Free-Floating Hostility

Friday, May 12, 2006

In Memoriam: Floyd Patterson

Mike came home from work telling me that there was an AP news alert with a New Paltz, NY dateline.

NEW PALTZ, N.Y. (AP) - Family member says former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson has died.

"Did you know him?" Mike asked.

I did, actually, when I was a kid. My grandmother drove to mass every morning in her electric blue volvo, and sometimes took me with her. One of the few other parishioners to attend mass during the week was Floyd, an exceptionally gentle, nearly silent, middle-aged man whom I remember always wearing a jacket at the old-school standard of elegance. If I remember correctly, he usually passed around the collection basket, but he may actually have been a lay brother too. I don't think he ever read during mass. My parents told me at some point that he was a world champion boxer. My dad must have recognized him (he used to box in his youth, and at one point had a cat named Dempsey). Or maybe it just kind of made the rounds that Floyd was famous, but I'm not sure if everyone actually knew of his past career. I'm pretty sure he would never have told anyone so himself.

I didn't know Floyd Patterson well; I was a shy child and he was a shy man whom I mostly viewed with childhood detachment as just one of a large cast of local adult characters. But I do remember how thrilling it felt just to know I was in the same room as a champion, even if I never thought about boxing again till the next time I saw him. And it was also thrilling to be one in the know, one who could appreciate that I was in the presence of greatness.

He died of Alzheimer's, among other causes, as did my Nana--perhaps. One obituary described him as a gentleman boxer, and that's how I remember him. Here was a world champion who was infallibly gallant to my grandmother, and who introduced himself to children by his first name.

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