Boxing legend taught generations of Baltimore boys to fight at YMCA

December 31, 1993|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Staff Writer Staff writer Dan Thanh Dang contributed to this article.

Lee Halfpenny, a local boxing legend who taught generations of Baltimore boys the pugilistic arts at the YMCA, died of a heart attack Wednesday night at Keswick nursing home.

He was 87 and had Alzheimer's disease for more than a dozen years.

"He dearly loved being with kids, he loved teaching them to box and swim," said the former Norma Ege, Mr. Halfpenny's wife of 50 years. "He just loved it when the ones he had taught came back to visit him after they had grown up."

Mr. Halfpenny, a Hall of Fame boxer who fought his way out of Locust Point to become the amateur lightweight champion of the world between 1928 and 1931, was best known for his long association with the Central YMCA at Franklin and Cathedral streets.

His tenure at the Y -- from learning to box there as a teen-ager to giving rub downs to politicians and teaching kids how to keep their guard up -- lasted more than 50 years. Hundreds of people came through, looking to shed a few pounds or learn to defend themselves in an age when a man's heart and fists often were sufficient.

When he retired from the Y in 1972, he said: "Boxing is the greatest form of exercise in the entire world. It gives you confidence in life, as it does in the ring. You have to make quick decisions in life. You make them in the ring. You learn to always step forward. Never backward."

Born on Fort Avenue, the son of a U.S. Coast Guard employee at Fort McHenry, Mr. Halfpenny attended St. Jerome's Roman Catholic grade school. He dropped out of high school after a year or two.

In 1921, he began his life's calling by wandering into the YMCA, curious about fisticuffs. Except to go home at night or travel out of town with one of his fighters, he rarely wandered out.

"He was probably the most interesting personality ever to come out of the YMCA," said Richard Loebman, a chiropractor who worked at the Y with Mr. Halfpenny, while putting himself through school. "He taught many a kid how to box and worked many an overweight businessman into shape. Lee was an extrovert, a mingler. Every day he was just a happy person."

South Baltimore legend has it that moments before Mr. Halfpenny left home for his first professional bout, his mother begged him not to go. After some 130 amateur fights -- including a finals tryout for the 1928 Olympics -- Anna Halfpenny's boy decided to turn professional because his father had taken ill.

When he returned hours after his professional debut, he found his mother still complaining, swearing he would never fight again. He then spread 600 dollar bills on the kitchen table.

At Mr. Halfpenny's next bout, his mother sat at ringside.

He fought 47 professional bouts and compiled a record of 45-and-2 before retiring in 1931 because of a broken hand. More than once he recalled fighting six bouts in a single day, trying to earn a living.

In 1932, he helped coach the U.S. team at the summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Returning to Baltimore, he continued to work out at the Y, where he directed the health services program from 1947 to 1972.

The young men he taught were known as "clever" boxers, trained to wait for an opponent to make a mistake, then to exploit the miscue with smart punches.

"He was a very scientific boxer, what's called a counter-puncher. He would wait until the other guy moved and then counter it," said his son, Lee Halfpenny Jr. "He never encouraged people to box unless they were really good because it was a very tough business."

Mr. Halfpenny's namesake did not follow him into the ring.

Many others did. Mr. Halfpenny helped develop talent like Red Burman, who once fought Joe Louis for the title at Madison Square Garden; Harry Jeffra, a bantam and featherweight champion in the early 1940s; and Terry Downes, who held the British middleweight title in the early 1960s and once shared the world crown.

Mr. Downes, an Englishman who learned to fight in Baltimore, once introduced Mr. Halfpenny by saying: "Gentlemen, this is the man who knows more about boxing than anyone in the world."

Mr. Halfpenny even showed an actor a thing or two one day when the Thespian was in town to portray a boxer in a Center Stage production. During World War II, according to his son, Mr. Halfpenny taught soldiers hand-to-hand combat at Fort Meade.

"In Baltimore boxing, you never said you were training over at the Y, you always said Lee Halfpenny," said Johnny Marco, a local fight maven who took over the Y's health programs after Mr. Halfpenny retired.

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 11 a.m. Monday at the Shrine of the Little Flower Roman Catholic Church at Belair Road and Brendan Avenue in Baltimore.

He is survived by his wife and son, both of Baltimore.

The family asks that memorial contributions be made to the Alzheimer's Association of Central Maryland, 540 E. Belvedere Ave., Suite 202, 21212; or Keswick nursing home, 700 W. 40th St. Baltimore 21211.

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