Dinner to honor boxing legend who rolls with the punches

November 28, 2003|By Michael Olesker

OVER LUNCH the other day, boxing legend Mack Lewis listened as the talk got around to elephants at the Baltimore Zoo. The city has no money to keep them. The state's broke, too. So hands now reach deep into private pockets to keep the big beasts here instead of somewhere else.

"How come?' said Vince Johns, digging into a plate of gnocchi that could stagger a charging rhino, if not an elephant.

"Yeah, how come?" said Alan Goldstein, the former Sun sportswriter, digging into a plate of spaghetti at Sabatino's Restaurant in Little Italy.

"How come what?" said Mack Lewis.

"How come they got money for elephants," said Johns, "and ... "

"And not for an old dinosaur like me?" said Mack Lewis.

Eighty-four years old, he's still throwing punches and punch lines. Dinosaur, indeed. For more than half a century now, he has brought dignity and heart to the business of boxing, and rescued untold thousands of kids from the city's roughest street corners. On Wednesday, at Michael's Eighth Avenue in Glen Burnie, Mr. Mack's friends will honor him at a testimonial dinner.

To which we echo the question, a few paragraphs ago, of Johns and Goldstein who serve on the Mr. Mack Lewis Foundation board of directors: "How come?" For his devotion to boxing? For the kids he's shepherded through difficult years? For the world champions he's developed?

"Honestly," says Mr. Mack. "It's 'cause we need the money."

He means the Mr. Mack Lewis Foundation. The nonprofit operation was started two years ago and reaches out to East Baltimore school kids from the new Mack Lewis gym at Caroline and Bond streets. It's not just a place to play. They've moved in computers now. There's an after-school program for youngsters and an exercise program for seniors. And there's the guiding hand of the man everybody respectfully calls Mr. Mack.

But, in a tough economic time, the foundation's bumping up against the same trouble as so many agencies hoping for government help: The money's not there.

So, next week, the dinner at Michael's Eighth Avenue will honor not only Mr. Mack but also several others: Darren L. Petty, Rick Levin and Kate McShane Oeming, of the Struever Bros. development firm, who helped open Mr. Mack's new gym, and Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass, the former Diner guy best known for creating the Merry-Go-Round clothing empire.

Less known: Weinglass used to work out at Mack Lewis' old gym at Broadway and Eager. The place could be described, only with great charity, as a dump. Money was so tight that there were boxers who had to share mouthpieces. Weinglass repeatedly bought new equipment -- and also bought a new Pontiac station wagon for Lewis to transport his boxers to their bouts.

"Oh, he's helped us a lot through the years," Mr. Mack said of Weinglass. "And that old gym -- well ... "

It was a converted 19th-century dance hall one creaky flight of stairs above street level. There were no showers, no water at all. The place was heated only by a big wood- and coal-burning stove that Mr. Mack would light up early each morning. The boxers froze in winter and sweltered in summer. Everybody joked that they should bottle the sunshine in the summer and store it in their lockers for winter. They used the joint for 51 years.

Hard times were nothing new for Mr. Mack when he opened the place. He'd grown up around Patterson Park, "one of two black families in the neighborhood," a hustler looking for any edge. "Supplied bottles for the local bootleggers during Prohibition," he remembers. Also, he won a state Senate scholarship to the old Morgan State College, where he boxed and played both ways as a 170-pound lineman in football.

The boxing stopped in the U.S. Army, where he suffered "two busted eardrums" in the ring. Discharged, he worked for the IRS for years and, with $1,000, opened the old gym.

"It wasn't just the boxing," he says. "It was the chance to work with kids who needed some help."

There was never any trouble finding them. They lined up outside the gym and waited for it to open. They thought they might be another Muhammad Ali or Sugar Ray Leonard. Mr. Mack knew better. Most of them, it's enough just to get them away from temptations of the streets and give them some discipline. But, along the way, there have been some world-class fighters, too: Vince Pettway and Hasim Rahman, Larry Middleton and Vernon Mason and Alvin Anderson.

Over the years, there have been more than a thousand kids he's helped. He's trained fathers and sons. He's trained some who went the wrong way. Mr. Mack's wife, Annie Pearl, once joked that he'd interceded with so many judges, "If you go down there again, they'll throw you in jail."

He's been one of the truly decent men of our time. And, beyond money and beyond boxing, that's the reason they're honoring him next week in Glen Burnie. About 50 tickets remain. For seats, call 410-687-7580.

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