Climbing the Highest Mountain
By Kimberly Horg | Photos Courtesy of Umek Family
Raised on a small farm in Slovenia (then part of Yugoslavia), Emil Umek was born two years before World War II began, at a time when the country was a communist republic. Umek dreamed of a better life, so at 18, he left what he knew behind. Trekking over the mountains, their steepness served as a formidable opponent in the journey. “The hardest part about escaping was climbing the Alps,” says Umek.
Umek attempted the trip over the Alps three times, and during his last try he still wasn’t sure he’d make it. After becoming unconscious for two hours due to the altitude, he picked himself up and continued over the pass and into Austria, to a refugee camp. While at the camp, threats of deportation resulted in his migrating to Belgium, where he found work in the coal mines and a side job in boxing.
A couple of years later, Umek moved to Germany. There, he worked at a factory that made iron parts for cars and buildings while he continued boxing. By that time, he had already participated in 50 boxing matches. After reading a story about the German promoter Baron von Stume and his prizefighter, Umek introduced himself in person to von Stume. “I told [the] Baron I could replace his fighter,” says Umek. Caught off guard, the promoter proceeded to walk slowly around him, eyeing his stature and sizing him up as a boxer. Standing 5 feet, 10 inches tall, Umek made his start as a middleweight and eventually worked his way up to heavyweight fights. Having never lost by knockout himself, he lived by his motto: the bigger they are, the harder they fall.
Traveling as a boxer, he competed at various locations around the world, including in Russia, Poland, New Zealand, and the United States. While in the United States, he competed in Alaska and Hawaii, ultimately landing in Los Angeles. Training four times a week, he became known for his left hook.
Soon after moving to Los Angeles, in the 1960s, he met and then married Columbian-born Helen Rosa. When Umek retired from boxing in the early 1970s, he began working as a mechanical engineer. He had learned mechanical engineering as a boy, which helped him land a job designing satellites for NASA. During this time, he and his wife had a daughter, April.
Interested in biology, April had a studious mind, like her father, and trained to be a physician assistant at the University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Jersey. Her parents moved to the East Coast temporarily to be closer to her and eventually retired in Paradise, California, after living in Lake Tahoe. While living on the East Coast, April’s yoga instructor, Rolf Gates, shared stories about the beauty of his hometown, Monterey. In 2012, April relocated to Monterey, and moved her parents there in 2018.
Sadly, both of April’s parents had strokes last year, and Helen passed away in May of 2019. Although it has been a difficult time for Umek, after 49 years of marriage, he keeps busy with art, music, and swimming at Carmel Valley Athletic Club and going out to dinner with his daughter.
“When I hear my dad’s story, it makes me understand his strength, perseverance, and gritty character,” says April. “If I ever catch myself complaining about anything, I just think of the challenges he had to overcome, and I realize how lucky I am.”