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.

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."

At one point he tried boxing, first at a Boys' Club and later in the Navy. "Then I got whupped," he says, "and I thought I might try something else."

That something else was dancing. Stationed in Fall River, Mass., Thompson began taking lessons in his free time. He liked the dance-studio environment, with its genteel atmosphere: "You get to wear a suit and a tie. You dance with women, young and old -- it doesn't make any difference. And you get respectability because you are a teacher. I never did too well academically, so to become a dance instructor ... what a gift."

In 1960, Thompson was discharged from the Navy. At 21, he was a free wheel. So he got on a bus and headed west. He tried Indianapolis for a week or so, but it didn't suit him. He got back on the bus.

"It was one of those things," reflects Thompson. "'St. Louis, Mo. Hmmm, never been here before. Let's see what they got.' I took the Yellow Pages and looked under 'Dance Studios' and found a place called Ray Quinlan's. So I called, asked if they needed any instructors, and the lady said, 'We don't hire over the phone. We have to see what you look like and whether you can dance.' So I left my luggage at the bus station and took a cab to the dance studio, which was located on the corner of Grand and Lindell, up above Worth's." Thompson says that Dottie Audrain, the manager of the studio, hired him on the spot after seeing his moves.

"I told her I didn't have a lot of money or even a place to stay. She spoke with her husband, who also worked at the studio, and they actually took me home with them."

For a time, he was content to sleep on the Audrains' couch, work at the dance studio and explore St. Louis. But wanderlust soon set in. "About a year later, I took a trip to California to see what it was like," says Thompson. "I gave it six months, and I didn't like it. On my way back, I got into a little trouble. I was working at a small dance studio in Texas, and the gal that owned the studio didn't pay me. Her boyfriend owned a car lot, and so I took one of his junky cars as payment." Thompson was arrested and eventually sentenced to six years at the El Reno, Okla., federal penitentiary. After 28 months, he was paroled, and he returned to St. Louis.

Thompson resumed his dance-instructor job, as well as his friendship with Sam and Dottie Audrain. To make ends meet, he tried other jobs, including industrial painting -- factories, water towers, even riverboats. But the lure of the dance studio, so clean and classy and up-tempo, always beckoned. But so did the trouble.

Vance Thompson is a dresser. He's spiffed up in every season, but the white and cream-colored suits that are his trademark he wears only in warmer weather, say, between the first crocus bloom and the last blush of autumn. He can be seen in the courtyards of the more bohemian Soulard establishments decked out, with accompanying fedora, looking as if he just stepped off the set of Guys And Dolls. To the tradesmen and barflies who frequent these places, Thompson is a curiosity, not only for his pale, crisp attire but because he often stands there twiddling two shiny steel balls in the palm of one hand like Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny.

"I was trying to quit cigarettes and did everything to get my mind off the craving, and I saw them in a martial-arts store," he says, talking close, keeping steady eye contact. "The man said, 'Those are Chinese exercise balls. They're for manual dexterity.'" The balls make a faint clacking sound as they rotate in his palm. It's a bit disconcerting. In fact, to a stranger, Thompson's entire demeanor can be a bit disconcerting. He's got the veneer of a tough guy. Perhaps it's a remnant of those years in stir.

"It was a time when I felt as if I could steal money rather than earn it," he recalls in that confiding tone he often uses. In the late 1960s, he and a friend got involved in post-office burglaries. Forget the cash drawers, the blank money orders; they were after postage stamps. Explains Thompson, "You could put $100,000 worth of stamps into an attaché case. We'd sell them to the syndicate in Kansas City. Now, I never met any of those guys, but I went with my partner to unload the stamps -- and we'd get 30 to 40 percent of their value."

The modus operandi, says Thompson, was to hit post offices in small towns during the dead of night. "Back then, most post offices weren't alarmed, not like banks, and they had nothing but a big steel door at the back entrance," he notes. "Well, you could take a crowbar, pry the door open and walk right in. Most of the safes were 500-pounders, which means they had a single door with a brass handle and a dial, and you could actually tear that door off in 20 minutes flat with just muscle and guts, using a sledgehammer, a crowbar and a chisel."

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."

Having the authority to stop a fight is no small responsibility. To act overcautiously could hurt a career, but to act undercautiously could lead to serious injuries, as in the notorious case of Mexican fighter Fernando Ibarra, brain-damaged after a pro bout at the Regal Riverfront Hotel a few years ago. "Fortunately, I've never had a fighter seriously hurt on my watch," says Thompson. "But when you see a boxer taking some punishment, the question becomes, how much punishment should you let this man take? Well, our rule of thumb is, if a guy takes quite a few shots to the head without returning anything, then I don't have a choice. I have to stop the fight.

During a bout between young amateurs at the South Broadway Athletic Club, one fighter falls to the mat, dictating an automatic standing eight-count -- one measure a referee can take to assess the condition of a fighter. Thompson puts the opponent in a neutral corner. At the count of eight he speaks to the young fighter: "How you doing?" The kid says he's fine. The ref motions with his hands: Take a few steps. His equilibrium seems OK, and the fight goes on. The pair boxes for another minute. The bell rings. The kid goes to his corner, but Thompson's still watching him intently. "He seemed a little dazed," Thompson recounts later, "even in the corner." Thompson allows the trainers to do their thing -- rub their boy down, give him a drink -- but when the bell rings for round 3, he stops the fight so that a physician can give the kid the once-over. Only then does Thompson allow the fight to go on.

Thompson is one of only four state-licensed refs in St. Louis who work local pro fights. The amateur fights are strictly volunteer, the officials working out of love of the sport. The pro bouts, held in casinos and hotels, are where the money is. Thompson refs between two and eight pro fights per year, including some at the Ameristar Casino in St. Charles, that are viewed by millions on ESPN and USA. State boxing commissioner Tim Lueckenhoff says that Thompson's ex-con status is not an obstacle to someone's being a ref "as long as the applicants are up front with us about their convictions and those convictions are not related to the sport of boxing." Thompson -- who, Lueckenhoff says, is one of his best refs -- was honest on his application.

Last year, Thompson went to the U.S. Olympic Complex in Colorado Springs, Colo., where he spent a week of 10-hour days learning to become a boxing clinician, a teacher of rules and regulations. When he came back, he became the chief of officials for St. Louis amateur boxing, the job Craig Aldridge held for 20 years. The chief official is charged with assigning judges, timekeepers and referees for each boxing event. "It's a lot of work," says Aldridge, "and it doesn't even pay. But Vance is very methodical. He tells you he's going to do something, you can take it to the bank."

People call Thompson the "dancing referee." It's a moniker he seems to relish. "Sometimes, at fights where the promoters are black and the audience is black," says Thompson, "like at the Ambassador or the Spotlight, in Baden, they play music in between rounds. And most of them know I can dance, so I'll throw in a few moves, and soon I'm getting the whole audience going. They'll be shouting, 'Go ref! Go ref! Go, go!'

"With my class coming up, I'm going to be instructing future refs how to move around the ring. And that means they need to take a dance class, sort of. They have to learn to cross behind on the balls of their feet, move side to side. You've got to have good balance, be on your toes and move quickly around the ring. We're not in there to be part of a threesome, you know, right together with the fighters. We're supposed to be on the other side of the ring or far enough away to see the action yet step to them quickly if need be. There's actually some moves that we refs do that boxers do -- not the Ali shuffle or anything, but when you commence the fight and you say, 'Box!', you are backpedaling. You have to get the hell out the way so you don't get hit!"

Vance Thompson stands at the bar in Tully's, pulling on a Bud Light longneck and offering his perspective on the swing-dance ladies: "I like to flirt with them on the floor. Fact, I tell them right up front, in a nice way, that I'm going to get my body contact down. I'm not grabbing their ass or anything like that, but I'm dancing close with them, and that can be very sexy. So that's kind of cool. That's a privilege, something you earn."

He stares at the label on his longneck and says wistfully, "Yeah, when I was starting out, I wondered, 'What kind of a dancer am I going to be?' And I decided that I want to be a dancer that women remember. Yeah, a fun dancer. I make 'em laugh, and I always make 'em look good. I have never made a lady look bad in my life." Pause. "On the dance floor."

The scene at Tully's is not a meat market by any stretch, but there is a lot of partner-swapping. Swing dancers flock to the club, across from South County Center, to jive to the sounds of Marcel Strong and the Apostles, playing for a $3 cover. Strong has a standing gig here on Tuesday nights -- in part because he plays R&B like nobody's business and in part because he and his band have had a loyal following ever since he ran his own club on South Broadway. It was a great place to dance on Saturday afternoons in the 1980s, the joint filled to the rafters.

There are six swing-dance clubs in the area, but most dancers check out Tully's -- and each other. Members of the swing community range in age from their late 30s to their 70s, a mixture of singles and partners. You don't need to bring a date. There's an ample assortment of free partners pining for a dance. It's not considered risqué for married people to show up spouseless. It's OK to swap partners; the group is considered one big family. There are more women than men here, at a ratio of 3-to-1.

The place is filling up, and Strong has just launched into a version of Johnnie Taylor's "Who's Making Love." In groups of twos and threes, people take up stools at small tables on the perimeter of the dance floor, nursing drinks -- "supersize your cocktail for $2" -- while watching dancers twirl and glide in syncopated time and waiting for their turn on the floor. Swing dance has countless stylistic variations from coast to coast. There's the Tulsa Trot and the Texas Whip. Here the style of choice is the Imperial, which originated at the Club Imperial, a popular nightspot on West Florissant Avenue during the 1960s and '70s. You need rhythm to do the Imperial, but there are only three rhythms to keep in mind: single, double and triple time. As one octogenarian member of the Southside Dance Club remarks after stepping off the dance floor with a beaming lady in tow, "You don't have to do much, just know when to do it."

As usual, Thompson has come stag. In a roomful of swell dressers, Thompson stands out: black-and-white shoes, paired with a black shirt and tie under a black suit with a white kerchief sticking out of the pocket. Thompson is almost always on the dance floor, squiring a sequence of middle-aged ladies. He says dancing is not his wife's cup of tea: "This is my thing, and frankly it's better she's not here. Other wives were here, and it didn't work out." Thompson is on his fourth marriage.

The band starts up again, and Thompson grabs a partner -- blond, fiftysomething -- and makes for a spot right in front of the band, in the spotlight. "The thing about Vance," begins Kathleen Mindak, an occasional dance partner of Vance's, "is, he's really in great shape. It's, like, whoa! A lot of younger guys aren't even near the shape he's in." Mindak also praises Thompson's novel approach. "He mixes in cha-cha with swing. Most people can't do that. Vance can do that." Indeed, Thompson claims he has a dance step named after him, the Snap Drop.

Thompson used to swing week after week with Mindak's sister, Sheri Valvero. They were well known as the first couple of swing and jitterbug. The good-humored Valvero, 55, has a red topknot like Woody Woodpecker's. She has danced competitively since 1983 and has a closetful of trophies, including first place in the National Jitterbug Championship, the Missouri State Swing Classic and the Illinois State Swing Classic -- and she's been a guest on Dance Fever.

Because the swing community has fewer men than women, it's not easy for a serious female dancer to find a good partner. Says Valvero, "You're very fortunate when you find a competitive male partner who's healthy, dependable and has the funds to travel and the tenacity to work out a routine." She thought she had found her Fred Astaire in Thompson. They paired up long enough to garner a slew of dance trophies. In 1988, they were the Missouri State Swing Dance champions. 1991 was an even bigger year; they were the St. Louis jitterbug champs and place third at the U.S. Swing Dance Council Convention. Valvero compliments him as "one of the most individualistic dancers in the swing community -- wonderful timing, wonderful lead, but he doesn't like to be restricted to a routine. Vance prefers spontaneity and just going with the feel of dancing."

After five years, the two stopped dancing competitively. "Vance decided traveling for swing competition wasn't his bag anymore," Valvero says.

At some point, they had a falling out. Thompson sums it: "It was over a prize that we won, a trip on an ocean liner, and she took it and went on it with someone else." He adds ruefully, "She told me I didn't get nothing."

"He had never been on a cruise, and he didn't want to go," counters Valvero. She bought out his share and took the cruise, which ended up costing her a small fortune when all the extras were added up. Still, Thompson felt shafted and spurned Valvero.

"Years later, I think about it," says Valvero. "'Wow, wasn't that silly!' Sometimes men can be hardheads, and maybe Vance is a little more hardheaded than usual. It took him about two years to get over it. But that's over and done now. I see him at Tully's on Tuesdays. We still dance socially."

Vance Thompson puts the final touches on the carved parrot, filling in the gaps of his checkered history as he works. "I had prostate cancer three years ago," he blurts. "They found it on a digital exam. I was in for a physical, and some nurse had her finger up my butt when she said, 'Mr. Thompson, you have a knot on your prostate.' Then the urologist, Dr. Arnold Bullock, comes in. Now he's got his finger up my butt, saying, 'Boy, you do have a knot there.' They do a biopsy. Two weeks, I had cancer. I was kind of pissed off for a month or so. I was one of those people that said, 'Why me?' Here I'd been living pretty good, gave up cigarettes. I was exercising, trying to live right -- I get cancer! Where the fuck did that come from?"

Cancer humbled him. "It really did give me some thought," Thompson says. "'What if I can't get it up anymore?' I was only 59 years old, and I hated to think that I'd have to do without sex except with a pumper or something." He lowers the front of his sweatpants to show a 2-inch scar running down from his navel. Then, as if to deflect any expression of pity, he adds, "Yeah, they cut it out of me, but they did the nerve-sparing operation. I beat the odds. I've still got the feeling and the urge."

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