Vern and Lilly: Ring my bell

  • Updated: October 1, 2012 - 7:03 PM
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Lilly Cronberg recently served as timekeeper during a series of amateur boxing bouts at a downtown St. Paul hotel, along with Vern Sweeney, who has judging duties.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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Portraits in words and pictures by Gail Rosenblum and Jim Gehrz.

Vern Sweeney, 82, and Lilly Cronberg, 77, travel nearly 23,000 miles annually, stopping in sunny spots like Mesa, Ariz., and Oxnard, Calif. Snowbirds? Hardly. Vern and Lilly are amateur boxing's power team, driving Lilly's Lincoln Town Car from Maine to Nebraska to California to officiate at tournaments and clinics -- 30 matches already this year.

Vern, president of USA Boxing Minnesota, is judge and ring captain. He makes sure that scorecards are accurate. Lilly is timekeeper, operating with the precision of a Swiss train, ringing her bell and blowing a whistle to begin and end each round. She's alert also to cues to give that piercing bell another smack should things look dicey in the ring.

"We want to make sure the kids don't get hurt," Lilly says. "If the doctor or referee says 'Stop,' you have to stop the clock. C'mon, Damon!" she shouts, seated just under the ring at a match at St. Paul's Crowne Plaza Hotel. "Work it!" Lilly retired after 35 years in a tool products factory and would have been content to play cards and tend to her garden. But 17 years ago, she met Vern at a party. He invited her for a spin on his motorcycle and it's been a wild ride since.

Vern boxed undefeated for two years at Shell Lake High School in Wisconsin, "but I didn't like hurting anybody," he says. He was one of the first white boxers to train at the Phyllis Wheatley House, a Minneapolis community center for African-Americans, and was a boxing coordinator for the World Games in 1980.

Lilly started coming to Vern's matches, studying what timekeepers did. "A lot of 'em didn't show up," she said. "I've been the timekeeper ever since."

Both are divorced, with grown children. They split their time between his house in Monticello and hers in Maple Grove, but they're on the road two weeks of every month, pursuing their passion as volunteers.

"Boxing," says Vern, who ran a barbershop in Hopkins for 52 years, "gives kids a lot of confidence." He's seen them grow into doctors, lawyers, a school board chairman, even a Catholic priest. A few go pro. Vern is intrigued by the talent among young female boxers, two of whom medaled in the 2012 Summer Olympics. "The guys lost everything," Vern notes.

Next up? Toledo in early October. "We stop at the rest stops and he takes a 10- or 15-minute nap," Lilly says of her gentle, goateed boyfriend. "Then he's good for the whole day."

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