For all the accomplishments of Norvel Lee in his community, in the boxing ring and on the world stage, one simple story in Kenneth F. Conklin’s "Norvel" shows the true measure of the man.
A day after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, in his Washington, D.C., neighborhood, Norvel sees a group of angry teens with bats, sticks and a gasoline container. Trouble looms.
They recognize Lee, “that boxing dude,” who says calmly, “Men, I’m not here to tell you what to do. If you want to ruin your lives and burn down buildings, that’s up to you.” He knows one of the boys: “You’re Shirley’s son … Then you might know she’s in my program to get trained so she can work in an office. There won’t be any office for her to go to if you burn it down.”
Before you know it, the boys have dropped their bats and are following Norvel back to his house where they are told there will be plenty of food, and time to talk through their anger in a civil, peaceful manner.
NORVEL LEE, A REAL AMERICAN HERO
Even though most people have never heard of Norvel Lee, some would regard him as an American hero. Sure, he represented the United States in the 1952 Olympic Games, thus earning him references in sports almanacs and Wikipedia.
But Lee fought nobler battles. He defied Jim Crow laws and intentionally sat in a compartment designated for whites on a segregated train. He devoted his life to education and mentoring young people. And, perhaps above all, he carried himself with humility and compassion as the consummate role model. What boxer doesn’t want to tear the stuffing out of his opponent? As fine a boxer as he was, Lee never embarrassed an opponent; for him, a victory on points that preserves someone’s dignity was better than a knockout.
Being able to travel around the world, in the military but primarily through boxing, Lee was perplexed by the juxtaposition of attitudes about race, and how he was viewed as a man of color. During the Olympics in Helsinki, he thinks to himself, “I am standing on a world stage, but at home I still have to worry about where to sit on a train and where to take my girl on a date.”
THOROUGH RESEARCH REVEALS A LIFE WELL LIVED
Author Conklin categorizes the book as a novel based on true events, for which he conducted painstaking research to piece together Lee’s story as accurately as available information would allow. Readers experience the dialogue as if Conklin was there several decades ago, hiding around the corner with a tape recorder.
The book documents Lee’s boxing journey from bout to bout, from local gyms to world arenas. Readers will appreciate Lee’s pre-match study of every opponent, portraying him as an artist and craftsman more so than a brutal slugger.
That boxing life is bracketed by raw emotions and bold decisions from Lee about civil rights, the risks he took, and the work he did to help make a better world. He’ll drive a taxi to put extra food on the table and sit on committees to develop programs to change lives for underprivileged youths.
You’ve heard the expression “a life well lived.” Conklin ushers readers into such a life, about a man you’ve likely never heard of but can’t help but admire.
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