A rare series of circumstances way back in 1947 altered my life’s direction forevermore.
The key guy in the story was a 25-year-old member of the New Glasgow police force. I was the nine-year-old son of a New Glasgow automobile dealer.
That’s when Constable Freddie Wilson entered my life.
The story began early that year, on a wintery Sunday afternoon when a spectacular fire totally destroyed my dad’s Chrysler-Plymouth dealership on Trenton Road, spread to the business next door, and partially burned one end of the Bluenose Curling Club.
Dad had gotten into the car business after spending the First World War as a pilot when, starting at the age of 15, he was piloting planes and shooting down German aircraft just off the White Cliffs of Dover.
With a teenage experience like that, he wasn’t going to allow a fire to halt his chosen career.
A new and larger garage was constructed on the same site while, during those months, car sales were centred in an old wartime army hut brought in to a vacant lot across the street.
When the new garage opened just 10 months after the fire, the temporary structure wasn’t required.
Meanwhile, when not on police duty, Wilson had started a pro boxing career and was searching for a gym in which to train. He approached my dad to see if the empty building was available.
Yes, he could use it for a gym. Right there, Dad made Wilson an offer: “Teach my son how to defend himself and the building is yours, rent-free.”
Wilson and Dad shook hands.
Thank goodness Wilson never got me into a ring, though he had me showing up after school every afternoon to skip rope, punch the speed bag, and learn defensive moves.
He performed what I later called a miracle.
He had passed on enough of his knowledge that, not long after, when a troublesome neighbourhood kid attempted to steal my marbles, I mashed him on the kisser. The last I saw of him, he was running home with a bloodied face.
He never bothered me or my friends again. In fact, I don’t think he ever came around our street after that.
And me? My “boxing career” lasted only for that one punch.
Just last week, I told the story to former Chronicle Herald colleague Joel Jacobson at lunch. In his customary way, he cracked, “I wonder if you would have had such a long newspaper career if you lost your marbles that day.”
Wilson’s advice had worked.
For the next 50 years, he and I were good friends, chatting often about his lifelong love for boxing. I’ve written about him on various occasions for three different newspapers, as well as a magazine.
In one interview, about 25 years ago, he offered a comment, while laughing, about his use of the old war hut on Trenton Road. “Your dad didn’t get much for the rent.”
His time as a fighter launched a long involvement as a boxing judge. He became one of the finest judges the sport ever had in this part of the country. In Pictou County, Halifax, Cape Breton and points beyond, he was kept busy observing fights from ringside.
There were a number of chapters to Wilson’s life.
He remained with the New Glasgow police force until 1953, completing a decade with the department. A few years after our “training” experiences, he joined the CNR police, working in Moncton, North Sydney and Halifax. Later on, he became the CNR’s chief inspector for the Maritimes, based in the Nova Scotia capital.
Even as time passed, he always talked to me enthusiastically about his years spent in New Glasgow, though he wasn’t a native Pictonian.
He was born in 1922 not far away—in Liscomb, Guysborough County. He admitted he was interested in boxing as a kid, looking at pictures of fights in the paper, remembering all the boxers’ names, but never giving thought to maybe one day stepping into a boxing ring.
His first job was in the gold mines—and that wasn’t for him. It had no future, so he moved on to New Glasgow in 1943, finding work for a time at the Standard Clay plant before getting the opportunity to join the police force.
Wilson wanted to toughen up, so that’s why he got into boxing, training at first with people like Pictou’s Bobby Beaton, among others.
It led to pro fights after the war.
His first bout was with New Glasgow’s Hugh ‘Sparky’ Paris. He told me one time that when he climbed through the ropes to face Paris, he “wasn’t scared, just nervous.” He won a decision.
He began as a middleweight, later moving up to light heavyweight. He had about 30 fights, losing just four. He didn’t make much money at it, but was pleased that he made many friends and developed many fond memories.
When the fights ended, he found the ideal way to stay close to the sport by becoming a judge.
How respected was he in that role?
So much so that, in 1985, the Canadian Boxing Hall of Fame inducted him into its builder category. The respect was so high that the national ceremony that year was held in Stellarton in his honour.
He was also inducted into the Pictou County Sports Heritage Hall of Fame.
One of my memories of interviewing him was a night in Halifax in 1998. It was after a card in which he judged every bout. I remember it for a very different reason.
It turned out to be the last time I was with my friend. The following year, he died at the age of 77.
If he were alive today, he would be in his 100th year, and probably still joking about that rent deal he made to train a nine-year-old kid how to defend himself.