Martin McGarry, a pipefitter by trade and boxer by passion, tore down the coach house at his Beverly home and turned it into a gym to teach boxing to hundreds of kids.
He got them off the streets, into school and helped them find jobs.
“He helped tons of kids,” said Chicago’s John Collins, 57, a 1980s U.S. Boxing Association middleweight champion who was a student at Leo High School when he met Mr. McGarry. “He helped them learn how to fight. He got kids into college. He was a great mentor.”
Mr. McGarry died at his Beverly home on Wednesday, a little over six weeks before he and his family were to be honored at the March 11 South Side Irish Parade.
He was 66 and had amyloidosis, a disease in which there’s an abnormal protein buildup in the organs.
The disease also claimed the lives of close relatives including his mother, two older brothers, a sister, an uncle and first cousins, according to his wife Kathy and daughter Nora Winters.
The National Latino Amateur Boxing association called him “a legend in Chicago boxing, a true gentleman, and one of the scrappiest Irishman to ever walk the Earth.”
For boys and girls who couldn’t pay for lessons, “He never charged a penny,” said Collins.
“It’s not about money,” Mr. McGarry once said in an interview with City Hall’s cable TV show “Chicago Revealed.” “It’s about keeping kids out of jail, and this helps them mentally and physically to develop their character and send them down the right road.”
Mr. McGarry grew up in Ireland in Aughoose, a village near Belmullet, a seaport town on one of County Mayo’s westernmost fingertips.
In 1967, he came to Chicago for the wedding of his sister Annabelle, who’d already immigrated to America. He decided to make the city his home two years later.
In 1971, he met his future wife. “His brogue was very charming,” she said.
Though American, Kathy Toolis had roots on Ireland’s Achill Island. “His mother knew my grandfather’s people,” she said. “She told him, ‘I know the Toolises from Achill Island.’ ”
At the time, he was laying concrete with his brothers in Chicago. But he always boxed.
“Boxing was his passion,” she said. “They had a little church in his village, and the priest there started a boxing club.”
“I could have joined the IRA,” he said in a 2014 interview with the Beverly Patch. “Some of these guys thought nothing of putting a bomb in a pub and running off. Boxing kept me out of trouble.”
In Chicago in the early 1970s, he “won Golden Gloves and CYO [Catholic Youth Organization] and state championships,” his wife said.
At his home at 102nd and Hoyne, he built a two-story structure with a boxing ring on the upper floor and provided the equipment for his nonprofit McGarry’s Boxing Club.
When future “Lord of the Dance” Michael Flatley was a student at Brother Rice High School, Mr. McGarry gave him boxing pointers, his wife said.
When Dan Letz had his first lesson at 13, Mr. McGarry told him, “Get those hands up, Danny.” Letz, 33, a Mount Carmel High School graduate, now runs the gym at Celtic Boxing Club in Mount Greenwood.
“I wouldn’t be doing that if it wasn’t for Mr. McGarry and the McGarry Boxing Club,” Letz said.
Mr. McGarry paid part of the tuition at Mount Carmel for former pro fighter John Klobucar, 33, who won a national Junior Golden Gloves championship in 2001.
“He told me to stay in school and take boxing as far as I can,” Klobucar said. “ ‘What you get in the ring, you take with you throughout your life.’ ”
In 2011, Mr. McGarry was diagnosed with amyloidosis.
“He took this on as his fight,” his wife said, traveling to Germany and Boston for treatment and clinical trials.
One of his favorite memories was the time he got to shadow box with Muhammad Ali at Coulon’s Gym at 63rd and University. “He just thought there was nobody like Muhammad Ali,” his wife said.
He liked to relax at the gleaming bar in his basement, where he had Guinness and Smithwick’s on tap.
Mr. McGarry is also survived by two other daughters, Theresa Lakawitch and Molly McAlinden; a son, Morgan; a sister, Annabelle Kelly; brothers Christopher and Oliver; and seven grandchildren.
Visitation is from 3 to 9 p.m. Sunday at St. Barnabas Catholic Church, with a funeral Mass there at 10:30 a.m. Monday and burial at St. Mary Cemetery in Evergreen Park.