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The pair did a few postal jobs in small mid-Missouri towns, but then the partner got caught for some other crime. "The guy snitched," says Thompson without rancor. "They fired off a shotgun by his ear. He lost most of his hearing, and he confessed. Then they came and got me. I was going to career beauty school in University City at the time. I was really surprised. I had looked at [the post-office break-ins] from the point of view it wasn't such a bad thing if you could get away with it. Now they were taking me away. Man, that was not a happy scene."
He got five years. "I never did anything here in St. Louis," insists Thompson, "and I did all my time in other states." That included federal prisons in Leavenworth, Kan.; Marion, Ill., and Chillicothe, Ohio. "I looked at it as a sabbatical," he says. "Prison was a place where I could study, read and work out while not having to worry about making a living." He pauses, then adds emphatically: "But being locked up was not cool with me. Oh, it was terrible in there. I saw killings and riots -- not that I was involved in any of them, but I saw them. It was very scary, because most of the people in there really are mentally sick. In Marion, they keep them doped up all the time, and Leavenworth was just as bad. But I was in minimum security, so I always went to the camp facilities." He was, in fact, such a good prisoner that his jailers let him have sharp objects.
Thompson takes out a yellowed newspaper from 1976. There he is in a news story, pictured with the warden of Leavenworth, showing off a large relief carving he made in honor of the country's bicentennial celebration. "I was allowed to do my thing in the woodshop," Thompson says. "They even had me teaching other prisoners to work wood." Even before this, he had done similar work for the warden at Chillicothe. "He gave me crime-and-punishment books and showed me the pictures of the ones that he wanted," Thompson says. The carvings Thompson made for that warden depicted people being pilloried and hanged.
He didn't learn woodcarving in prison, just honed the art there. Today his works sell in the Compônere Gallery, in the University City Loop. But Thompson emerged from his prison cocoon with something more valuable than the ability to make fine art.
"I took for 25 years, and now I'm giving back," he says. "The first part of my life was pretty rough. I had to scratch for everything, and I didn't mind stealing -- I was a thief at heart. And back then, I guess I always felt that the world owed me something, and that's not true. Now I try to give back to society. I try to be nice. It goes to show that you can be wrong at one time and then turn around and change your life and nobody slaps you for that. But you do take that thing to your grave, being in prison."
In boxing, there are just three commands: "Stop," "break" and "box." Some refs use a mic so the crowd can hear the calls above the din. Thompson's commands are so authoritative, so clarion, that they could never be misheard, even by a punch-drunk palooka on his last legs. "I don't need a microphone," Thompson insists. "You can hear me."
Vance Thompson came to boxing through dance. Veteran referee Craig Aldridge was in a dance class taught by Thompson. "The guy's a phenomenal dancer and a great instructor," recalls Aldridge, 62. "I got to talking to him. I said, 'You move well on your feet. I bet you'd make a good referee." That was in 1989. Since then, Thompson's judged or refereed some 2,500 fights -- amateur, pro and kickboxing.
Peter Vaccaro is indebted to Thompson for not embarrassing him when he certainly could have. Vaccaro was already doing voice-over and on-camera spots when he decided he wanted to become a ringside fight announcer. "I knew I had the voice and the presence," says Vaccaro, 52. "I love boxing, but, frankly, I didn't know much about the technical aspects." During one of the first fights Vaccaro was hired to announce, the ref made a call and the action abruptly stopped. Vaccaro was nonplused; the audience was waiting.
"I looked to Vance, sitting next to me, and I said, 'Vance, what the hell do I say?' He didn't say, 'You stupid ass, if you don't know about boxing, what the hell you doing here?' He looked at me and said, 'You need to say, "The referee stopped the fight on a technical knockout two minutes and 13 seconds into the second round."' That's Vance, always gracious and accommodating. He put me through the steps, and I appreciate that."
Aldridge, too, has high praise for the man he handpicked and trained: "Vance is very attuned to things. I've trained many a referee who just didn't work out because they didn't know when to stop a fight. And it's not easy to know that, because in the ring you're watching nine or 10 things in the fighter -- signals from his legs, hands and eyes -- and if it isn't right, you just stop it before somebody gets hurt."