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"I know of at least 10 kids the Hay-woods have taken in and helped," says Edward L. Pendleton, commissioner of the Jackson County Juvenile Court. "Mostly they are teen-age boys whose parents, if they have any, teachers, social workers and agencies can't, or won't, help very much, the kind we leave on the streets until they are old enough to be put in a jail. Nick reaches those kids better than anybody I know. He's not somebody sitting in an office, taking grant money, making a living controlling them, talking about things they can't relate to their own experience. He's a little guy who knows, who has survived everything they have and worse. He works at a job they understand, and when he gets off work he spends his time and money on them. He has a lot of rules for those kids: no smoking, no drinking, no dope, no bad language, be on time, be polite. Those rules are signals that he feels these youngsters are worth showing what he thinks is the right way of doing things. They are proud of being with Nick—like suburban kids who have won scholarships."
The over-the-pool-hall recreation center was the beginning of a marvelously unstructured organization that operates on Haywood's vision, energy and resources. Ostensibly, it's a boxing club, but it's also to some extent a floating commune, a youth hostel and a school for urban survival. Sometimes it's called the Ace Athletic Club, sometimes Nick's Cavalry or Gallery (the latter two names are used interchangeably by younger members). The club in its various guises has no rosters or dues, but according to street estimates, some 200 youths have joined it. High school Latin teachers argue that while their subject might not be directly useful, it develops intellectual habits. Similarly, Haywood believes that boxing is a fine discipline for teaching manners and respect. "Fuss the boxah he got to respec his body, give up bad things which make him weak. He feel the strength come and he feel proud cause he care to do and doan do things that bring strength. Then the boxah got to think and study what he do with his fiss and body. He develop the mine so he can use the strong body the way he want, and that make him proud. Then he learn about the othah man. Doan make no difference whether he whup the othah or the othah whup him, he know othah boxer a real man like he is. Othah fellah hurt and he cut and he dance, juss like you. You feel his body, and you exchange respec for each othah. Then you think every man got those same things bout him—doan have to be anothah boxah, can be old man, little chile, lady, but he is you, too. And if you have learn to respec what you is, you learn to respec othah because he is you."
In Haywood's youth work, these principles have remained fixed, but the places in which he has explained and demonstrated them have changed. At times he and the youths who follow him have trained in a church, a tavern, a warehouse and an abandoned wing of a hospital. The arrangements under which they occupied these buildings ranged from informal to vaguely surreptitious, and they moved from one to another because of fire, urban renewal, changes of ownership and changes of mind by owners.
Throughout, Haywood kept his eye on the old Missouri National Guard Armory in Kansas City, a cavernous structure built early in the century. In past decades the central drill hall, which can seat 4,000 spectators, was occasionally used as a basketball and boxing arena, and Haywood fought there professionally. However, by 1972 the armory had fallen into considerable disrepair, and state authorities closed it down and padlocked it. For six years the empty, moldering building was regarded as a white elephant by everyone except Haywood, who kept politely badgering greater and lesser officials about letting him and his kids use the facility. The officials repeatedly explained that it was a public building for which public agencies had no use, and therefore it could not be used by anybody.
In 1978 Haywood told Joanne M. Collins, a member of the Kansas City Council, of his plans for the armory. She is a big, handsome woman, more than six feet tall, with an electric-looking semi-Afro that adds inches to her stature and an electric-feeling personality that, among other things, has made her one of the most popular local politicians in recent Kansas City history. "I had heard about Nick for a long time," says Collins, a Republican. "Boys would say they trained with Mister Nick or mothers would say they wished their boys would go to Nick. I didn't understand what he was teaching besides boxing, but I figured it must be a lot more because of the way everybody felt about him. The first time I met Nick I was walking past a site where he was working. He was covered with cement dust and started brushing off his hands before we shook. I told him to stop it, that it would look bad if a voter saw a workingman trying to clean his hands before shaking with a politician. After that, I became one of his people. When he started asking me about the armory, I said what everybody else had been saying, but he kept on talking and then he started ballooning."
"You've seen it. We start out, and here I am this big person looking down at the top of the derby of this little person. Then I begin hearing what he is really saying, and he begins ballooning. Pretty soon I am on my toes stretching to look up at this big man. He was talking sense, and the rest of us had been talking nonsense. Here was a building that none of us with all our papers could figure out how to use. Here was this man, who doesn't have anything to do with papers, who had a very good idea about using it. I talked to a friend with the state. I helped get a key to the armory for Nick. I said he could throw it down the sewer or do whatever he wanted, but I definitely did not want to know anything about it."
Early in 1979, Haywood, with that key, took enthusiastic possession of the abandoned armory. He talked local utilities into turning on the water and electricity and sending him the bills. Then he and his youths cleaned the interior, patched the worst leaks in the roof, boarded up some windows to keep out drafts, blizzards and vagrants, all of which had enjoyed more or less free entry. Then the boxing and training equipment was assembled. In the barn-like armory there was still a lot of room left over, and Haywood invited other youths to share the space. A neighborhood jazz club, a roller skating group and a modeling class for girls moved into the armory and spruced up their own corners of it. A hand-lettered sign went up in the window announcing that the new name of the place was Haywood's Hall. By early spring some 250 teen-age boys and girls were using the hall each week.
After newspaper stories about the hall appeared and the whole improbable operation came to light, a myth arose in Kansas City to the effect that Haywood conducted his program so secretly that nobody in authority knew it existed. "We knew Nick was in there—unofficially," says Walter Johnson, who oversees the management of state properties throughout Missouri from an office in the state capital in Jefferson City. "It seemed like it was better to have Nick and the kids in there than vandals, but we didn't want to know anything officially because then we would have had to chase out whoever was in there. We changed the locks once as a kind of official hint, but the next day somebody changed them on us, so we didn't have a way to get in except by breaking and entering."
"Yassah, Ah remember about them locks," Haywood says blandly. "Ah think maybe some of the youf is playing a little trick. I doan want to bothah nobody in a big office about a little thing, so Ah juss buy some moah locks and 13 keys."