Hey Justin. My name is Joe Burke. I used to train with Lee. I read your article and actually have a stack of copies of it from about a year ago. It's a great thing you did to write about Lee. I live in California now and believe it or not was training at a random gym in LA, and I noticed a trainer who was coaching his boxer in footwork. When they took a break, I walked over and asked him if he had trained under Lee. Yes he had! Nobody else would work on the seemingly simple back and forth, side to side, and crisscrossing to strengthen your legs the way Lee did. Lee's reach has crossed many miles.
Personally, I trained with Lee during college in Pittsburgh, and off and on for the years after. He was always there for me as I'm sure he was for you too. He was there training every single day. Unfortunately, I was never a very good learner, and I got rocked in 4 out of my 5 fights, but Lee never seemed to mind. We'd just grab a bite to eat and talk about everything.
If there is any one thing that Lee taught me, it's that we can always do more than we think we can. Our minds creat limitations to what we can do. He would always push me to do more. Like the pushups to 10 and down (seemed impossible at first). Then from 21 down. One day he had me do pushups from 31 down! I never thought I could, but I did. My arms were sore for a week, but I did it. He proved to us on a daily basis that we can and should push ourselves.
I could go on and on about Lee, but as you already know him, I'd be preaching to the choir. Lee will always be a huge part of my life, as I know he is for you and many other people. As our friend always said, "stay strong"
- Joe Burke
Hi, Justin, I found your website while searching the Internet for articles on Lee Spell. I was so glad to see your tribute to him. My father worked with Lee at a steel mill in Carnegie, PA, and they were friends since before I was born. I grew up under Lee's wing, and he attended all of our (my sister's as well) birthday parties and family functions. He also brought my sister and I dinner and took us to the gym with him on the nights that my father worked late. I moved to Maryland after graduating college in 1997, so I saw Lee less and less as I got older. However, I constantly reminded my father to tell Lee "hello" for me, and to give him my best. I was able to see Lee at the steel mill in 2004, and we all had our picture taken together. What a blessing. When my father notified me of Lee's passing, I sent a donation and tribute to PA Golden Gloves in Lee's name. It was my way of memorializing him. Lee will always be in my heart and my memories, and I am so touched to see that he impacted your life in such a positive manner as well. Keep well, and keep Lee in your thoughts.
Best of luck to you,
Lee’s greatness as a trainer was exceeded only by his greatness as a person. Few men have given so much while expecting nothing in return. Lee’s genuine concern for others was exemplified by the countless sacrifices he made on the behalf of those he knew. Lee was a teacher who taught skills important to boxing, while also sharing the lessons important in life. In the end, Lee’s death was heartbreaking, but also symbolic of the person he was and the life he led. Lee’s last moments were spent in the place he loved, doing what he enjoyed the most; in the gym, helping others. It was not surprising that Lee was living the dreams that he held until his very last second. His memory will forever inspire us.
-- Rick Manning, trainer at the 3rd Avenue Gym in Pittsburgh, PA --
Good trainer, great friend.
by Justin Salvato
"Look for the old homeless guy."
"Wait a second, the trainer is homeless?"
"No, but he looks like he is, but don’t let that fool you. He’s a smart man. He knows his stuff."
And with that, I went to the 3rd Avenue Gym in downtown Pittsburgh. The trainer in I was seeking, the old homeless looking guy, is Lee Spell. Why am I writing about my trainer? The answer is simple; to let everyone know about one of the most generous & thoughtful human beings I have ever met.
I opened the door, walked down the steps, and found Lee leaning against a stationary bike. And my friend was right, he looked like he was down-and-out. He’s not dirty, not at all. But his clothes are, well, old and faded. Lee was wearing a beanie, the type that Mickey from the Rocky films wore, and a green military jacket. Keep in mind, it was late summer. I should also mention the jacket, for whatever reason, weighs about 50 pounds! He looks like a very old man, but I am not a superficial person, if this man knows boxing, I wasn’t going to let his appearance stop me from seeking him out. I went right up to him.
"Are you Lee?" I asked.
"I was told you can train me."
"Uh, what do you want me to do?" At this point, I was a bit nervous by his one-word answers.
"Footwork." “You mean shadow boxing?”
"Uh, has anyone showed you the basic footwork exercises?" He asked as he stood up.
"Nope." I felt as though I was missing out on something; I already had a few years experience in boxing and martial arts.
Lee then started bouncing, moving from side to side, hopping from one foot to the other, etc.. I followed. He told me to do 3 rounds of footwork, then he wanted to see me shadowbox in the ring for a few more rounds after that. Lee pointed out that my chin was too high when I did a shoulder roll. I kept moving around, throwing punches at the air, checking my form in the mirror. He then had me do a lot of abdominal exercises. At this point I realized Lee was going to be the one to get me in shape, almost like a conditioning coach. Another trainer, Rick Manning, would be the one to fine-tune my boxing skills. I’ll have to write about him some other time.
About eight months go by and I find myself at the Pennsylvania Golden Gloves State Finals in Wilkes-Barre. I was very nervous. First of all, the fights were taking place at my old gym. I’d be fighting in front of friends and my old trainer.
Secondly, I was here alone. My trainers were not coming. I was to only have the owner of my gym be my corner man. Let’s just say I was not too excited about that. He’s a good man, but I didn’t like his coaching skills. So I sat there, in the gym, by the ring, for a long time. Then I saw a shadow of a beanie hat walking down the stairs toward the gymnasium. It was Lee Spell. I was so relieved. He told me he wanted to make sure a trainer was in the corner of the fighters from the 3rd Avenue Gym.
Well, I was called to the ring. I just knew things were not going to go well the moment I saw my opponent. He was huge! I couldn’t believe he was in my weight class, in fact, I still refuse to believe it. We came to the center of the ring, touched gloves and the fight commenced. We clinched after just 15 seconds into the fight. He shoved and moved me around the ring like I was a rag doll. I knew he was not in my weight class! The second round was going to be the last in this fight. He threw a right hand to my head, knocked me down. I got up, wished I didn’t, and went on. A few seconds later, he threw another right hand, and knocked me out cold. The first thing I saw when I became conscious was Lee padding my face down with an ice pack. That’s when I knew I lucked out; I have a compassionate trainer. Lee made sure my girlfriend did not let me fall asleep. Worried I may go into a coma or something.
In the months leading up to the fight and the months after it, I learned that Lee makes many sacrifices. He goes straight from work to the gym to train fighters. He spends a lot late nights at the gym too, neglecting his need for sleep. For what? Not money apparently, cause I don’t see anyone handing any amount of it over to him. And he is always concerned about his fighters, especially the younger ones. He’s always pestering them about their grades and their work out habits, which they will probably appreciate later in life. I just hope all boxers are as lucky as I am. I hope they all have a trainer like Lee Spell, a man not concerned about money or fame, just the welfare of his fighters.