by Laura Anderson,
North Shore News
At 82, former Canadian welterweight boxing champion Norm Gautreau is fast.
Watch him sparring with shadows, bobbing and weaving, fists a blur of speed, the tough young fighter still present. Today, Norm brings his past to life with the perfect recall and colourful detail of a born raconteur.
Growing up in the 1930s, the boy from Moncton, New Brunswick, had a choice: a life of crime or boxing. Maybe it was hereditary. Norm’s father was a former bare knuckle boxer who supported Norm and his 13 siblings for a time by boot legging. Norm was about 10 when he and his pals broke into a candy store. They were sleeping off the sugar when Mr. Mills, the owner, kicked them out the next morning. In his teens, Norm appeared in court again after two years in reform school. Next time, promised the judge, it would be the penitentiary.
One punch removed Norm from the path of crime. He was at a restaurant on a date one night when someone took a swing at him. Norm hit back.
The man he kayoed was in town to fight Yvon Durelle, the Fighting Fisherman. On the strength of that punch, Durelle’s manager took on Norm’s training as a professional welterweight and the two boxers formed a lifelong friendship.
“My first fight was against K.O. O’Malley. He floored me the first time, floored me the second time. I seen an opening there and, jeez, I let a right hand go and he went down in a cloud of dust. He never got up. I knocked him out in that last round.”
Small, tough and able to fire a punch, Norm learned how to evade the blows thrown at him. “I learned to make ’em miss. That’s how I’m still OK in the head. In over 100 fights, I was knocked down but I always got up and I was never knocked unconscious.”One fight was an exhibition bout with Durelle at the penitentiary. “I knew just about every guy sitting around the ring. I could just as easily have been any one of them,” he says.
Instead, Norm embraced the gruelling life of a boxer. On what they called the “Greyhound route” through Eastern Canada and the U.S., he’d fight for small purses, never more than $100 and more often less, barely covering expenses. But Norm started winning more fights than he lost and travelling further afield, to Florida, Cuba and South Africa. Back home in Canada, he won the welterweight title and held it until he retired, often fighting, and winning, above his weight.
When Norm fought at Madison Square Garden in 1958, it was payback time for a certain candy storeowner. “Old man Mills said, ‘I hear you’re going to the Garden.’ He hands me a robe with Mills Candy embroidered on the back. ‘You wear this robe and we’re square,’ he said, and I did,” says Norm.
A fight in Syracuse, New York, opposite Dickie Di Veronica, was his last. Ten years after he stepped into the ring, Norm hung up his gloves, retiring at the age of 30.
After a stint in Los Angeles, Calif., training actors to avoid punches, Norm, his wife, Lucille, and their daughter, Judy, found themselves in Vancouver. “One look at the mountains and we never left,” he says. They settled in North Vancouver where son Dale was born. Norm tended bar for years, first at the Waldorf Hotel and later, at the Jericho Tennis Club. He sold real estate for a while and owned the Moustache Café on Marine Drive in North Vancouver. His workout routine at the local gym led to a friendship with a young boxer, Dave Brett, and to a management role at Brett’s Griffins Boxing Club.
In 1984, Norm was inducted into the Canadian Boxing Hall of Fame. Last year, he was invited to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Syracuse where he was welcomed by a host of boxing legends, including his final opponent, Dickie Di Veronica.
“Stormin’ Norm,” with fists of iron and the gift of storytelling, is the subject of a locally produced documentary. The work-in-progress was screened Saturday, April 27 at Griffins Boxing Club in North Vancouver to a packed house. For details, visit reellegacymedia.com.