Monica Van Pelt is a 17-year-old charmer — a spunky teen with good grades, a whimsical sense of humor, and a smile that could melt butter. She also has a handshake firmer than that of many grown men and, more importantly, she packs a knockout punch.
Now a Start High School junior, Monica is one of countless youths in Toledo and other parts of the country who have benefited from — and very well may have had their lives changed by — a program called the Police Athletic League. For decades, it has engaged at-risk kids in boxing, baseball, and other programs, keeping them off the streets and out of trouble.
It is, of course, impossible to know just how successful proactive programs are at intervening and setting youths on a new path to avoid what would have been. And, for a number of years following its heyday, Toledo’s PAL program almost faded into oblivion.
PHOTO GALLERY: Boxing in the Toledo PAL
The program, temporarily housed at the former Riverside Hospital on North Summit Street, slowly began a resurgence in 1995. But it may remain on wobbly legs unless local city and school district officials follow through with their plan to put it on more solid footing.
The city is negotiating with Toledo Public Schools on a plan to move Toledo’s PAL program into the former Leverette Middle School gymnasium on Manhattan Boulevard.
The nonprofit group receives no direct funding from the police department beyond one full-time staff member. Its makeshift budget of roughly $30,000 a year fluctuates, based on donations from corporations and others. Funding is highly dependent on raffles, golf outings, and other fund-raisers.
Many of its latest proceeds came from hosting the 2011 and 2012 National Police Athletic League boxing championships at SeaGate Convention Centre. A lot of its equipment was purchased with a $1 million federal grant U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) obtained about a decade ago, said Officer Robert Britt, PAL director.
Toledo’s PAL program has generated a number of role models, starting with Olympic boxers Wilbert “Skeeter” McClure and Louis Self.
Mr. McClure, 74, won a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. The Scott High School graduate was a co-captain of the USA boxing team with Muhammad Ali, known back then as Cassius Clay.
Mr. McClure told The Blade last week that he was just another youthful face in the crowd at the rough, east-side public housing complex known as Brand Whitlock Homes in the late 1950s when a former Toledo police officer named Ramon “Buddy” Carr saw something in him that others didn’t.
Mr. Self, 63, competed as a boxer in the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. He is now senior preacher at Majestic Praise Ministries Church of God in Christ on Richards Road and serves as an advocate for wayward youth in the juvenile court system.
Monica is Toledo’s young lioness now, filled with dreams and aspirations of becoming an Olympic boxer. Her PAL coaches believe she has the talent to be an Olympian.
“We’re going to get this girl in the Olympics or die trying,” Officer Britt guffawed.
Monica made a case for herself by winning her fourth national championship in October during the 2012 National PAL boxing championships. She fights in the 106-pound female division.
She said she was a bit of a scamp in eighth grade. Her mother, frustrated by attempts to get her straightened out, put her in the PAL program.
“I used to get into trouble. Let’s just say that,” Monica sheepishly admitted, putting her head down and cracking a smile. “I had a bad temper.”
Nobody has said the PAL program is in danger of being eliminated.
Yet some people have been uneasy about how long it’s taking for the city of Toledo and Toledo Public Schools to agree on a plan for the program to take over the former Leverette Middle School gymnasium.
The gymnasium was spared when the rest of the complex, built decades earlier, was razed last fall. The city is trying to work out a deal with the school district to take possession of the site so city councilmen can justify making a $250,000 investment for utilities and other improvements. The sticking point has been ownership: City officials don’t want to invest in property they don’t own.
At the start
It Is Better to Sweat in a Gym Than to Bleed On the Streets.
A plaque with that PAL slogan hangs in the bedroom of Mr. Carr’s West Toledo house.
At 87, the former trainer-coach and brains behind the origins of Toledo’s PAL program is still spry, even though he greets visitors by admitting he’s no longer “at his fightin’ weight.” The exercise bicycle in his living room is one of the newer things in a house adorned with boxing memorabilia from the 1950s and 1960s.
“He’s like my son,” Mr. Carr said of Mr. McClure, one of several former boxers who get that sentiment from him.
Mr. Carr, who spent 32 years on the police force, was an all-Navy champ in 1945 and 1946. He was a national Golden Gloves runner-up in 1947. He was 16-0 as a pro when he stopped fighting at age 23 to train young boxers and become a Toledo police officer.
Mr. McClure was not the only famous boxer Mr. Carr used to spar with or help train.
Ali occasionally came up from his hometown of Louisville to train. Mr. Carr, a 1967 inductee of the Greater Toledo Athletic Hall of Fame, was a coach of an Amateur Athletic Union team that went to Europe with him in 1963.
Mr. Carr also was a friend and sparring partner of former light heavyweight champion Archie Moore, someone he described as “one of the nicest people.”
After Mr. Moore’s death in 1998, his daughter, Elizabeth Moore, sent Mr. Carr a heartfelt letter from California. It is framed and hanging on his basement wall. It included the following testimonial: “I can assure you that my father never forgot those who touched his life, and those of you in Toledo held a special place in his heart. Thank you for remembering him.”
Praise for PAL
In a telephone interview from his house near Boston, Mr. McClure recalls being more nervous about the reception he got in Toledo after the 1960 Olympics than the Olympics themselves.
He said he was overwhelmed by the city’s reaction.
Mr. McClure’s 24-8-1 record as a pro might be dwarfed by his accomplishments in academia. A one-time Massachusetts boxing commissioner, Mr. McClure taught psychology at Northeastern University in Boston and Bentley College in Waltham, Mass.
He credits the PAL program for giving him the confidence to go forward in life beyond the Olympics, and helping him achieve his status as one of the best amateur boxers in the world and as a professional boxer.
Mr. McClure earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Toledo and his master’s and doctoral degrees from Wayne State University. He has spent the last several decades as a college professor and has maintained a private practice as a licensed psychologist in the Boston area.
“If it wasn’t for Buddy Carr and the PAL, I wouldn’t have done what I did,” he said. “Buddy was good. That’s why I started winning all of the national and international championships.”
Mr. McClure was the son of a pro boxer but said he didn’t quite get the hang of the sport until he got into the PAL program.
Buddy Carr “saw something in me that no one else saw,” he said.
“I owe so much to him. I never let him forget it,” Mr. McClure said.
Mr. Self came out on the losing end of a controversial 3-2 split decision at the 1972 Olympics in Munich to Hungary’s Sotos Andreas in a quarterfinal bout. Sports announcer Howard Cosell told him during an interview after the fight he thought the decision was a travesty.
Mr. Self said the PAL program built up his confidence and gave him the self-discipline he needed to progress in life.
“It gives you drive and respect for other people,” he said. “There are so many things I learned from it. Like dignity.”
More than sports
Inside the temporary quarters of Toledo’s PAL program at Riverside Hospital, it’s obvious the message is not just about boxing.
Youths get an hour of tutoring before each of their daily workouts.
Officer Britt, the city’s only full-time officer assigned to the program, runs a tight ship. Those with failing grades are told they have to sit until they bring them up.
“Hey,” the officer says as he stops one kid in the hallway. “What was with that F?”
The boy looks puzzled, flashing an expression that suggested he didn’t think the officer knew.
“In social studies,” Officer Britt said. “You didn’t think I’d notice?”
Officer Britt said there are about 30 active PAL boxers, ages 10 to 18. There also are 70 baseball players between 8 and 12. There are seven teams, each with 10 players.
He said the PAL program faded out a few years after Buddy Carr left but was resurrected in 1995.
The program keeps kids off the street but also helps demystify police officers for them, Officer Britt said. He sports his tattoos and rarely wears a uniform.
“It offers more than just the sports. It offers life skills,” Darrie Riley, 54, the head boxing coach, said. “A lot of times we have kids approach us with issues they don’t want to approach their parents with.”
Assistant coach Tony Talley said he is inspired not just by athleticism but also the often-overlooked stories of some youths who start pulling down A’s and B’s in school instead of failing grades.
“A lot of them need men in their lives. We’re not just coaches,” he said.
The eldest coach is Herbert Mickles, 80, who’s been involved with sports since the 1950s and as a coach since the late 1980s. He said he is pleased by the number of kids who’ve gone on to college.
Jeffrey Thomas, 15, is a Bowsher High School freshman who began boxing in the PAL program five years ago. He can rip off 100 push-ups at a time and is looking forward to further development. Coaches said he used to be shy, but has more than broken out of his shell since joining the program.
“At first, it’ll break you with the hard work,” Jeffrey said. “It is fun if you listen.”
Contact Tom Henry at: email@example.com or 419-724-6079.