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"KAD" 2003 Obituary


KADIN o@ca.on.york_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2003-03-22 published
Champ didn't tell his mother
Toronto fighter was talked into boxing by his brothers during the Thirties as a way to make more money
By Barbara SILVERSTEIN Special to The Globe and Mail Saturday, March 22, 2003 - Page F11
When Leon SLAN became Canada's champion heavyweight boxer, he didn't tell his mother. She disapproved of the sport, so he kept the news to himself -- though not for long. Mr. SLAN, who died last month at the age of 86, had for years fought under another name and managed to escape his mother's wrath until 1936, when he won the national amateur title and the irresistibility of fame upset his comfortable obscurity.
The modest Mr. SLAN went on to become a successful Toronto businessman who had so allowed boxing to settle into his past that in 1986 most of his Friends were surprised when he was inducted into the Canadian Boxing Hall of Fame. It astonished everyone that the man they knew as the co-owner of a luggage-making company was known in boxing circles as Lennie STEIN, holder of the Canadian amateur heavyweight title from 1935 to 1937.
A quiet and unassuming giant of a man, his wife described him as invariably soft-spoken. "I never heard him raise his voice once in all the years we were married, Isabel SLAN said.
By all accounts, Mr. SLAN's mild demeanour belied his prowess in the ring, said his son, Jon SLAN. " For a man who was a champion at a blood sport, he was the gentlest person you ever met."
Born in Winnipeg to Russian immigrants on June 28, 1916, Mr. SLAN was the second of three sons. In 1922, the family moved to the Annex area of Toronto where he attended Harbord Collegiate Institute. His father, Joseph SLAN, was a struggling tailor with interesting ideas about the garment industry. In 1931, he headed a co-operative called Work-Togs Limited. It consisted of a small band of tailors who were to share in the profits. The project suffered from poor timing: It came on the scene at the height of the Depression and failed dismally.
In 1934, Joseph SLAN died in poverty and Leon and his two brothers Bob, who was born in 1914, and Jack, born in 1918 -- had to provide for their mother. Bringing home meagre paycheques from what little work they could find, the three decided to find a supplement.
At the time, boxing was a popular spectator sport and one of the few that was open to Jewish athletes. Bob and Jack knew that a good fighter could earn a decent living in the ring. Their eyes fell on Leon. At 17, their 6-foot-2, 200-pound, athletic brother towered over most grown men.
"Leon was big and strong and Bob and Jack thought he should be boxing, Mrs. SLAN said. "The family needed the money."
They persuaded him to give it a try and promised their support, she said. "They took him to over the gym. There they were, the three boys walking down the street arm-in-arm with Leon in the middle. They all walked over together to sign Leon up."
They didn't consult their mother. In fact, the brothers decided to enter the fight name Lennie STEIN, so she wouldn't read about Leon in the papers and worry.
As it turned out, the new Lennie STEIN was a natural. Mr. SLAN won his first major fight in a Round 1 knockout over the Toronto Golden Gloves title holder. " STEIN is durable and exceptionally fast for a heavyweight, " The Toronto Star reported in 1935. "He has the ability to rain punishment on his opponents with both hands."
In this way, he won almost all of his major fights. It helped, too, that his coach happened to be Maxie KADIN, a legend in Ontario boxing. Out of 40 bouts, Mr. SLAN netted 34 wins, 22 by knockout, and six losses.
A fighter who possessed a dogged and implacable manner, he was popular with the fans.
"He was known for not staying down on the canvas, Jon SLAN said. "On those rare times when he was decked, he always refused the referee's outstretched hand and picked himself up."
Yet, for all his success, Mr. SLAN rejected the opportunity to go fully professional. A manager and promoter from New York had seen him in a bout with a certain German boxer and saw possibilities.
"He wanted to promote him as the Great White Jewish Hope, " Jon said.
The German boxer happened to be the brother of Max SCHMELING, the Aryan protégé of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich, who in 1936 had defeated the otherwise invincible Joe LOUIS in the upset of the century. To make it even more interesting, the manager proved to be the famous John BUCKLEY, who called the shots for Jack SHARKEY, a heavyweight who had beaten SCHMELING four years earlier.
"The promoter got so interested in this meeting of German and Jew that he offered my father a contract, but he didn't offer enough money, " Jon said.
The problem, it turned out, was that Mr. SLAN couldn't afford to turn professional, he once told a Globe and Mail reporter. "I was making good money then, $25 a week, and I was supporting my mother, " he said in 1988. "I asked him [Buckley] to put up $5,000 [and] he just laughed at me. He said he had hundreds of heavyweights."
Negotiations ended right there. "He was [only] interested in me because I was Jewish and that would go over big in New York."
It wasn't the only time that race emerged as an issue. Mr. SLAN had boxed under the auspices of the Young Men's Hebrew Association until 1936 when it was blackballed by the Amateur Athletic Union of Canada for withholding a portion of its proceeds. The money was earmarked for the Canadian Olympic effort, but the Young Men's Hebrew Association had refused to support the upcoming 1936 Berlin Games because of Germany's poor treatment of Jews. In the end, the Amateur Athletic Union permitted Mr. SLAN to enter as an independent and he went on to fight unattached to win the Toronto and national titles.
"It seemed so easy at the time, " he said in 1988. "I was a very quiet kid, but when I won, I became such a hero."
That glory turned out to be the undoing of Lennie STEIN, the fighter -- though it was all something of an anticlimax. The one thing Leon SLAN had feared on his way up through the ranks came to nothing: his mother finally found out that he boxed and then failed to react -- at least, not that anyone in the family can remember.
"She just took it in her stride, said Isabel SLAN. " She was a Jewish mother from the old country. I don't think she really understood what boxing was all about."
Perhaps, too, it helped to smooth matters that her son's secret endeavours had ended in triumph. She can only have felt a mother's pride.
In 1937, Mr. SLAN retired from boxing and found a job at a produce stall in Toronto's old fruit terminal on Colborne Street and was later hired by his brother Bob, a proprietor of Dominion Citrus Ltd. It was tough work with long hours, Mrs. SLAN said. "Leon would have to get up at 2 o'clock in the morning to go unload the fruits and vegetables off the trucks."
Even so, he still had some time for boxing. After working long days at the market, he taught athletics at the Young Men's Hebrew Association and it was there that he met Isabel MARGOLIAN. A concert pianist newly arrived from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, she happened to take one of his boxing classes for women.
"We were all lined up in a row, punching bags, " she remembered. "Leon came up to me and told me I wasn't punching hard enough. Then he took my hand and hit it into the bag to show me how to do it. I felt my bones crunch, but I didn't say anything."
As it turned out, he had broken her hand. When he learned what had happened, he phoned her and thus began a different relationship. They married in 1942 and later that year Mr. SLAN enlisted in the army where he ended up in the Queen's Own Rifles. While in the army, he returned to boxing and won the 1942 Canadian Army heavyweight title.
After the war, the SLAN brothers founded Dominion Luggage in Toronto's garment district, a company that started small with eight workers and grew into a successful enterprise employing 200. Each brother had a different responsibility -- Jack was the designer, Bob took care of the administration and Leon was the salesman.
"It was a job that really suited him, Mrs. SLAN said. "He was very personable [and] sold to Eaton's, Simpsons, Air Canada -- all the big companies. He became good Friends with many of the buyers."
The three brothers enjoyed a comfortable relationship built on affection and loyalty, Jon said.
"Bob liked to fish, so he took Thursdays and Fridays off to go to his cottage. My father took Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoons off to golf."
Jack, the creative force among them, rarely left the business but never begrudged his brothers their leisure time.
"They had the perfect partnership, " said Jon, a relationship anchored by their mother. "They were her surrogate husbands. I don't think there was a SLAN wife who felt that she wasn't playing second fiddle to my grandmother."
The brothers went to her house every day for lunch until she was 90. "She made old-time Jewish food. Her definition of borscht was sour cream with a touch of beets, " Jon said. "She cooked with chicken fat and the boys loved it."
Sophie SLAN died in 1984 at the age of 93.
In 1972, the SLANs sold Dominion Luggage to Warrington Products, a large conglomerate. "Warrington made them an offer they couldn't turn down, " Isabel said.
Even so, the brothers' relationship continued into retirement. "They called each other every day, even when their health was failing, " Jon said. "Bob died in 2000 and Jack in 2002. My father took their deaths very hard."
Although he never boxed again, Mr. SLAN played sports well into his 70s and could still show his mettle. He had taken up tennis at about the age of 40 and, when he couldn't get a membership at the exclusive Toronto Lawn Tennis Club in Rosedale, he co-founded the York Racquets Tennis Club. It opened in 1964, directly across the street from the Toronto Lawn Tennis Club.
Mr. SLAN died of heart failure in Toronto on February 11. He leaves his wife Isabel, son Jon and daughters Elynne GOLDKIND and Anna RISEN.

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