Norman Gautreau was a man of his word.
That, at least, is how Griffins Boxing founder Dave Brett will remember the old fighter who died March 19 at age 88. When the two first met, Brett was a budding boxing coach just starting to build a program out of a local rec centre. Gautreau was the old-timer in the corner, going through a skipping routine and hitting the speed bag. Gautreau would have been nearly 70 at the time, but Brett could see that the old fellow knew his way around a gym.
“He had the rhythm,” says Brett. “He was still making the bag sing.”
Brett is a talkative type, so he went over and struck up a conversation. Before long he was buddies with Norm Gautreau, the kind of colourful curmudgeon that makes the sport of boxing a storyteller’s dream. And Gautreau had stories all right. He was the son of a former bareknuckle boxer and bootlegger, one of 14 siblings who grew up in Moncton, N.B. He was the Canadian welterweight champion. He was inducted into the Canadian Boxing Hall of Fame in 1984.
As a kid he was once busted with a bunch of friends after breaking into a candy shop and falling asleep from the sugar crash. Years later he repaid his debt to store owner Mr. Mills by wearing a robe with Mills Candy embroidered on the back during a fight at Madison Square Garden.
In North Vancouver he was known less for his boxing and more as the owner of the Moustache Café on Marine Drive. Those days were over, however, when Gautreau and Brett got to know each other and Gautreau made a promise to his new friend.
“He said to me one day – it was probably his best/worst decision – he said ‘Mac, if you ever open a boxing gym, I’ll come with ya.’ Little did he know….”
Brett did go on to open a gym – the thriving Griffins Boxing and Fitness, now located in Lower Lonsdale – and Gautreau kept his promise.
“He was my first front-desk girl,” said Brett with a laugh. “He came down, he stuck to his word. … That’s one thing about these old boxers – a deal is a deal when it comes out of your mouth.”
Gautreau needed to be polished up a bit for life in customer service in the 21st century – Brett says he had to teach him how to use a computer – but the old-timer went to work registering clients, manning the front desk and even volunteering to clean the whole gym.
“He was so old school. He was like, ‘you’re not spending money on a cleaner. I’ll do it!’” says Brett. “He did everything. He signed people up, he made funny probably inappropriate jokes.”
Brett soon learned, however, that Gautreau was still very much a fighter. One time early on Gautreau picked up an order of Gatorade for the gym. When Brett checked the stock it seemed like a few bottles were missing, and so he asked Gautreau about it. Gautreau’s response was swift and fierce and unprintable in a family newspaper.
“He didn’t come in to work for like seven or 10 days,” says Brett, recalling the ferocity of Gautreau’s anger at seemingly having his honour called into question. “This was the first time it happened. By the way – spoiler alert – it happened quite a few more times. I’d go to his house, hop on his balcony and force him to give me a hug.”
Gautreau became a fixture at the club. The movie Million Dollar Baby was popular at the time, and everyone took to calling the old fighter “our Morgan Freeman” because of his similarities to the character Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris. Gautreau loved working with young fighters at Griffins, says Brett. Gautreau would throw on the mitts and then wince with exaggerated pain when the kids would throw punches.
“He would always make sure the kids felt good and always made sure the kids knew that they were doing a good job.”
Through years working together at the club, Gautreau and Brett built a special bond that benefitted both of them, says Brett.
“He always believed in me, from the start,” says Brett. “When I said ‘I’m going to open a boxing gym,’ he was like, ‘I believe in you.’ Period.”
The gym gave new life to the old boxer as well, says Brett.
“He was a washed up boxer, and no one really knew him,” he says. “I think Griffins gave him a sense of purpose, and I think he came back alive. … You saw the spark in his eye kind of re-light.”
Gautreau, who is survived by three children, six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, will be honoured with a celebration of life at Griffins Boxing and Fitness May 26, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.
“He was a good man, and I don’t think Griffins would have been the same without him,” says Brett, adding that he expects a good turnout for Gautreau’s memorial. “He really gave people time and he really invested his interest into people. I just hope that people can come and not bring tears and not bring sadness, because he really had a cool interesting life.”