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He Truly Connected

March 9, 2006
By TOM PULEO, Courant Staff Writer

Johnny Duke's life spanned 81 years of Hartford history, some of it now swept away by time and bulldozers - places like Russell and Kennedy streets in the North End, where he grew up in tenement housing, and the Bellevue Square housing project, where he started a basement boxing club that became a sanctuary for disadvantaged kids.

But much of what Duke championed during his mythic life remains as solid as one of his sledgehammer punches, mourners recalled Wednesday at a funeral service that represented a who's who of the city and its environs.

Those on hand at St. Patrick-St. Anthony Church included city police and fire officials in crisp blue uniforms; slick boxing brokers like F. Mac Buckley and Jeffrey Dressler; mothers of kids Duke had helped out and former fighters whom he trained, people such as Mike Oliver, John Scully, Milton "Cuda" Leak and Thomas Rivera.

On the sidewalk after the 10 a.m. service, Rivera displayed his old Bellevue Square Boys Club jacket, sky blue, folded in a tidy square. Rivera, 40, said that soon after he moved to Bellevue Square as a youngster, Duke visited his apartment, looked around the small quarters he shared with his mother, and wanted to know where Rivera was going to sleep.

Rivera pointed to a bare floor, and Duke said "I'll be back," returning with a bed that, Rivera said, Duke took from one of his own daughters.

"You don't have to sleep on the floor no more, this is your bed right here," Rivera recalled Duke saying to him in his familiar blunt manner.

At noon, Duke was laid to final rest amid the rolling hills of Cedar Hill Cemetery in the South End. A bell tolled 10 times, signifying rounds in a fight. Now Duke's headstone - another window into Hartford's history - sits near other celebrity gravestones in the cemetery, including Katharine Hepburn's.

Duke was born in 1924 as Giulio Gallucci. He would go on to connect with so many of Hartford's youths because he grew up on the streets himself, friends and family remembered. Duke's father returned to Italy, leaving his mother and her three sons to fend for themselves.

Duke carved out his turf as a shoeshine boy, a bootblack. He pitched nickels against the curb. He got into fistfights at school, got a reputation as a troublemaker.

He played in Riverside Park, walked the railroad tracks between the Connecticut River and north Hartford, back before they paved I-91.

Duke could tell a story. He blustered and gesticulated. He'd mime the way a boxer rolls tape onto his hands. If he was telling a story about shooting pool, he'd drop his hands to his waist and curl up his fingers to simulate holding a cue stick. New kids didn't get thrown into the ring, they got trone. Duke said he didn't know nuttin about shadow boxing.

He was animated, self-deprecating, loud, funny.

When the Rev. Jim Hynes arrived at St. Patrick-St. Anthony in 1999, one of the first people he met was Johnny Duke, who sized up the unfamiliar pastor and asked, "Are you the new kid on the block?"

Duke pointed to a pew, Hynes recalled during the homily Wednesday. "Sit down and let me tell you a little about me," Duke said.

Hynes said Duke was typically upfront about his not going to Mass every week. But Hynes said to focus on Mass attendance would miss the point of Duke's life.

"Church isn't the only place we relate to our God," Hynes said. "It's where we're nourished. But we relate to God every day by the way we live. Giulio was a champion for all people, no matter what walk of life you came from, no matter what your skin color. That's what a true champion is."

West End attorney John Gale, Duke's nephew, spoke admiringly about his "Uncle Gules."

"He would fight for you," Gale said, "he would die for you, and he'd give you his last nickel - if he believed in you.

"If he didn't, you could rot in hell and he'd tell you that," Gale added, breaking up the church in laughter.

Duke was introduced to boxing by legendary champion Willie Pep when they were shoeshine boys in downtown Hartford.

When he was 18, Duke nailed a friend with a right cross during an argument outside the old Roxy diner.

A cop walking the beat saw the guy's bruised, bloody eye and asked what happened.

"Frankie and I were running along the street and Frankie didn't see a tree and bam, he ran right into it," Gallucci explained, according to the account given by author Jim Jedrziewski, who in 2003 published a book on Duke, "No Pretender: Johnny Duke, An American Original."

"Don't tell me that," the officer said. "I heard the shot from over on Garden Street."

The cop and Gallucci ended up fighting, and Gallucci got clubbed with a nightstick. The next day in court, Judge Jacob Dunn said to him, "If you want to be a fighter, and be so tough, why don't you go into the ring?"

From that suggestion a career was born. Duke fought professionally from 1942 to 1946. He was 23-21-4 under his birth name and also fought a handful of fights at the end of his career as Johnny Duke. He picked up the name "The Duke" after he bought an aqua blue suit that his friends said made him look like a duke. He added Johnny to come up with a new fight name - Johnny Duke.

As a cornerman, Duke helped develop top amateurs such as Jimmy Blythe, Donnie Nelson, Herb Darity, Marlon Starling and former U.S. Olympian Lawrence Clay-Bey. He coached Starling to a national Junior Olympics championship. Later, Starling won the WBA welterweight title. Duke's influence is still felt. Mike Oliver, one of the fighters at Duke's service, is unbeaten as a super bantamweight and won the USBO title Feb. 18.

At 19, Duke married Helen, his grammar school sweetheart. When he left his city job he didn't go home, he went to Bellevue Square. He tried to keep kids out of trouble, went to court and advocated for them. He drove a blue panel truck with a "JDUK" license plate.

In the late '60s, Hartford's newspapers were filled with stories about crime in the city, racial tension, the plight of the inner-city poor. The city gave Duke a job with the human relations commission. He'd fight for residents, act as a go-between with the cops.

"Your guys on the street don't know [anything] except how to bust heads," Duke told a police lieutenant, according to an account in "No Pretender."

Boys of all ages filled the small gym at Bellevue Square, which finally closed in 1998 when the project was redeveloped.

"He was one of the few white men who had a free pass to walk through the North End of Hartford," Jedrziewski said. "He believed that they had some control over their lives. They could make good choices or make bad choices. He wasn't naive. He knew what the streets were, what the temptations are."

Along the way, the press and others started to take notice but Duke remained unspoiled by celebrity. Jackie Robinson visited the gym. President Nixon honored his work in a personal letter. He met Muhammad Ali.

Jedrziewski said Duke was the original motivator. "Johnny fed dreams," he said.

Gale said there's no split decision in the final verdict on his uncle's life.

"It's unanimous. The world is a better place for you living in it. May you rest in peace."

Visit courant.com/duke to view a video interview with Johnny Duke.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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