Birth of a Promoter
KATHY DUVA’S NAME IS ENSHRINED IN THE INTERNATIONAL BOXING HALL OF FAME, BUT FOR MANY YEARS EVEN SHE DIDN’T KNOW THE STORY OF HOW HER JOURNEY BEGAN
The following story appeared in the Nov/Dec 2022 issue of The Ring Magazine.
As far back as Kathy Duva can remember, she recalls her parents reading her a children’s book about a couple who went to this big, white room full of babies nestled in cradles, and they picked out the one they liked best. That was Duva’s first understanding of where babies come from. It was also Frank and Pauline Martone’s way of letting their little girl, the infant they picked out in Dover, New Jersey, know her history.
She was adopted.
It surprised many who have known Duva for decades when she spoke of her adoption during her induction speech at the International Boxing Hall of Fame last June in Canastota, New York, where her plaque will be placed next to that of her late husband, Dan. Looking over Kathy’s lifelong journey to Canastota, though, being embraced by strangers kind of fits, especially when you consider the wacky, twisting, turning culture of boxing. She’s often been the stable eye of the storm. A graduate of Montclair State with a bachelor’s degree in English, she and Dan created Main Events in 1979. When Dan, the son of legendary trainer Lou Duva, passed away from brain cancer in 1996, Kathy took over as Main Events’ CEO. She went back to school to study law at Seton Hall.
She raised her three children – Nicole, Lisa and Bryan – as she attended law school while navigating the helter-skelter world of boxing, fielding calls at all times of the night from promoters, managers and boxers. She graduated with honors in 2001.
As a child, Kathy could feel the looks on the back of her neck because of the distinct physical difference between her and her parents. She may have had suspicions she was not the biological daughter of Frank and Pauline, who didn’t hide it from her. However, having an inkling is one thing; accepting it came bluntly.
Pauline died when Kathy was 7 and Frank remarried. Her stepmother, Frances, dropped the sledgehammer one day when Duva was 8. Duva was having an emotional outburst during a lunch break from school, unspooling the mantra of stepchildren: “You’re not my real mother. I don’t have to listen to you.” To which Frances replied, “She wasn’t your real mother, either.” Kathy countered, “What do you mean she wasn’t my real mother?”
Very coldly, Frances told her, “Oh, they adopted you.”
“It didn’t upset me, because I had always been indoctrinated with it and had been told my whole life,” remembered Kathy, now 69 and a breast cancer survivor. “I just didn’t fully grasp it, because my childhood situation was different than everybody else’s. By then, at 8, I understood where babies came from, but I never really put it together that I was adopted. That day I did. I remember telling my friend as I walked back to school that I was adopted. She said, ‘Yeah, I know. Everybody knows.’
“But Frank and Pauline were my parents. They loved and raised me.”
Without them, Duva probably wouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame and her story would not be told here.
Who knows what would have happened to Laura Anne Timmons?
That was Kathy’s birth name.
“I remember telling my friend as I walked back to school that I was adopted. She said, ‘Yeah, I know. Everybody knows.’”
Jerry Zaccardi and Nancy Kelly, who had a few names that she went by and was born Anne Josephine Timmons, were not exactly Ozzie and Harriet. Zaccardi’s gambling burned through two auto shops, and serial philandering produced at least two children out of wedlock – one of them being Kathy – that anyone knows about. He was a suave, bronzed World War II veteran with a wandering eye. At 15, he lied about his age to join the U.S. Navy. He later went on to invent a sensor that told if a bumper got too close to another car and sold it to Ford. He had five children with his wife; through her biological father, Kathy has three living siblings: Jerry, Ron and Nancy. Zaccardi died in his 80s.
Nancy Kelly was 17 when she had Kathy in 1953. Being a teenage mother, especially one raised Irish Catholic, was incredibly taboo for that era. Compounding her situation was that Nancy Kelly lived on the very same Jersey City block as the local Catholic church and school. She was banished to live with her sister in Dover, New Jersey, which explains why it’s on Kathy’s adoption papers.
Nancy was a tiny spitfire of a woman who made a buck as a cocktail waitress and lounge singer. She was also “connected.” In 1969, her connections led to owning a corner bar-restaurant called Kelly’s Grove on Patterson Plank Road in the Heights section of Jersey City. This was a time when there were town ordinances that prevented women from even being in the bar portion of bar-restaurants. Nancy didn’t care. She was a maverick. She “knew people” and possessed such temerity that she would throw out drunk patrons on her own, Kathy was told.
After giving Kathy up, Nancy never tried looking for her. Though every once in a while, Kathy was told by her newly found relatives, family kitchen talk would turn to the baby Nancy gave up.
Nancy’s lifestyle eventually caught up to her and she died of cirrhosis at just 53 years old. She accomplished incredible things for her time but did not have a happy life, according to what Kathy knows. Kathy has one sibling through her biological mother, her brother Bobby Kelly, who played minor league baseball and could have made the majors if he didn’t blow out his arm.
Frank Martone, Kathy’s adoptive father, was the first college graduate in his family. He obtained his college degree through the G.I. Bill and went on to become an insurance salesman. His wife, Pauline, was a college graduate who served during World War II as an Army nurse. Kathy was encouraged as a child to go to college and was told that she could be whatever she wanted to be.
It’s mind-bending to imagine the other paths her life could’ve taken.
“I got lucky, very lucky with all my parents,” she said. “It’s hard to say what my path would have been like if I wasn’t adopted. My father [Frank] told me I was going to college. It was not an option. In the end, I think I would still have the same drive I have, but I can’t say if I would have wound up in the Hall of Fame or if my biological parents would have pushed me to go to school. I don’t know. It would have been such a different environment.
“There is some Nancy Kelly in me and I’m very proud of that. My father Jerry ran his own business and my brothers tell me he competed in the second Daytona 500 and invented a device that was bought by Ford. He was an intelligent man. He was clearly very smart and very capable. I’m very proud of that. My [biological] parents were both remarkable people who had flaws. I got stuff from both sides. I’m just grateful that I didn’t get their addictions. They all came up in a different time.
“My brothers are highly intelligent and responsible. My sister is the same. Ron is pretty extraordinary, going back to run the family business when my father suffered a stroke. Ron supported his parents for many, many years. What’s more remarkable at this stage of my life is these strangers have taken me in 60-odd years later, including relatives in Ireland, not to mention the people here. That’s even more compelling.”
It had a lot to do with Kathy’s daughters, Nicole and Lisa. In the early 2000s, Kathy tried a few adoption databases to find out about her past, to no avail. Nicole and Lisa urged Kathy to keep trying. In 2016, Nicole found the 23andMe website, which compares DNA profiles. Nicole soon found an email alert that the website found a match. It wound up being a dead end.
“What’s more remarkable at this stage of my life is these strangers have taken me in 60-odd years later, including relatives in Ireland …”
The second hit came in early July 2017, a cousin on her father’s side. The news coincided with Kathy losing her childhood friend Liz Pegel to cancer. Kathy Googled the cousin. Regrettably, she found the cousin’s obituary from the same week.
The third connection came in May 2018. Finally, a breakthrough. Nancy Milbauer was her paternal sister, Jerry’s daughter.
“I was very excited to meet Nancy, and she was too,” Kathy recalled. “She was 71. She knew she had a brother out of wedlock, and she said knowing her father, there might have been others out there.”
Nancy and Kathy met on June 29, 2018, Kathy’s birthday, at a small restaurant in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Nancy was already seated when Kathy arrived. A bond was forming through prior conversations on the phone. They spoke in person for four hours, poring over everything, showing each other pictures on their phones.
In December 2018, Nicole knocked on Kathy’s office door with more impactful information: “Guess what,” Nicole said. “I found your mother.”
Nicole put Kathy in touch with Kim, the daughter of Bobby Kelly.
“Kim told me about her father and she told me a story about how she found out I existed, because neither side knew I existed,” Kathy said. “Kim told me about a family party, when she was very young, overhearing the women talking over drinks in the kitchen one night about how my mother gave up a child.
“She told my brother Bobby that she wanted to go looking for me. Kim and Nicole came up as a match as cousins. That’s what started it.”
Kathy invited Bobby and his family on Saturday, December 22, 2018, to her home in Little Falls, North Jersey. What’s interesting is when Kathy opened the door to meet the brother she never knew she had, they were wearing identical clothes.
“I decided to change into a red V-neck cashmere sweater with black pants, and I opened the door and I see my brother Bobby wearing a red sweater and black pants,” Kathy said. “We spent a lot of time that night getting to know each other, and [hearing] stories about my mother.
“There was a big resemblance in our children when they were young. There was so much stuff to take in. You meet and talk to Bobby and it’s as if you’ve known him your whole life.”
Kathy’s extended family was there for her induction in June. When she said “so this weekend, this adopted only child is joined by two brothers, my sister, two nieces, assorted cousins, their spouses” during her speech, it threw off a few boxing people who didn’t know.
“I felt throughout my whole life as if I was dropped from outer space,” she said. “I had no concept of where I came from or how I got here. That was it. My adopted parents’ families, they were my family. But I definitely knew something was different. I knew my cousins and I weren’t related. No one treated me any different than they would have; they just knew. My father was 40, my mother was 37 when they adopted me.
“All my aunts and uncles were way older, and my cousins were old enough to be my parents. I didn’t have anyone I was particularly close with. To find this whole network of people who care about me out of nowhere and being accepted by them is astonishing.
“Especially after having lost Liz, who was like my sister. When Liz was dying, she was going crazy telling me how I should start dating and trying to find a friend for me. We were best friends since we were 14. Clearly, she was trying to prepare me. Losing her and finding all of these people in my life I don’t find as a total coincidence.”
Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter who has been working for Ring Magazine/RingTV.com since October 1997 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.