The Dresser

With his snappy threads, fancy footwork and sordid past, Vance Thompson has cut a swath through St. Louis

Steel throwing knives hang from nails in Vance Thompson's basement: all metal, all business. Thompson, dressed in charcoal-gray sweats, sleeves cut off at the shoulders, grabs one, places it lovingly in the palm of his hand, takes aim at a well-perforated target some 15 feet across the room and throws -- thwack! A half-inch off the bull's-eye. Again. Thwack! And again. A nice grouping. He hurls hatchets and full-size axes, too -- not in the basement but in the backyard, with a log for a backboard. "I can hit a playing card at 14 feet with a hatchet," he proclaims.

Thompson's basement in his Webster Groves home is a combination art studio/gym. He spends a lot of time down there. One room is for sculpting wood, with several handsome pieces -- some finished, some in progress -- lying about. Another room is for working out. At one time, maybe, it was a bedroom, but now it's crammed with barbells and punching bags. Shelves along the wall are lined with trophies and boxes filled with cards and fliers from damn near every fight he's worked. Over in a corner are a regulation discus and shot put, training items he recently purchased for the 2002 Senior Olympics, in which he hopes to compete.

At 63, the 5-foot-3 Thompson is built like a bull. The man has developed a chest that Schwarzenegger would approve of and biceps -- 17-and-a-half inches, bigger than most men's necks -- that look as though he could use them to peel the door off a safe; when Thompson was young, in fact, he served time for doing just that.

Jennifer Silverberg
Vance Thompson has taught dance for 45 years. Says one partner, "Wonderful timing, wonderful lead, but he doesn't like to be restricted to a routine."
Jennifer Silverberg
Vance Thompson has taught dance for 45 years. Says one partner, "Wonderful timing, wonderful lead, but he doesn't like to be restricted to a routine."

Minutes before the knife demonstration, Thompson stands at his sculpting table, working a piece of wood well on its way to becoming a parrot. He has already silhouetted the avian form with a coping saw. Now he's refining the figure with chisels and gouges. Every so often, he steps back and looks at it, holding it at different angles, examining it as if he's the first man who ever carved wood for pleasure. Mostly his subjects are figurative -- lithe, graceful nudes, often twining in some languorous pose. Some of the work goes to an art gallery, and some is given away. This piece is a gift.

Thompson chats while he works. "Yeah, I just got new teeth," he announces, showing off an upper row of gleaming white choppers, pulling on them with a thumb and forefinger to show that they're set tight. "Five thousand bucks. Can you believe it? For that I could've put new bay windows in my home, but you can't eat with a bay window. Maybe I should've done my own teeth. You know, when I was a kid I could pick up a pocketknife and carve my own toys."

When the tedium of carving wood gets to him, he takes a break. That's when he turns to the throwing knives or the speedbag. Like a kid showing off his toys, Thompson, hands pumping like pistons, beats an impressive tattoo on the speedbag -- boom-bada-boom-bada-boom-bada-boom. "I just like hand-eye-coordination things," Thompson says. When he talks, he rocks back and forth and bounces on the balls of his feet, working to vent nervous energy.

Moving around the boxing ring and moving on the dance floor have a lot in common, and Thompson, who came to refereeing relatively late in life, was first a dance instructor. These days, Thompson's considerable energies are devoted to the boxing arena, although his dance card is full.

Later today, when he leaves the home he shares with his wife, Joan, he will drive to Savvis Center and walk into an auditorium filled with 17,000 raucous boxing fans. The Guns N' Hoses showdown, held each year on the night before Thanksgiving, features city cops and firefighters battling their counterparts from St. Louis and St. Charles counties and the Metro East. Thompson will ref four of the 17 bouts, here skirting the fighters with the agility of a dancer, there jumping between two hulking guys intent on maiming each other and pushing them apart -- "Break!" -- then re-engaging them with a flourish of arms and the command "Box!"

Vance Darrow Thompson grew up in Detroit, the second of two children. His father figures prominently in his memory of those early years. "I hated the son-of-a-bitch, still do," Thompson spouts. "One of his pet things, he'd show off to people how he could pick me up by my head. He would put his hands around the top of my skull, and squeeze so hard, and actually lift me off the floor -- and laugh about it! Then he used to beat me with a belt. It wasn't too cool when I went to school with those welts on my back and legs and got teased in gym class. I never have forgiven him for that. Of course, I used to steal his cigarettes and his change. You could say I wasn't too happy with authority. He kind of drilled that into me."

By 13, Thompson had become a juvenile delinquent. By 16, he was an alumnus of St. Peter's Home for Boys and another juvenile-detention home, Boys Republic. At 17, he joined the Navy. "The kiddie cruise," clarifies Thompson. "Join at 17 with your father's permission and you get out the day before you turn 21."

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