Willie Pep gambled on the horses, had hard luck with women and was accused of consorting with mobsters. Still, this colorful Hartford product, who shined shoes as a kid, was world renowned as a featherweight prize fighter in the 1940s.
Jackie McLean learned jazz at the elbows of Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, beat a debilitating heroin addiction on the streets of Harlem and from 1970 adopted Hartford as his hometown. Before he died in March at age 74, McLean was acknowledged as the greatest living alto saxophone player.
Sometimes we want our high achievers to be choir boys too. Pep and McLean were not. They were two guys with strong Hartford roots who rebounded from setbacks, mastered their crafts and became international icons. Yet their names aren't as interwoven as others in the cities they called home.
When you enter Green Bay, Wis., you learn quickly about Bart Starr and Vince Lombardi. Take a visit to Memphis and you'll feel the presence of Elvis. Travel to Louisville and see the image of Ali.
Pep, who died at 84 this week, and McLean were flawed and vulnerable. But they squeezed every ounce from their talents. In Yokohama, Japan, you could walk into the Jackie McLean Coffeehouse and see pictures of the jazzman. Ask any boxing historian to name the top pound-for-pound fighters ever - and Pep's name is near the top.
Hartford, now a convention city, can do better capitalizing on the accomplishments of its own. Newcomers to the city associate it with the names Mark Twain, Katharine Hepburn, or maybe gun master Samuel Colt. In their respective fields, Pep and McLean were as big.
"[Pep is] the Michael Jordan of Hartford, when you think about it," said Glenn Feldman, president of the Connecticut Boxing Hall of Fame. "There's nobody bigger than Willie Pep in terms of sports." Feldman's Hall of Fame is in its second year. He jokes that there was never a vote last year on Pep's induction. "We didn't have to," he said. "It was like, OK, Willie's in, let's go to the next five [inductees]."
Next Friday, at 6 p.m., at Foxwoods Resort Casino, a tribute to Pep is planned at the Hall's second induction dinner. That same night the Artists Collective in Hartford, the cultural arts institute founded by Dollie and Jackie McLean, will celebrate its 35th anniversary with a tribute to the jazz great.
How 'bout we take this a step further and recycle an idea that you've read here before: The Hall of Fame is still looking for a home; the Connecticut Convention Center is looking to beef up its boxing presence, and adjacent to the convention site is a proposed Front Street retail project looking for a fresh identity.
Let's commission a statue of Pep; rename a section of the Front Street area "Willie Pep Boulevard" and find some square footage for the Hall of Fame. Then, we'd have a place in which to recognize Pep and other local boxing standouts such as ex-welterweight champ Marlon Starling and the late trainer Johnny Duke.
I also hear something's in the works to rename a road adjacent to the Artists Collective "McLeans' Way." Great. Now how about a weekend-long Jackie McLean Jazz Festival that could attract thousands of jazz lovers, artists and McLean acolytes as a major fund-raiser for the Collective?
You can learn a little about a city from the personalities and achievers it produces. The stories and worldwide acclaim of Pep and McLean are fitting for the movies - the scenes sprinkled with temptation, adversity and perseverance.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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