful style, leveled his hard, straight right at Rippin’s midribs time after time, and from the second round on had his opponent in distress.”
Unfortunately, Null stumbled in the next bout, “forgetting everything, casting discretion to the winds,” and providing a “flurry of wild slugging” in the last 23 seconds that was his undoing against his Syracuse opponent. In April of 1942, it was announced that Null had received a varsity boxing letter.
As the season opened in 1943, everyone was apparently expecting big things from the Staunton native. Null, one of the team’s tri-captions was fighting as a junior middleweight. Sometime early in the season an infected tonsil led to surgery and a junior varsity boxer named Bob Finley took his place on the roster for two bouts that apparently turned into most of the season.
Finley, not Null, was also one of two Virginia representatives at the National Intercollegiate tournament that season. This time it wasn’t his tonsils that kept Null from boxing, but the fact that he had to report for active duty at the end of March of 1943.
Here is where the story gets very interesting. World War II was raging. Corporal Null was an Army Ranger and instead of fighting in the boxing ring in early 1944, he found himself fighting in Italy on the Anzio beachhead. In February of 1944, Null’s parent learned that their son was a German prisoner of war having been captured on January 30 after his unit penetrated the German lines near the town of Cisterno.
In May, the Nulls received a letter from their POW son saying he was receiving excellent treatment and asking for peanut butter kisses, ginger snaps, and chocolate through the Red Cross. The article also noted that Null’s three brothers were all in the service as well.
Another letter in December of 1944 noted that as a prisoner he was working on a German farm helping to harvest potatoes. He added “A wonderful Christmas for all the lads overseas would be that dream boat, that each and everyone has seen a million times, to come sailing in to take them all sailing home to their loved ones. Until that wonderful time comes try not to worry, but I know all mothers do.”
After 16 months as a German prisoner of war, Null was liberated in April 1945 and arrived home a month later. For Null, returning to normal meant going back and finishing his degree at Virginia. In June of 1948, he graduated with a degree in physical education and a minor in science. By August, the Staunton YMCA had hired him.
On June 19 he married Gaynelle Faith Ralston, a Stauntonian who was a telephone operator. They had one daughter, Christie.
For several years, Null helped with the programs at the YMCA including organizing local boxing tournaments. Within a few years, he moved into the Augusta County Public School system. From 1958-1964 he taught sixth and seventh grades at Beverley Manor Elementary School. In June of 1964, he received a master’s degree in elementary school administration from Virginia. The following year he was assistant principal at the school. In 1965, he was named principal at Greenville Elementary School. When that school was consolidated with several others to become Riverheads Elementary School, Null moved there as assistant principal and teacher.
Francis Maurice Null died in August of 1992 and is buried at Thornrose.
I should have been satisfied unearthing this fascinating information from one photograph of a boxer. However, something about Greenville and Riverheads elementary schools got me thinking. Finally I went upstairs and asked my husband, a somewhat undisciplined student at both schools, if the name Frank Null rang a bell.
He just sat there and grinned.
“He paddled me many a time!” he said.