Out of Gill Gymnasium's ashes comes relic that is a bellwether

March 23, 1997|By JOHN STEADMAN

Lifted from the massive pile of burned and water-soaked rubble was a "relic" from the past. The debris came as an aftermath of the fire that swept through the Gill Gymnasium at Western Maryland College. What was salvaged -- a six-inch bell -- emerged as a symbol of hope, ringing with a crystal-clear resonance that hadn't been diminished or distorted.

What purpose could it have served? Was it a dinner bell, a school bell to be used in a call to classes, a fire alarm or merely a toy to be enjoyed? No, none of that.

NTC The deduction is that the bell, this bell, the one that survived the huge blaze at the Gill Gym on the last day of 1996, was used in an era when Western Maryland, like so many other colleges and universities, sponsored a boxing team.

So the bell becomes a treasured memory of yesteryear, signifying a time when Western Maryland boxers staged bouts against Navy, Yale, Army, Maryland, Syracuse, Penn State, Coast Guard, and, yes, even the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

It was an era, the 1930s, '40s and '50s, when college boxing outdrew varsity basketball games. Tickets were in demand and crowds so large they couldn't be accommodated.

First the Westminster Armory and then Gill Gymnasium were the ring settings for the fistic forces of dear old Western Maryland. The discovery of the bell in the basement by fire investigator Bernie Schwartz, of Day, Md., is reason to ponder what purpose it may have served.

The popular assumption, certainly the preferred belief, without actual proof, is that it was the bell that sounded the start of every round when Western Maryland was a participant in an at-home intercollegiate boxing tournament.

"I can't remember," said Joe Lipsky, a football player and graduate of the class of 1935, now living in Columbia, S.C., who helped with the boxing program. "We probably had one and it seems reasonable to believe it would have been the same bell."

Jack Molesworth, former football player, coach and a two-year boxer, likes to regard it as, yes, the official bell, a link to the dim past, that even the intensity of the flames couldn't melt. Molesworth produced a published history of boxing at the college, covering the years 1927-1951, but won't, in the interest of truth, admit to being any more than a vague facsimile of a fighter.

"I was a loser," he admits with a touch of self-deprecating humor. Again, he's being honest. "I fought in the Marines at company smokers and on the USS Card, an aircraft carrier, en route from Pearl Harbor to Guam in 1945. At Western Maryland, I got knocked out when we boxed at West Point by Bill Kellum, an end on the Army football team.

"When I saw him at weigh-in, I couldn't believe his size. Jim Boyer, our trainer, said, 'Don't worry, he has skinny legs.' But I knew he was going to hit me, not kick me. He took me out in a hurry. I later got knocked out twice by Chuck Wilson at Penn State -- once when he punched me and then when my head hit the floor.'

There are few arguments advanced over the quality of boxing in the earlier years at Western Maryland. The two Ortenzi brothers, Anthony and Carlos, both from Baltimore's Southern High School, are put in a special category. Likewise Bernie Kapplan, who won at the Maccabi International Games as both a boxer and wrestler; Andy Gorski, Doug Crosby, Ted Klepac, Steese Brubaker, George Ekaitis and Tom Pontecorvo.

They all won Eastern intercollegiate titles but Pontecorvo, a heavyweight, was the only one to win an NCAA crown. That happened in 1936 and gave Western Maryland a rare distinction.

In 1960, the NCAA scratched boxing from its agenda of recognized sports but not before Wisconsin, Idaho State, San Jose State, Michigan State, Syracuse, Washington State, Idaho, Louisiana State, Virginia, Penn State and Maryland were established boxing powers.

Western Maryland never approached such national stature but the sport was popular for both combatants and spectators. Dick Harlow, the Hall of Fame football coach, introduced boxing at the school after doing the same at Penn State and Colgate. Western Maryland was a dominant football team under Harlow, one of the strongest in the East, and many of the players turned to boxing in the winter months.

Harlow coached boxing for nine years, or until he went to Harvard as football coach in 1936. The position was assumed later, as the years evolved, by Charlie Havens, Lt. Lawrence Reynolds, the Ortenzi brothers, Joe Corleto and Henry Carrado. During World War II, with coaches going off to battle, the school hired Harry Jeffra, who had been a world bantamweight and featherweight champion, to lead the team.

There were some extraordinary moments in the school's boxing history but nothing more bizarre than what happened in 1935 when Nick Campofreda, captain of the football team, was recruited for a bout against Navy's highly regarded heavyweight, Lou Tammy.

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