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The real Sugar Ray is alive and well and living modestly in an attractive but far from flamboyant apartment on West Adams Boulevard in a pleasant black neighborhood of Los Angeles. Down the street a few blocks, in an old two-story white stucco mansion that once housed the George Pepperdine family and now belongs to the Holman Methodist Church, is the headquarters of the Sugar Ray Youth Foundation. The foundation offices occupy the second floor of the mansion. The first floor and an auditorium annex are used jointly by the church and by participants in foundation programs. Next door is the unsightly wreck of a onetime Los Angeles palace, a window-shattered, crenelated brick castle built by the J.J. Haggerty family decades ago when Adams Boulevard was the social heart of white Los Angeles. It is now owned by Holman Methodist, and will be converted into a youth center.
At the end of a short corridor in the Pepperdine house is an open door, and above it the foundation's name and its motto: "Imparting values through sport." Inside on the left is a sort of bullpen, with desks for secretaries—and for Sugar Ray, who is late for a 10 a.m. appointment. From an office just beyond the bullpen emerges a short, kinetic figure, all harnessed energy and fast talk. "I'm Mel Zolkover, the administrative director," he says around a thick black cigar thrusting from the left corner of his mobile mouth. "Ray isn't here yet, but you'll want to talk to Uncle Wright—that's Wright Fillmore, our president." There is a moment of hesitation. Zolkover has the air of a wheeler-dealer promoter. There is a whiff of Zanuck about him. Moreover, he is undeniably, attest-ably white.
Zolkover pushes open the door of the corner office opposite the bullpen, and there is president Wright Fillmore vacuuming his red shag rug. "We don't waste money on cleaners," Zolkover grins, and Fillmore straightens up, a heavyset, saddle-colored old man (he is 73), his lined face breaking in a large, kind grin. "Sugar Ray ain't here yet," he says in a mellifluous voice. "He was out a little late last night. But he'll be right along. Meanwhile, I'd be happy to tell you anything you'd like to know about the foundation."
Well—everything. "It began in the summer of 1969," Fillmore says, filling his pipe while in the corner Zolkover lights up another stogie. "Ray was in Europe, and he called me up and says, 'Uncle Wright, I'm coming home. I got some questions I want to ask you.' Well, Ray came home with Millie—that's my niece and Ray's wife—and I asked him, 'What's so serious you want to talk about?' Ray said, 'I been doin' some thinkin' in Europe about somethin' that's been worryin' me a long time. You know, Uncle Wright, to me fightin's always just been a way to get acquainted with people. Now I'm done ragin' around. What I'd like to do is help youngsters. Might be just a little I could do, but I'd like to do that little. I remember shootin' dice in front of the church when I was about eight years old and the preacher come out and took me in and showed me the gym. That started changin' my life. People have been good to me, and I intend to do somethin'.'
"Well," Fillmore continues, "I said: 'Ray, what is it you intend to do?' And Ray said: 'That's what I'm askin' you.' " Fillmore says he explained to Ray that to do anything it would be necessary to form a society, a club, a company, or even a foundation. "I told him incorporate, that's what you got to do. You plan your work, and you work your plan. 'Ray,' I said, 'in school they have this book called economics. It tells how only a planned enterprise will succeed.' Ray said, 'Make it simpler.' So I compared it to pool. Ray used to shoot a lot of pool. I said, 'Ray, when you got a straight shot at the pocket why do you stand up and look around the table first?' Ray said, 'Because I wanta know where the tall ball's gonna land.' 'That's it,' I said, and that's how it started."
There has been a metamorphosis. Uncle Wright's soft Texas drawl has become crisper, the words longer, the meanings precise. Demonstrably, he is no Uncle Tom. "We started the foundation right down there in our house [the Robinsons' apartment occupies the second floor]. Right away we knew we had to have two things—money to help children and children to help. Ray knows everybody in the world. He sat down in Millie's kitchen and began figuring out people he could ask for support. I've been president of the United Methodist men for the last 12 years. I said I'd find the children." Wright Fillmore's drawl comes back. "I knew we had to work fast, 'cause Millie ain't gonna stand havin' Ray in her kitchen very long...she said, 'I'll have you know my kitchen ain't no headquarters.' "
Sugar Ray Robinson comes in and sits down at Uncle Wright's left. "Uncle Wright been tellin' you all about it?" he asks. "Uncle Wright taught me a lot of things, but one you got to remember: money and children will ever be inseparable. You can't reach the un-reached child unless you can find enough money. Uncle Wright found us the children."
"I worked a long time with the Los Angeles Council of Churches," Fillmore says. "Right when we were making our plans I got a letter from Dr. Horace Mays at the council. He said they had registered 4,000 disadvantaged children and could the Methodist men do anything to help them? I said we surely could." Sugar, still vibrant with the remembered pleasure of his evening's work, smilingly brings in coffee for his visitors. Sitting again, he says: "Everything we been able to do is because of the goodness of the people. We haven't had no government grants—just help from wonderful people."
Does he know that some people in the East are asking, "What ever became of Sugar Ray?" He knows. "I begun askin' people for help there in Millie's kitchen, and I been tryin' to let people all over know what my life is now. A lot still don't know, but a lot do. A lot of people think I changed. That ain't so. I always been possessed by kids. My parents split when I was eight years old, you know, and my mother took me to New York. She worked in a laundry. I didn't have no father to guide me, and that's another reason I'm thankful to God there are people like Uncle Wright. I learned patience and some of most everything from him." Uncle Wright beams paternally at Ray. "You know," he says softly, "my wife and I didn't have children of our own. Ray and Millie are the nearest thing. I don't think of Ray as a fighter—he and Millie are just our kids."
A question is asked: What makes the Sugar Ray Youth Foundation different from the many other charitable organizations dedicated to helping children? "Incentive," says Ray. "It's incentive through competive sports. I got the cooperation of a lot of athletes—they come out to our playgrounds and workshops, they inspire the kids to try. Trouble with the YMCA, some of these other groups, they provide facilities—a facility is not an inducement. First time I ever was in the Golden Gloves, I got my name in the paper. After that, I felt above steal-in' or drinkin' or takin' dope." Uncle Wright intervenes. "When these kids see how Sugar Ray come up, free of alcohol, free of cigarettes, free of dope, they got to ask themselves: 'What excuse have I got? His life was just as hard as mine.' "