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Published: Sunday, 8/8/2004

Wilbert 'Skeeter' McClure's golden memories

BY RON MUSSELMAN
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Forty-four years ago, Wilbert Skeeter McClure returned to Toledo to a hero s welcome, complete with a ticker-tape parade, after winning a gold medal in boxing at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.

As McClure s plane touched down at Toledo Express Airport late in the afternoon of Sept. 8, the Woodward and Scott High School bands played the Star Spangled Banner, before breaking into "We re Strong For Toledo" and "For He s A Jolly Good Fellow."

When the 21-year-old McClure finally stepped off the plane, the gold medal still draped around his neck after a 20-hour flight, he was greeted with thunderous applause. Approximately 1,000 well-wishers greeted him at the airport, while another 10,000 watched from their homes and autos, and from along the sides of the road, as a 100-car motorcade made its way from the airport to downtown.

As McClure rode with Mayor Michael Damas, women rushed from stores to get a glimpse of him. Men stopped working to wave. McClure waved back, and told the crowd: This day will live in my heart forever and ever.

Finally, more than 1,500 people gathered around a platform in the Civic Center mall to salute McClure. Damas told the new champion, The entire city is bursting at the seams with pride.

McClure, now 65 and living in Chestnut Hill, Mass., remembers the celebration as if it were yesterday. It started at 4:30 p.m. at the airport and lasted into the wee hours of the morning at his family s home on Oakwood Avenue.

"That was one of the greatest moments of my life," McClure was saying last month. "I just wish I had a video of it. I'd watch it over and over. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

"I was more nervous seeing all those people at the airport than I ever was fighting an opponent in Rome. It made me quiver and shake. I had never seen anything like that before. I haven't seen anything like it since.

"Of all the Olympians in Rome, I think I had the best homecoming of them all."

McClure was the first - and still the only - Toledo native to win an Olympic gold medal. He beat Italy's Carmelo Bossi 4-1 in the championship bout to capture the light-middleweight division at 156 pounds.

"Every time I think about that championship match, I get emotional," said Buddy Carr, a Toledo native who trained McClure and accompanied him to Rome. "I was the proudest guy in the world, watching Skeeter win the gold medal.

"It was a fantastic day for a fantastic kid. And it capped a fantastic amateur career for him."

McClure was a two-time national Golden Gloves champion, a two-time national AAU champion and a Pan American games champion before his heroics in Rome. He compiled a 138-10 record as an amateur and was the only American boxer to win every major national and international boxing title over a three-year period.

"He is, without question, the greatest amateur boxer to ever come out of Toledo," said Carr, now 78. "I think the world of Skeeter. Every place he went, he won. Nobody even came close to beating him the last two years."

McClure's roommate on the 1960 Olympic boxing team was Cassius Clay, who had won a national AAU championship the year before in Toledo. Clay, who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali and became one of the greatest boxers ever, also won a gold medal in Rome.

"Cassius was a spunky little kid who just idolized Skeeter," Carr said. "He'd tell me over and over, 'Man, Skeeter is good.' He never had a bad word to say about him."

McClure logged a 4-0 record in Rome.

"I wasn't feeling any pressure to win the gold medal," he said. "My pressure had to do with making weight. I was fighting at 156 pounds and I was walking around at about 157 when I wasn't in the ring. It was a real battle. I had to watch what I ate the whole time.

"There were all these international people standing around the scales at weigh-in, just waiting for you not to make weight so they could disqualify you. I lived in fear of that the whole time I was at the Olympics."

Shortly after returning from Rome, McClure went back to the University of Toledo to finish work on his diploma, and returned to a relative degree of anonymity. He was treated more like a stranger than the big man on campus.

"I don't even think half of the students knew I won a gold medal. The Olympics back then are not like they are today. There was no TV coverage in 1960. The only way people in Toledo knew I was in Rome was by reading the Toledo Blade.

"My father told me the day I won the gold medal, one of the local radio stations broke in with a bulletin saying I had won. It really was no big deal.

"The Olympics didn't become a big deal until 1968 and 1972. That's when advertisers and marketers started realizing they could make a lot of money off it. And they've been capitalizing ever since."

Prized pupil McClure, an honor roll student who graduated from UT in 1961 with a degree in English, won his first 14 fights as a professional and climbed as high as No. 3 in the world in the light-middleweight division. He retired with a 24-8-1 pro record.

"I am convinced I should have stopped boxing after winning the gold medal," McClure said. "I was in over my head as a pro. Some of the top boxing promoters in the country later told me no one was more mismanaged than I was."

He enrolled at Wayne State University in Detroit, where he received a master's degree in counseling. He later earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from the school and became an associate professor at Northeastern University in Boston for eight years before opening a management training and consulting firm, which he still operates.

McClure was appointed to the Massachusetts State Boxing Commission in 1993 and became the organization's chairman two years later. He resigned in 1998.

"Going to Rome and winning a gold medal was a great experience, but I wouldn't say it's the best thing that ever happened to me," McClure said. "As a professor, I have touched thousands of people's lives and helped them get better."

Just as Carr touched his life as a teenager. "If it wasn't for Buddy Carr, I wouldn't have been a gold medal winner," McClure said. "I wouldn't have been an Olympic champion. I owe all my success to Buddy Carr."

Carr, a retired Toledo police officer and the boxing coach for the Police Athletic League gym for more than 30 years, worked with McClure from 1956-60.

"I certainly can't take full credit for Skeeter," Carr said. "I was a policeman then and I was working a football game at Scott High School and Skeeter came up to me and said he didn't think he was getting enough out of the place he had been boxing. He wanted to know if I could help him. I said, 'Sure, just stop by the gym sometime.' "

McClure took Carr up on his offer. Four years later Carr helped the skinny kid - who grew up in the Brand Whitlock Homes and attended Gunckel Elementary, Robinson Junior High and Scott High - become an Olympic gold medalist.

"Skeeter didn't throw super hard-punches and he was not a big knockout guy," Carr said. "He outfought most of his opponents, and outsmarted them. You don't get 'em any better than that kid.

"The sad thing is, we don't have any more boxing programs in town where we can develop guys like Skeeter McClure."

Contact Ron Musselman at: mussel@theblade.com or 419-724-6474.



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