I have met hundreds of men who spent many years in prison — decades, some of them — and who eventually came home with the hope of restarting their lives by avoiding their old neighborhoods, old associates, old habits and traps. Many failed and ended up back inside. But others succeeded, quietly moving into jobs, reconnecting with family and living honorably the remainder of their days.
Some came out of prison with an ambition — not always acted on — to do good, using their stories as cautionary tales for boys and young men. That’s where we find Warren Boardley, trying to do for Baltimore kids what someone tried to do for him in a previous life.
Warren Boardley today — the one who trains kids in boxing and tries to mentor them away from trouble, the one who spends his nights helping men who’ve been homeless — is not the Warren Boardley of the long gone yesterday, the one federal prosecutors described as a ruthless drug dealer who ran a violent gang that operated out of the Baltimore public housing project where he grew up.
In charging documents and in arguments to judges, prosecutors had nothing but bad to say about the Warren Boardley of the 1980s. He employed dozens of people to sell heroin, they said, and carried out a war against rivals.
His base was Lexington Terrace, one of Baltimore’s rundown, crime-ridden projects that disappeared from the west-side skyline when it was demolished in 1996. By then, Boardley had been in prison for eight years. His days as a drug kingpin had been brought to a halt with his first-ever conviction, a guilty plea to federal racketeering charges, and a 47-year sentence.
Starting at age 27, Boardley spent the next 27 years in prison. He came out in 2015 and returned to Baltimore.
One of his first destinations was the Mack Lewis gym in East Baltimore, but not the old gym, the former dance hall at Broadway and Eager where Boardley had trained to fight when he was a scrappy teenager. It was the new gym, in the Church Square Shopping Center on Bond Street, established several years after Boardley went to prison.
Boardley did not go there to resume his once-promising boxing career. He went, instead, to change young lives — the same thing the legendary Mack Lewis had tried to do with Boardley and hundreds of boys from poor families all over Baltimore.
Background: Mack Lewis, who died in 2010 at age 92, was a trainer of many boxers, some of them world-ranked, including Alvin Anderson, Vernon Mason, Larry Middleton and junior middleweight champ Vincent Pettway.
The new gym and the foundation that bears Lewis’ name carry on his work to make a positive difference in the lives of children and young adults. In his time, Lewis was all about that, though his efforts sometimes met with crushing disappointment.
One was Warren Boardley.
“The skinny boy from the projects,” as a promoter once called him, ran up an impressive record as an amateur boxer by age 19. But Mack Lewis could not sweat the projects out of Boardley, and he ended up in prison.
“I feel like I let Mr. Mack down,” the soft-spoken Boardley says four decades later. “That’s why, come hell or high water, I will continue his legacy.”
So he’s been boxing director at the gym since 2016, a volunteer who trains kids as young as 9. Parents bring their children to the gym to keep them active, get them fit or just keep them off the streets after school. “Boxing gets them in the door,” says Gregory Wilkes, president of the Mack Lewis Foundation and a friend of Boardley’s since their youth in Lexington Terrace. “The idea is to change the trajectory of the lives of young people in this community.”
The gym, recently renovated with a Maryland state grant, is more than a boxing venue. It offers activities for young people throughout the year, including summer classes in science, engineering and the arts and an after-school computer lab. Wilkes and other volunteers hold annual holiday events and food and clothing giveaways for the gym’s neighbors. To keep the lights on, the foundation collects modest membership fees, takes donations from supporting organizations and stages a card of fights four times a year.
Boardley is right in the middle of all this, totally committed to the mission, says Wilkes. “He experienced so much madness in his life and doesn’t want the youth to go down the same path,” he says. “You know, when you have a history, when you have a story to tell, people listen to you.”
If Boardley speaks of his past, it’s as a warning to the boys and young men he meets in the gym. “I don’t look in the rearview,” he says. “If you look in the rearview mirror, you can crash. You have to keep moving forward.”
He added this: “I’ve made it a point in my life to concentrate on what’s ahead of me rather than what’s behind me, especially knowing that the past is history and can never be undone.”
Boardley works nights at Christopher Place, a long-standing residential program, operated by Catholic Charities, that gives men dealing with addictions, men who’ve been homeless and men who’ve been in prison the time and help they need to find jobs and make a successful transition to new lives. Warren Boardley knows something about that.