BERNARD HOPKINS donated $60,000 to the Charles Henry School in Mount Airy to pay for new
playground equipment. That seems about right. When he attended the school, Hopkins broke some of the furniture and all of the rules.
"I'd stop by his house after school," James Villarreal recalled. "I'd have a fistful of pink [disciplinary] slips. After a while, his mom said, 'Don't bother to knock, Mr. V, just walk right in.' "
"Ah, Mr. V," Hopkins said, grinning. "He was my fourth-grade teacher. He saw something in me I didn't see. "
And now, the rest of the world sees what Bernard Hopkins was concealing all that turbulent time. He is doing good deeds, giving back to the community, extending an unclenched fist to needy folks as far away as New Orleans. No one is prouder than Mr. V, his patience rewarded, his inner vision confirmed.
"I did all kinds of mischief," Hopkins recalled. "Stole money out of the clothes' closet. Extorted little kids for their
Krimpets. I was a terrible student. I had low tolerance for studying. I went to high school for 1 year. Got through ninth grade and went straight to the penitentiary. "
Did the crime, did the time. Went arrow-straight when he got out. Turned to boxing. Taunted opponents, rankled promoters, stuck his thumb in the eye of boxing's sinister establishment.
Went years without losing a fight, became a champion, defended his title 20 times. At his last fight, in June, he made sure his wife, two of his sisters, his Henry School gym teacher, Jan Cairone, and Mr. V were introduced in the ring before he dominated Antonio Tarver for 12 rounds.
"I believe life goes full circle," Hopkins said recently. "I fought my first pro fight Oct. 11, 1988, in Atlantic City. Lost a decision to Clinton Mitchell. I didn't get discouraged. Laid off for 16 months, but I didn't revert back to the old Bernard.
"And then, my last fight, in June 2006, I wanted that in Atlantic City. I could have fought Manny, Moe or Jack. I fought Tarver for the light-heavyweight championship. Went up two weight classes. Won the fight decisively and said goodbye. "
Villarreal, Mr. V, the lively Latin teacher, has been along for the entire raucous ride. He's a little guy whose face resembles those ancient Roman coins. Wears an artist's beard, speaks with a poet's intensity. He's a psychotherapist, an expert in dream interpretation.
"I consider myself his adopted dad since he was 9," he said proudly. "When I retired from teaching 4 years ago, they held a retirement party and I played Atlas, holding up the world. The world represented 33 years of teaching.
Bernard lifted the globe off my back and said, 'All right, Mr. V, you can retire now.'
"He was carrying a gym bag. He said he'd brought something for me. Reached in, pulled out one of his championship belts and said, 'This is for you. I couldn't have gotten where I got if it wasn't for you.'
"I started teaching in 1968. And those children taught me, 'Love me most when I deserve it the least. ' I had that printed on a card and framed it in silver and had it posted near the bench where the kids sit, outside the main office, waiting to be disciplined. Those pink slips went into the kid's file, and Bernard's was as thick as a telephone book.
"I've been dealing with what I call 'broken boys' all these years. It seems, the tougher the kid, the more precious the thing he's hiding inside him. Kids like Bernard are waiting to be loved. "
"He coached the basketball team," Hopkins said. "Took us to Sixers games. We sat in the rafters. I remember Mo Cheeks running around, looking so small from where we sat. "
"Bernard," Villarreal said, "was a good player, an unselfish player. Good rebounder, good shooter. The other kids liked to play with him, because he was a very good passer. If he hadn't dropped out of high school after 1 year, he'd have played varsity ball. "
"Yeah, I'd pass the ball," Hopkins said wryly. "If we were winning. If we were losing, I'd fight. "
The Daily News brought the men back to Henry School for photographs. A kindly custodian unlocked the gym and raw emotion filled the room, as they recreated plays and tugged at rusty gymnastics equipment.
They swaggered into Room 202 and prattled giddily about the infamous chair fight.
"I was showing the class a film on Rome," Villarreal recalled. "I knew we only had 20 minutes left in the class and that I'd have to stop and show the rest another time. Well, it was a very good film, crammed with action. And when I stopped it, Bernard didn't like that.
"He knocked over his desk and one or two other desks. And then, fights broke out. I called for the principal. Bernard grabbed a big, thick book. I shouted, 'No, Bernard, no,' but he sailed it across the room, just as the principal came through the door. Pow, hit him right in the chest. "
Made a handsome living hitting people in the chest and other places. Promised his mother he'd quit punching people at 40. Missed by a year or so. At one point, he returned to Graterford Prison and was stunned to find a huge mural depicting his career.
Which is why he will be the tour guide on Saturday when a busful of people will gather at the White Dog Cafe and visit North Philadelphia to take a close look at the murals in that part of town.
"We work with the prisons," explained Jane Golden, director of the Mural Arts program. "At Graterford, they chose to honor Bernard. The tears he shed when he saw the mural, that's an indelible memory. "
He recently did a public service announcement for the "Step Up, Speak Up" campaign, a stark counterpoint to the "don't snitch" grumblings.
"Some people don't like it," Hopkins said firmly, "but it's the right thing to do. People know my history. While I didn't do 20 [years], I didn't go back for one probation violation. "
"Back in the day," Mr. V said, "Bernard might have been one of the people saying, 'Don't tell. ' But he's seen the other side. He's seen the damage, the hurt not telling can cause. And he is somebody trying to break the cycle. "
First week in November, the boxing community will gather at a dinner to raise funds for Katrina victims, still homeless, still hurting, a year after the rampaging flood put New Orleans under water.
"I trained there," Hopkins said. "I saw firsthand the terrible damage. Those people still need our help. "
"As a kid," Mr. V said, "Bernard caused pain, caused suffering. And now, he wants to try and stop that. He'd love to see an academy that stresses studying and offers sports. But not boxing, because he doesn't want kids going down that path.
"I remember, over a year ago, we were together and he said, 'Look at my belly,' and then he patted it. He said, 'I can't wait till I quit and I pat my belly and let it be soft.'"