- Associated Press - Thursday, July 7, 2016

ALTOONA, Pa. (AP) - Most men who’ve gone through adolescence would like to be able to walk down the street knowing they can take care of themselves, come what may.

As founder and continuing head of the Altoona Boxing Club, John Robertson helped create that kind of confidence for thousands of young people over 48 years.

On Wednesday, about 20 of those former young men showed up for the unveiling of a statue to honor their mentor in a park named for him at the eastern end of the Seventh Street Bridge, across from the site of Robertson’s childhood home.

Those men learned all physical assurance from Robertson, but the ones who spoke at the ceremony talked mostly of the overall confidence Robertson inspired - and the wholesome direction into which he turned their lives.

Jack Chilcote, 58, was in his mid-teens, running the streets, drinking and getting into trouble, when it occurred to him that his life was heading into dangerous territory, he said after Wednesday’s ceremony.

He had noticed that kids who went to the boxing club weren’t thugs, but he also knew they embraced discipline, so he went to see for himself.

He didn’t box right away, because Robertson started newcomers on a training regimen before letting them fight, Chilcote said.

Moreover, when they began to fight, Robertson matched them with other newcomers, so they wouldn’t get hurt, because if they got hurt, they’d quit.

Robertson’s slow nurturing didn’t mean he wasn’t demanding.

In a tournament once, Chilcote fought three bouts in two hours.

“I dug deep,” he said.

He dug into reserves he didn’t know existed until then.

Robertson had prepared him, both long-term, with conditioning, sparring and fights, and short-term, reminding him, light-heartedly, that his opponent was equally tired after that last bout.

The confidence he found in the program helped Chilcote not only succeed in boxing - including the Golden Gloves - but as an adult, in his transition from a career in heating, ventilation and air conditioning to teaching the trade at the Altoona Area Career and Technology Center, Chilcote said.

And it helped sustain him after the death of his 10-year-old daughter Jessica, one of four children, in a vehicle accident in 1992.

“I was down and out,” Chilcote said. “I picked myself up through the grace of God and the tools given to me, some by John.”

The confidence they learned in the program flowed from mastery of a difficult craft, but a craft Robertson introduced one element at a time, only as much as participants could handle at each step, so that assurance grew and grew, and didn’t dissipate.

That was the way it worked, “in a roundabout way” at least, said Tom Wilt, probably Robertson’s most accomplished boxer.

The program began in 1969, when Robertson’s German Shepherd got away from him while on a walk and chased some kids playing pickup football at Prospect Park.

Robertson got control of the dog, then struck up a conversation with the kids, sharing with them that he’d been a Marine and had boxed as a young man in Altoona. The kids were all from Bishop Guilfoyle High School - Mike Adams, Steve Conway, Dave Tate, Bobby Corio, Tom Fink and others - and one asked whether Robertson could give them boxing pointers.

So Robertson brought his gloves to the park, and for a year there, outdoors, conducted lessons.

Later, those lessons moved to the Philadelphia Lounge in the Casanave building, then to LaChalet, then the Navy Reserve Center, then Building II, then the slaughterhouse near the Altoona Hotel, then - and now - the UVA.

He’s never charged a fee, because while some kids could afford it, most couldn’t, he said.

Conditioning is the foundation for everything, Robertson said.

It’s 80 to 90 percent of boxing, said Wilt, who fought for 20 years under Robertson, winning six Pennsylvania Gold Glove championships, fighting in an Olympic tryout and posting a 21-8 professional record.

Situps, pushups, jump rope and leg lifts from the beginning, Wilt said.

Robertson was given a community service award from the Blair County Sports Hall of Fame, of which Wilt is a member, and for a little while Wednesday, sitting in the sun together on folding chairs, teacher and pupil recounted their shared history.

Wilt, for all his accomplishments - and his powerful handshake - wasn’t a powerful puncher.

“He couldn’t break an egg,” Robertson said - before Wilt sat down.

Denny Batrus, though, would rattle you to the core.

Once Batrus pestered Robertson to let Batrus hit him, and Robertson gave in.

The punch broke Robertson’s nose, and blood spurted everywhere, Robertson said, gesturing in a way that suggested a veritable explosion.

That kind of power was a gift from God, Robertson said.

But the program was never was about being a badass in the street, according to Chilcote.

Robertson would tell them that if someone challenged them to fight, to invite the challenger to the club, where they could settle things under controlled conditions.

If they fought in the streets, he’d expel them, Chilcote said.

“I didn’t go there to be a tough guy,” Chilcote said. “I went there to get my life in order.”

Still, it was nice to get the respect that came from being known as one of Robertson’s fighters, he said.

He laid out their path, they followed it, believing it would work, and it worked, he said.

“I was a lost kid,” said former Robertson fighter Randy Shannon, an Iraq war veteran and retired corrections officer. “Every success I have had is all tied to him. I love him.”

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Online: https://bit.ly/29qPHCp

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Information from: Altoona Mirror, https://www.altoonamirror.com

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