Laoma Byrd

Laoma Byrd ran the South Jersey Athletic Club on Wright Street from the 1940 to the 1960s.

The final challenger on the March 29, 1953, episode of “What’s My Line” was a petite woman from Pleasantville.

Syndicated columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, comedian and future “Tonight Show” host Steve Allen, actress Arlene Francis and publisher Bennett Cerf had already guessed the occupations of an Army paratrooper from Indianapolis, a snake keeper from Philadelphia, and correctly identified mystery guest Zsa Zsa Gabor.

But Laoma Byrd stumped them. They couldn’t guess that she ran a prizefighter training camp.

“Congratulations!” moderator John Daly said at the end of her segment.

Evidently, the panel did not include big boxing fans, for Byrd was very well known in the sport, especially on the East Coast.

Byrd, who died at 98 in 2002, hosted some of the best boxers in the world while running the gym, officially called the South Jersey Athletic Club, on Wright Street in Pleasantville from the 1940s to the ‘60s.

International Boxing Hall of Fame members Ezzard Charles, Joe Frazier, Joe Louis, Bob Montgomery and Jersey Joe Walcott trained there, along with other top fighters such as Wesley Mouzon, Ernie Terrell and Gil Turner.

A number of local boxers also worked out there, including former Atlantic City Police Captain George Nelson.

Nelson, 88, started boxing there as an amateur in 1946 along with a group of teenagers that also included the late Ralph Peterson, the former mayor of Pleasantville who died in 2014.

“She was a wonderful woman,” Nelson said. “She and her mother, ‘Momma Byrd,’ cooked all the meals for the fighters. Laoma took a bunch of us amateurs in tow and took us to tournaments.”

Peterson and Nelson both enjoyed solid amateur careers and fought as professionals before joining the Pleasantville and Atlantic City Police Departments, respectively.

Nelson had a few pro fights before a hand injury ended his boxing career.

“I was helping set up some tents in the inlet for some sort of festival,” Nelson said. “I was holding down a stake so that someone could hammer it in the ground, but the guy missed the stake and split my hand open. I still have the scar.”

Byrd’s camp included two outdoor boxing rings and a gym with an indoor ring. There was also a three-story building that contained a kitchen and dining area, a bedroom for Byrd and separate bedrooms for boxers who needed a place to stay while training.

In a 2002 interview with The Press, Peterson said Byrd ran a tight, no-nonsense camp. Female visitors were permitted on the first floor. No women were allowed upstairs, not even boxers’ wives.

“Mostly (boxers are) just boys with problems like those of any other boys,” Byrd told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1952. “Only before a fight, a boy has more problems and they seem bigger. He needs someone to help and understand him then.”

The bond between the Ivy League-educated Byrd and the rough-and-gruff fighters she supervised was a strange pairing. But it worked.

Although there were times when as many as 30 boxers trained there at one time, no one ever broke the rules.

Byrd’s introduction to boxing came by accident.

Upon graduating from Pleasantville High School in 1924, she majored in chemistry and minored in home economics at Cornell University before becoming a teacher in North Carolina.

A few years later, in 1944, she was taking psychology courses at Columbia University in New York and working as an administrator at Pilgrim State Hospital in Long Island, New York, when she returned home to Pleasantville to help care for her ailing father, the late Clement Byrd.

“There was a patient at the hospital who was two-time welterweight champion of the world,” Laoma told Ebony Magazine in 1966. “His name was Jack Thompson. He said that I had a lot of patience, and that I should work with fighters.”

When Clement died a year later, she decided to open a training camp. According to Nelson and the story in Ebony Magazine, she got some financial help from “Dutch” Campbell, who was a friend from her high school days.

One of her first visitors was Mouzon (26-3-1, 10 KOs), a lightweight from Philadelphia who had a pair of epic fights with Montgomery in 1946. Walcott (51-18-1), who later became commissioner of the New Jersey Athletic Control Board before dying in 1994, trained there before his four fights against Charles.

One of the last fighters to train at Byrd’s was Terrell. He was there in 1967 before his fight with heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali. Terrell lost a 15-round decision at Houston’s Astrodome.

Byrd closed the camp in the late 1960s, when she moved to Washington, D.C., to care for a sick relative.

The indoor gym burned down Dec. 29, 1993, under tragic circumstances. Willie “Lee” Davis, a 68-year-old former boxer, barricaded himself in and set himself on fire, despite the best efforts of Peterson and others who showed up to tell him that his $5,000 in Social Security benefits was approved that day.

Byrd remained in Washington until her death Feb. 2, 2002. Peterson maintained a friendship with her throughout the years.

“She never, ever looked old to me,” Peterson told The Press after her death. “She always looked the same.”

Contact: 609-272-7201 Twitter @PressACWeinberg

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