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Andy Terra, A Credit To This Nation

BY Robert Mladinich ON September 16, 2007
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Three years ago, Arthur Perry, a former Golden Gloves boxer, and a 33 year NYPD veteran, revisited his old neighborhood in Richmond Hill, Queens, after many years of living away from there.

As he and several of his childhood friends, all of whom were in their late fifties at the time of the reunion, canvassed the neighborhood, their minds were awash with memories of a bygone era.

As they walked up and down their old street, which was now filled with recently arrived immigrants from many other countries, they saw Andrew and Christina Terzano walking out of the house that they have lived in since 1951.

Nearly a half century ago, Perry and his boyhood friends had hung out with their son Patrick, who later served honorably in Vietnam. They had no idea that the elder Terzanos were alive, much less still living in the neighborhood.

Perry remembered that Mrs. Terzano was tough and stern, but strikingly beautiful. Even when he was all of ten years old, he could tell that her tough exterior belied a big heart.

He also remembered Andrew Terzano as a good dad. Perry, who grew up fatherless, lived with his mother and grandmother. He watched with curiosity as Mr. Terzano came home each day from the butcher shop he owned in Brooklyn.

“Hi fellas,” he’d shout at the kids.

“Even through the eyes of a ten or twelve year old, he seemed very solid,” said Perry. “He was a very nice man who seemed like a good father. Maybe I idealized him because I didn’t have a father, but I respected him without even knowing him all that well.”

When he caught up with the Terzanos all these years later, Perry told Andy that way back when he reminded him of a young Rocky Marciano. Even well into his eighties, Terzano’s square jaw and compact build, coupled with his ruggedly handsome face, make it clear that he is of good Italian stock.

“Maybe that’s because he was a professional prizefighter,” said his wife, which caused Perry’s jaw to drop.

As a youngster Perry was an avid boxing fan, who looked up to anyone who ever laced up the gloves. How could he not have known that Mr. Terzano was a fighter? That would have made him a neighborhood hero. How could a secret like that be kept for so long?

Andy then told Perry that he fought as a lightweight under the name of Andy Terra from 1938-41. Competing at once fabled venues like the Coney Island Velodrome and the Fort Hamilton, Broadway and Ridgewood Grove Arenas in Brooklyn, as well as the Dexter Park Arena in Queens and the St. Nicholas Arena in Manhattan, he compiled a solid record of 13-3-2 (5 KOS).

All of his losses were by decision to unbeaten or once-beaten fighters.

When Perry sent Terzano a copy of his record from boxrec.com, the ex-fighter was thrilled. So was his daughter, Andrea, who now lives in Las Vegas. She wrote Perry a thank-you note that brought a lump to his throat.

Perry and I visited the Terzano household in mid-September. Although Andy and his wife are both octogenarians, they get along almost giddily. When we arrived in the late afternoon at the well-maintained, bright and cheery house, the front door was wide open and they were watching television on the couch. The house was extremely welcoming and their humility, as well as their inherent decency, was immediately evident.

Terzano told us how he started boxing quite by accident, while working as a delivery boy in his childhood neighborhood of Borough Park, Brooklyn. He was forced to go to work when his mother passed away when he was ten. She left behind 11 children.

His brother Jim, who was seven years older, took over the day to day operations of running the family. Their father, a shoe maker, worked long hours to make ends meet.

While making deliveries one day, Terzano met another delivery boy who happened to moonlight as a pro fighter. The young pro had a ring set up in his basement, where he was coached by his father. He invited young Terzano over to spar. After just one session, he told him that he was “damn good.” Terzano was hooked.

“I just wanted to work with him because I enjoyed the workout,” said Terzano. “But after a few amateur fights, where I’d win watches, I was taken to Stillman’s Gym.”

At Stillman’s, Terzano caught the eye of legendary trainer Ray Arcel, who only worked with the best fighters in the city back then. “Ray said, ‘I can make you a champion,’” said Terzano. “But you have to get rid of your trainer.”

Besides being extremely loyal to his original trainer, Terzano concedes that he was too young and naïve to realize what a great opportunity he had passed up.

“Who was Ray Arcel to me?’ he wondered aloud. “I wasn’t even 20 years old. I had no idea what a great trainer he was.”

Because Terzano is such a practical thinker, he began planning out a pro boxing career incrementally in his head.

“First,” he mused, “I wanted to be a star bouter,” which he described as a solid six or eight round fighter who was good enough to regularly get work at Madison Square Garden.

Many of today’s fans don’t realize that being a star bouter was quite an accomplishment back then. Being deemed a good club fighter was an honor in those days, unlike today where champions are crowned with just 10 or 15 fights under their belt.

“Becoming a six and eight round fighter brought you a lot of pride,” said Terzano. “In those days, eight round fighters made $500 to $800. We would hear star bouters talk about how much they were going to make in the gym, and they’d sound like millionaires.”

Terzano trained alongside Bummy Davis in East New York, Brooklyn, where he says all of the fighters “wanted to follow him (Davis). He was a big shot, a real hero to us.”

He fought on several cards that were headlined by Lenny “Boom Boom” Mancini, a ferocious fighter whose son Ray would later become lightweight champion of the world, as well as former National Boxing Association middleweight champion Solly Kreiger. Those “small” club shows regularly drew as many as 4,500 fans.

Terzano remembers being mesmerized by the sight of lightweight titlist Kid Chocolate at Fort Hamilton. “He was like Petey Scalzo, who was like Willie Pep,” he explained. “Those guys could really fight, and I looked up to them. You could never hit them. Fans like sluggers, but those guys would open up in the last minute of every round and steal them. They were great to watch.”

Scalzo was a New York favorite who held the National Boxing Association featherweight title.

“Even though I was Italian, I had a big Jewish following,” added Terzano. “Back in the thirties and forties there were more Jewish fighters than (any other ethnic group). It’s changed completely now.”

Terzano was dropped only once during his pro career, by Benny Rubano at the Dexter Park Arena. “That was the only time I ever sat on my fanny,” he said. “He really surprised me, but I got up and beat the hell out of the guy.”

Terzano seemed well on his way to main event status. He was being recognized in and out of the ring.

“If you walked along the street and were a fighter, you got a lot of respect,” he said. “Part of you thinks you’re a nobody, but then everyone says they saw you fight and they wish you luck in your next bout. It really builds your ego.

“You have to remember,” he added, “there were really no other sports but boxing back then. Boxing was number one. Most people (sports fans) were involved in the fights.”

One fond memory that Terzano has is not shared by his wife.  This is one thing they will never agree on, no matter how long they are married.

She had only seen one of his fights, which was enough for her. However, one night at a Queens fight venue, she met Abe Simon, a literal bear of a man who had challenged Joe Louis for the heavyweight title.

Terzano was thrilled that he and his wife were meeting someone he considered a bonafide celebrity, even though he jokingly referred to him as “the (toughest looking) guy in the world, a real monster” because of his immense size and inhuman strength.

“Yeah, I was thrilled,” deadpanned Christina.

All of Terzano’s professional boxing dreams were scuttled when he served in the armed forces during World War II. While assigned to Fort Grant, Illinois, a general told him he could stay stateside if he was willing to represent his battalion on the boxing team.

The extremely proud, loyal and patriotic Terzano wouldn’t hear of it. “I had lots of friends from Brooklyn and Queens in the service with me,” he explained. “If they were going overseas, I was going with them.”

Terzano and his battalion departed San Francisco for Australia to guard against a Japanese attack that never came. He later took part in invasions in New Guinea and Ireland. He was then shipped to Japan after the bomb had been dropped and that country had surrendered to allied forces.

“We had just come from all these invasions, and were now in Japan where there were thousands and thousands of Japanese everywhere,” he said incredulously. “We kept expecting a sneak attack, but they were welcoming us. They all bowed so respectfully to us. It was something.”

Terzano returned home to Queens to be with his new bride, whom he had married during a wartime leave. They had met in front of the Coney Island parachute and then danced the night away at one of the ten cents dance joints that abounded during that era.

“If you kept dancing, you stayed out of trouble,” said Christina with a mischievous twinkle.  

Terzano began his hitch in the U.S. Army in August 1942. While home on leave, he and Christina got married in January 1943 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan. In those days, couples had to wait three weeks from the time they got their marriage license until they were allowed to wed.

Because Terzano was being shipped off to war, he pleaded with various bureaucracies to lift the rule for him and his sweetheart. A priest at St. Patrick’s warned Terzano that a lot of girls were marrying war-bound men for the insurance they would collect if they returned home in body bags.

“I told him I had $13.50 in a joint bank account, and she was welcome to have it,” said Terzano.

Boy, did that priest underestimate the power of love between the two. Christina worried about Andy incessantly, prayed for him constantly, and thanked God when he came home alive. She was also very grateful when he opted to discontinue boxing upon his return from the Pacific Theater.

Terzano was smart enough to realize that by the standards of the day, 26 was old for a fighter.  That’s how old he was when he returned home from the war.

“By 30 most fighters were finished,” he said. “I had a growing family and wanted to make sure I could take care of them. I became a butcher instead of a boxer.”

Terzano eventually owned and operated his own Brooklyn butcher shop, which he named after his nephew Frank, the son of his sister who he promised to look after. He and his wife had four children: Patrick, Bruce, Wayne, and Andrea, the latter of whom is 51 but is still referred to by Terzano as “my little girl.” His eyes get dreamy with any mention of her.

As the decades rolled by, family life for the Terzano’s reads like an abridged version of recent American history. A neighbor of theirs, an only child of a single parent named John Dickinson, enlisted in the armed forces during the height of the Vietnam conflict.

Terzano grabbed him one day and asked him what the hell he was doing. The boy had always been a quiet kid, whose cherubic face was adorned with red hair and freckles. If he was killed or injured, his mother might never recover.

“He said, ‘Mr. Terzano, this is my duty,’” Terzano recalled as tears welled in his eyes. “I felt ashamed for scolding him, and I bit my tongue and said no more. I poured a scotch for him and a rye for me and I wished him luck.”

Dickinson was not to have such luck overseas. Just three months after his arrival in Southeast Asia, the helicopter he was piloting was shot down. He managed to save his crew before succumbing to gunshot wounds to his head.

When Terzano’s son Patrick was drafted and shipped off to Vietnam, he was even more worried than before. A measure of relief came when Patrick assured his parents that he was in a safe place, chauffeuring a colonel around.

One night, however, the Terzanos were watching the news when a report came from the province where Patrick was stationed. They saw him firing a weapon at the enemy and then running through water with a wounded soldier slung over his shoulder. Machine gun fire was blaring all around him.

“My wife and I walked around Richmond Hill crying and crying,” said Terzano. “We were in very bad shape. Every night when I’d come home from work, I’d expect to see a soldier with a flag on my porch, telling us that our son was killed. I would drive to and from work, and have no memory of the trip. I was afraid to come home.

“Things got even worse,” he continued, “when a customer’s son was killed over there. I went to the funeral. It was unbearable.”

One Christmas Eve, Patrick was due home but he got derailed along the way. His parents had no word on his whereabouts. “I drank Southern Comfort and it didn’t do anything to me,” said Christina. “That’s how worried I was.”

Patrick finally arrived home okay. He is now 60 years old, in good health, and living in Philadelphia. Son Bruce lives on Long Island where owns a car service and a Laundromat. Son Wayne passed away in the eighties.

Daughter Andrea, who earned a Ph.D. and still calls her parents daily, co-authored a book called “Coaching Culture, Hidden Profits” (Insight Publishing, July 2006). According to a description on Amazon.com, it is “written for CEOs, division heads and middle managers to provide insight and a formula for using a coaching culture to maximize profits.”

From the outside looking in, it is hard to imagine a family with a greater foundation than the Terzanos. The bedrock seems to be trust, confidence, faith and compassion. They’ve certainly had no shortage of travails, but seem to have come through very much intact. You need not spend more than a few minutes with Andy and Christina to get that sense.

Prominently displayed on their living room wall is a photo of young Terzano in a fighting pose.

The inscription reads, “To my dear brother Jim. From your kid brother, Andy Terra.”

Even today, 77 years after their mother’s death, Terzano does not forget the sacrifice his brother made for his family.

By the diminished standards of today, Andy might be considered an inconsequential club fighter. But by the standards of yesteryear, however, he has so much to be proud of. What he accomplished in the ring was plenty, but what he did with his life outside the ring is what makes him such a special human being.

He served his country with honor, his business with integrity, his customers with dignity and honesty, and his family with an abundance of love.

“I always wanted to fight at Madison Square Garden,” said Terzano with no real sense of regret, because he is savvy enough to know what is most important in life.

“That was Broadway. A movie star wants to go to Hollywood, a fighter back then wanted to go to the Garden. I almost got there, but the war got in the way. Things happen for a reason. Whatever the reason was I don’t know, but things turned out okay.”

While not a star bouter at the Garden, Terzano is one in every other aspect of his life. The United States was built on the backs of people like him, and we owe collectively owe him a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid.

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