One night long ago, I stood online in Shop Rite feeling like the third most famous person in New Paltz. Ahead of me were Heinz Meng and Floyd Patterson, the former an internationally recognized falconer and SUNY New Paltz ornithologist whose hands-on way with the speedy birds of prey had landed him several guest spots on The Tonight Show over the years. Meng was also my neighbor and the husband of my fifth-grade science teacher.
The latter, of course, was a two-time heavyweight champion of the world, the gracious and generous long-time New Paltz resident who did so much for the community, its youth, St. Joseph’s Church, and any number of beneficent orders of the kind that wear fezzes and drive miniature cars in parades, and of the kind that do not. Floyd was, as they say, the real deal, and he is buried on Plains Road, about a quarter-mile from where I sit.
He was a genuine and enduring presence in this town, from the early Sixties — at the height of his fame — on. In my opinion, his number should be retired as the most famous New Paltz resident of all time, regardless of what movie- or rock-star should happen to buy a huge swath of Gunks in the next few years and take their brunch at the Bistro, where everyone acts conspicuously blasé in their presence. Nope. In the Sixties and Seventies, the children just ran up to Floyd.
Floyd reigned during boxing’s heyday. It is hard to convince anyone younger than 40, and maybe 50, how resonant and universally attended boxing was through at least the end of the Ali-Frazier years, arguably even into the early tenure of Tyson, who shares with Floyd the distinction of having been discovered by Cus D’Amato, some 30 years apart. Of Iron Mike, I seem to recall Floyd urging us to reserve judgment, to recognize the life he came from, and to give the kid a chance.
A Golden Gloves champion as well as a gold medalist in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, Floyd took the heavyweight belt from Archie Moore in 1956. He was at the time the youngest heavyweight champion. He lost his title to the charismatic Swede Ingemar Johansson in 1959. Ingemar knocked Floyd to the mat seven times in the third round. That is something that will never happen again.
In the 1960 rematch, Floyd landed a particularly vicious instance of infamous left hook in the fifth. Johansson was out cold before his head hit the mat, and people worried for his life. Floyd cradled Ingemar’s head in the ring. The two ran the Stockholm Marathon together in 1982.
Floyd’s last fight, at 37, was an unceremonious, one-sided loss to Muhammed Ali in 1972. I remember watching on Wide World of Sports. What I didn’t know until today is that Floyd tried his hand at acting, appearing on a 1968 episode of that bizarre sci-fi Western, The Wild Wild West.
During all those years of Floyd and Heinz, Sandy Duncan lived in a beautiful house on Dug Road. Purely mysterious, I never once saw her in town — the child who would not grow up, the one-eyed Woman of the Wheat.