Pride in one’s family and heritage is a given, but when a piece of family history goes missing, sometimes the hunt to reunite is a torch best carried by future generations
If you grew up in St. John’s during the middle part of the last century, you may remember Downey’s Convenience store on New Gower Street. It was run by my great-grandfather, Norm Downey, Sr. While known around town as kind and generous, he was also not someone to cross.
Boxing 147 fights in his lifetime, accruing 144 wins, the quiet and relatively small man was not afraid to scuffle with someone bigger than himself. Equipped with a never say die attitude, Norm’s fighting prowess won him boxing championships in this province. Little did he know, this accomplishment would end up sending his descendants on a quest that would last over 60 years.
My great-grandfather was born in Scilly Cove, now Winterton, in Trinity Bay in 1908. Like many born in this province he travelled abroad looking for gainful employment. Ultimately he ended up in Ontario and, while out for a drink one night, Norm found himself in a bar fight that easily went his way.
At the suggestion of a witness, Norm began training to become a boxer. Upon returning home, my great-grandfather, a natural featherweight (126 lbs), fought a fighter with a 30 lbs advantage to win the Newfoundland Boxing Association’s Earl Haig Lightweight Championship in 1936. He is the only boxer of record to ever claim the prize. During the onset of World War II, Norm decided to store his championship belt away for safe keeping. It was never seen again.
A prized possession for my family, Norm’s son Wilson (my grandfather) attempted to track down the belt in 1958. Researching mainly through archives and newspaper articles, every time Wilson was able to move one step forward, fate would force him two steps back. As time passed and the number of dead ends increased, Wilson began to feel discouraged and presumed he would never see his father’s championship belt again. “I used to say to my son, ‘You might see the belt, but I won’t.’”
Wilson, however, wasn’t alone in his search. What would start as a Grade 9 Social Studies project about his grandfather, Wilson’s youngest son (my uncle) Norm Jr. took up the mantle, searching for the Holy Grail of the Downey family.
“I started researching microfilm and newspapers of all of my grandfather’s fights.” Norm says. “I talked to a lot of people who knew him, and knew about the belt, but nobody knew where it might be.”
Determined, and maybe a little stubborn, Norm refused to give up. Over the next 30 years, Norm turned to local media, print and the internet hoping someone, somewhere could point him into the right direction. “I never gave up. I always thought, in the back of my mind, that it was in someone’s attic or something.”
Earlier this year, Norm was contacted by CBC about featuring his search for his grandfather’s belt. Shortly after the piece aired on television on March 1st, on what would be Norm’s 50th birthday, he received a phone call. On the other line was a woman named Pauline Thomas. She asked, “Is this Norm? I think I have something that belongs to you.”
Great Sentimental Value
Pauline mentioned she happened to be channel surfing the night of March 1st when she caught the tail end of Norm’s interview, pleading for any information relating to the location of his grandfather’s belt. As the cameraman zoomed in on a picture of Norm Sr. with his championship proudly displayed around his waist, Pauline immediately knew where that missing belt could be found.
She rushed to her closet, dug out an old case she had stowed away inside a cardboard box, and examined the leather clad belt for something that would maybe link it to Norm and his family. Sure enough, after seeing the name “N. Downey” etched into one of the side plates, she knew she had something of great sentimental value.
Pauline isn’t quite sure how such a unique item managed to make its way into her possession, just that it was amongst an old box of letters, photographs and pictures she inherited upon the passing of her mother-in-law in 1985.
“I knew it was a boxing belt, but had no clue who owned it.” Pauline says. Naturally interested in her family history, Pauline held onto to the belt thinking it may have belonged to a relative.
50th birthday present
“Instantly I broke down,” Norm expresses. “I cried. And then she cried. Neither of us could believe it. If she was one minute late flicking through the channels that night, we wouldn’t be here now.”
“I wish I could have found it for that 14-year-old boy,” Pauline laments. “But I guess a 50th birthday present is pretty good too.”
On March 2nd, surrounded by his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, my grandfather was in the presence of something that meant the world to him, but never thought he’d ever see again. With a framed picture of his father watching on from the table in front of him, my Uncle Norm opened a long, worn out briefcase and said to his father, “Look! Isn’t it amazing?”
Unable to hold back his emotions, my grandfather picked up the belt, kissed it and held it tight against his face, tears streaming down his cheeks. “It felt wonderful to finally see it. That day was one of the best days of my life,” Wilson expressed. Describing what she felt having finally returned such a cherished item back to its rightful owners, Pauline remarks, “That day is right up there with the birth of my three kids.”
“I’m on cloud nine.” Norm says. “In fact, I threw away the ladder. I’m never coming down.”