Berdie Portney, 91, wife of prizefighter, partner in several businesses

October 13, 2002|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Berdie Portney, the wife of Baltimore prizefighter Jack Portney, died Oct. 6 at Arden Courts nursing home in Pikesville. She was 91.

Born in Baltimore, Berdie Merenbloom quit school after the eighth grade because of her family's financial difficulties. During the next few years, she worked around the house and helped with her mother's seamstress jobs. She also scrubbed front steps for extra money, eventually earning enough to buy a violin and pay for violin lessons.

When she was 17, she fell in love and eloped with Mr. Portney, an 18-year-old left-handed welterweight boxer with dreams of becoming a champion. During a union that lasted 62 years, Mrs. Portney became her husband's trainer and business partner.

Mrs. Portney often rode a bicycle next to her husband, pacing him as he ran. She also sat and watched him work out at a gym in Baltimore. "And I could tell from the way he punched the bag whether he was in shape or not," Mrs. Portney told The Sun after his death in 1991.

Despite her involvement in her husband's training, Mrs. Portney could not bring herself to watch him in the boxing ring. She traveled with him to matches in other states but stayed in a hotel room while he fought, waiting for him to call her from his dressing room afterward to say he wasn't hurt.

In 1938, Mr. Portney hung up his gloves and the couple went into business, opening a string of pool halls and a bar. Later, they opened a successful sporting-goods store at Howard and Lombard streets, at which Mrs. Portney worked as a bookkeeper and secretary.

The couple went on a trip around the world in 1960, fulfilling a dream of Mrs. Portney's. In the late 1960s, they retired and moved to Surfside, Fla. There, the couple enjoyed going to restaurants and horse races.

They returned to Baltimore more than a decade later, when Mr. Portney was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and took up residence in the same Belvedere Towers apartment in which they had previously lived.

Mrs. Portney and her husband were founding members of Beth El Congregation of Baltimore. They made frequent donations to the Jewish community and many other charities.

"She just loved every minute of her life," said her granddaughter Bonnie Katz of Owings Mills. "She loved every minute of standing next to my grandfather."

A funeral service was held Monday at Sol Levinson & Bros. in Pikesville.

In addition to her granddaughter, Mrs. Portney is survived by a daughter, Marlene Katz of Owings Mills; a brother, Phil Merenbloom of Pikesville; four other granddaughters; and seven great-grandchildren. A son, Nathan Portney, predeceased her.

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