HARTFORD — - The Bellevue Square gym where Johnny Duke trained hundreds of boxers, and mentored hundreds more, is gone. And Duke is gone, too, having died in 2006 at age 81.
But a group of his former students and others whose lives he affected will gather today to dedicate a plaque in his honor and make sure his memory lives on.
"He was the only father figure I ever knew," said Anthony Taylor, who boxed at the gym and is now a captain in the Hartford Fire Department. "Whenever I follow through on a promise I think of Johnny Duke. That is one of many traits he instilled in me."
Duke, a Hartford native who fought professionally, became an iconic figure in and out of the gym during his nearly four decades as boxing director at Bellevue Square. During his time, the boxing club became known for producing top-notch amateur and professional fighters, including Donnie Nelson, World Boxing Association welterweight champion Marlon Starling, U.S. Olympic heavyweight Lawrence Clay-Bey and John Scully.
But Duke, who moved on to the San Juan Center after the Bellevue Square housing project was demolished in 1997, was also known for driving around the city, stopping to chat with friends and handing out candy from a glass jar.
"I remember him stopping his car to pick up a coat in the middle of the street and saying he could clean it up and give it to someone in Bellevue who needed one," said Scully, a longtime friend who spearheaded the effort to erect a lasting memory near the club's former site on Wooster Street in the North End. The plaque is mounted on an outside brick wall.
"I never ran across anyone like him."
Duke's daughters Diana Guerrera, Nancy Gallucci and Helen Krawiec plan to attend the 11 a.m. dedication ceremony of the 2- by 3-foot bronze plaque that bears a likeness of Duke and a poem written about him by someone whose life he touched.
"My family is quite honored and touched," Guerrera said. "He may have been my biological father, but he was also a father to hundreds and hundreds of kids in the city. We shared our dad with so many people."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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