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Time Machine: Alex Fidler

Friend of boxing, boss of newsboys

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In the first half of the 20th century, newsboys would be on city street corners hawking the local newspaper.

The Gazette had up to 120 newsboys on the streets every day, yelling “Evening Paper” or whatever the headline was that day. When something big happened that required a special edition, the cry would change to “Extra! Extra!”

In Cedar Rapids, the newsboys’ boss for 45 years was a popular and well-loved man named Alex Fidler.

Fidler, as The Gazette’s street circulation manager, not only hired the boys (and a few girls), he also became their lifelong friend.

The newsboys typically would sell 3,500 to 4,000 Gazettes each afternoon and evening.

Fidler remembered that his crew sold 11,000 copies of an extra about the Armistice that ended World War I. Sales were heavy the day the Douglas Starch Works exploded in May 1919.

The best spots for “newsies” were along First Avenue, at the gates of industrial plants and at the doors of office buildings.

Fidler wore another hat, too.

He was known as “a skillful and competent third man in the ring at probably more boxing matches than any other person,” according to a Gazette article, “as a hawker of hot dogs, peanuts and popcorn at sporting events; as a fun-fomenting drummer in the parading Shrine band; as a gentle masseur and trainer of champion athletes; as a grassroots worker nailing posters of his favorite political candidates to telephone poles; or just as a cheerful and inquisitive fellow with an arm draped over your shoulder wanting to know ‘What’s new, pally?’ ”

in the ring

Fidler was born in Philadelphia in 1890. His father was a tailor, who moved his family to Chicago, Minneapolis and Des Moines.

Fidler attended school through the third grade in Minneapolis, but when he got to Des Moines, he began selling newspapers. That job, he said, taught him to understand people.

He became interested in boxing through his association with other newsboys and started a small gymnasium at Sixth and Walnut in Des Moines. When he discovered that being a boxer wasn’t meant for him, he became a trainer, promoter and referee.

He arrived at The Gazette In 1914 and never left.

He refereed The Gazette’s first Golden Gloves tournament in Cedar Rapids in 1935. The Gazette began presenting the Alex Fidler Trophy for the most outstanding novice in 1954.

Licensed as a boxing ref in six states, Fidler was featured in “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” for the number of bouts he had refereed. By the end of 1954, he had refereed nearly 16.500 fights and wrestling matches. He had worked fights in front of crowds of thousands as well as impromptu bouts held in barns.

Fidler handled professional exhibition bouts for famed boxers Max Baer, Jack Johnson, Max Schmeling, Primo Carnera, Maxie Rosenbloom and Jack Dempsey. He became a good friend of Dempsey.

A BUSY LIFE

Among the thousands of youngsters who worked for Fidler were some who became famous, including actor Don DeFore, Nebraska businessman and politician Terry Carpenter, Chicago South Shore Bank co-founder Stanley Hallett, as well as Cedar Rapids Public Safety commissioner Ed Prochaska.

Not so well known were the times when Fidler bought a suit of clothes for a young man or helped with college expenses. His philosophy was, “God put us here for a purpose and gave us heads and hands to work with. I wouldn’t want to think I wasn’t doing what He wanted me to do with mine.”

Fidler often could be found at the Union railroad depot, near Greene Square, greeting “his” boys as they came home from war.

Fidler also operated concessions at the University of Iowa football and basketball games and at Kingston and Memorial stadiums in Cedar Rapids.

Just before he turned 65 in 1955, Fidler told a Gazette reporter, “I’m in good shape. I feel good most of the time.”

He was described as a man of average build who didn’t look his true age. He walked fast and talked even faster. Asked if he was ready to retire, Fidler said, “If I’d retire, I’d die. I wouldn’t know what to do without this life of mine. I’ll keep right on going — just as long as I possibly can.”

FINAL YEARS

Fidler was hospitalized Feb. 21, 1958, for a clot in his left leg, undergoing surgery at University Hospitals in Iowa City. While he was there, he spent time with his old friend, Betty Young, who suffered from polio. She had been on a chest respirator at the hospital for five years.

When he was finally released, Fidler reduced his refereeing to “just” two bouts a night while he recovered.

Fidler became ill while in his office July 26, 1959. He was taken to St. Luke’s hospital, where it was discovered he had had a slight stroke.

A severe stroke ended Fidler’s life on April 24, 1960, at age 70. The last newsboy quit selling newspapers on the street in the early 1960s.

“Cedar Rapids’ ‘greatest show on earth’ is over,” Betty Young wrote in a note to The Gazette’s sports department, “and soon to become a legend. I am, of course, referring to the kindest, sweetest, best friend anyone ever had — Alex Fidler. I feel sure that something will be done in his memory. ... Anything done will seem small in comparison to what he did for me, but who can repay the wonderful gift he gave us all?”

Young donated $10 toward any fund that would be established. Another $25 came from Ernie Kosek of Cedar Rapids and still another from an anonymous donor. It was the seed money for the Alex Fidler Memorial Fund. Administered through the El Kahir Shrine, where Fidler was a member, the fund was intended to assist in the education of needy and deserving youngsters.

“You certainly have the wholehearted approval of mother (Sadie Fidler) and me,” said Fidler’s son, Paul, a United Airlines captain. “We are very appreciative that this is being done, as we know it is the kind of thing Dad would have wanted.”

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