By Sam Levin
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By Timothy Lane
By Sam Levin
By Dennis Brown
You heard of Pruitt-Igoe? Yeah, the projects. I was down there twelve years, at the DeSoto Center. Twelve years, man. I don't know what I would have done if they hadn't torn it down. I'd have been in the funny farm. I had like 70 guys. And I was the only white one down there, the whitest white guy they ever seen. They thought I was crazy.
But man, they were good. They were dedicated. I had so many kids I didn't know what to do with them. But they worked. They had heart. And they all listened to me. Today they don't want to train! And I tell 'em, "You ain't training, I ain't taking you anywhere!"
I'm not too nice of a guy sometimes. But these kids are my life.
Kenny Loehr hasn't a cell phone and rarely answers at home. He doesn't e-mail and he's never seen the Internet. Still, it's not hard to track down the old coach. Chances are good he's at the city rec center just south of downtown, at Twelfth and Park. Head upstairs, hang a left and follow the stench.
Loehr is there Monday through Friday, not a minute before 2:25 p.m. and not a second past 5:30. He'll be seated at a scuffed-up card table in the center of the gym, barking at newcomers, telling off spectators and staring down his boxers when they'd better quit slacking.
The gym itself is pretty hard on the eyes: exposed pipes, walls slathered in mint-green paint and windows covered with heavy-duty cardboard. It's dark and dank; on a hot summer day the temperature inside can spike past 100. The place hasn't changed a lick in the 34 years that Kenny Loehr has been coaching there.
In the old days, Loehr would be jumping rope and holding the pads for the guys. He'd ferry the kids between home and the gym whenever the gangs were on a tear. He'd come early and stay late, departing with burned palms and bloody knuckles.
But times change, and even though Kenny's still Kenny, as his friends like to say, some things are different. The hard-charging march has slowed to a resolute shuffle. The burly upper body curves forward in a hunchback. His 76-year-old ticker now keeps the beat with the help of a pacemaker.
Kids these days play football and baseball, Wii and Xbox. Amateur boxing coaches are lucky to get five guys on a card and maybe draw 50 spectators. In the old days, hundreds — thousands, even — showed up.
Still, after 53 years spent training countless young amateur fighters, Loehr has no plans to throw in the towel.
"He's one of the toughest coaches in the business," observes Stan Gallup, former executive director of the National Golden Gloves. "St. Louis, under his leadership, probably won more top-five national championships than any other franchise since I started in 1964.
"He coached the World Championships, the Goodwill Games, the Pan Am Games. St. Louis still has a reputation as a boxing town because of Kenny Loehr."
I fought for six years. When I came back from the war, my coach quit. They hired a new guy. I said, "Oh, no. He ain't gonna be the coach of this team. I'm taking over." I didn't really want to coach, but that's what I did. I was only 23.
I took two buses to get to the gym, from Shaw to Sherman Park. Two buses, every day, and I never missed one. Then they sent me to the projects. Thank God they tore them down. The last year I was down there I had 78 kids fighting in the city tournament. We got so good we had to go to the prison in Jeff City to get some work.
They sent me to Cherokee for three years, and then they sent me here. I ain't going nowhere now. I leave here, I'm done. That's it.
You can't just walk into Kenny Loehr's gym. "Hey! What do you want? Can I help you?"
You have to work. "There ain't no spectating in here! I ain't no babysitter!"
The routine's on the crinkled piece of cardboard taped to the wall: 100 jumping jacks, 50 pushups, 50 toe touches, 50 squat thrusts. And so on.
Finish with the knee-bends, move on to rounds of rope-jumping, the heavy bag, pull-ups. Pay attention to the clock. "We do four minutes here — not three, fat boy!"
Don't even think about asking to spar. "I tell you when you're ready."
As former middleweight Rodriguies Moungo puts it, "You be soft in a place like this as a white man, you won't survive."
"The first time I walked into his gym," recalls Harold Petty, the decorated bantamweight, "he had a stick in his hand, like a broken-off piece of a two-by-four. I saw him crack somebody with that stick – pow! – and yell, 'Get your hands up! Extra rounds!' And right then he sees me, and he screams, 'Waddaya want?' I told him I just wanted to box. He yells, 'Get a rope!'
"I didn't talk for my first three years."
That was 1970, when the Pruitt-Igoe housing project was one of the most notorious in the country. But its DeSoto gym under Loehr's command — home to future National Golden Gloves champions Michael Spinks, Claudell Atkins and Don Carbin — was the place to box.
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