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John C. Grimek
1910 - 1998
John Grimek, known as the Monarch of Muscledom for five decades, was probably the most revered bodybuilder of all-time. Grimek was so far ahead of other bodybuilders that the rules had to be changed after he won the Mr. America title in 1940 and 1941, to prevent him from dominating the competition for years to come. In addition to being the only two-time Mr. America, he was a national champion and member of the United States Olympic weightlifting team in Berlin (1936). He was chosen "Mr. Universe" at the 1948 Olympic games in London, before going on to win the "Mr. USA" title in Los Angeles in 1949 against the finest professional bodybuilders in the world. The later victory left him as the undisputed best physique in the world, and perhaps the best built man of all time. He retired as the only bodybuilder in history who was never defeated in a contest.
As great as his record was, it doesn't fully account for the adulation he received. Perhaps it was greatness coming along at the opportune time, but there was a magic about Grimek. Much in demand at universities all over the country, art instructors said they had never seen the human form so beautifully put together as it was in John Grimek. Perhaps even more remarkable was his nature .In spite of achieving almost godlike status, Grimek remained a kind and humble man.
What follows is a piece I wrote, with the assistance of two friends, about Grimek for an upcoming issue of Iron Game History to be devoted to his memory. I hope it helps, at least in a small way, to convey why John Grimek was so very special.
An Inspiration For The Ages
The news of John Grimek's passing brought a tear to my eye, as I'm sure it did to the generations of bodybuilders and lifters he inspired. Like perhaps no other person in iron game history, the "Monarch of Muscledom" cast a spell that rippled through time and space indelibly affecting every muscle aspirant in its wake. Grimek's influence had a domino effect, spreading to people in all walks of life. He had a major impact on three people I know very well: a Catholic priest from Nebraska, a Louisiana Judge and me.
I'll never forget the first time I met Grimek. It was in the late 50s when I visited York for the first time, as a little known lifter from New Mexico. John Terpak introduced me to John, who was hard at work hunched over his typewriter. Grimek never looked up, he just shook my hand over his shoulder, and kept typing.
Later, however, when we met in the gym, he was as friendly as can be, telling me he remembered the lights of the city rising up out of the desert as he topped the 9-mile hill west of Albuquerque, my hometown.
It was exhilarating to rub shoulders with Grimek, Stanko, Terpak and others I'd read about in Strength & Health, especially in the old Broad Street gym which held the memories of all the greats who'd trained there; but I didn't realize until recently the vicarious influence Grimek had on me by way of Jim Schwertley.
The key to motivating people is inspiration. The bigger-than-life stars of muscledom featured in the magazines inspire countless wide-eyed readers to take up bodybuilding. Some are incredulous at first. I was - until I spotted Jim Schwertley.
It was several years before I met Grimek, about 45 years ago, but I still remember seeing Schwertley dressing in the locker room of the Albuquerque YMCA after a workout. His pecs and abs rippled as he pulled on his shirt - and his arms. Oh, those arms! To my young eyes they looked like hams bursting out of his sleeves. Seeing Jim convinced me that weight training really could accomplish miracles. It was like seeing Popeye in the flesh. The memory still makes me want to train.
It wasn't until a few days ago, however, when I told Jim the sad news of Grimek's death, that I learned that John had a pivotal influence on Schwertley about a decade before he made a believer of me.
I'm sure the same thing happened in one form or another to thousands of people directly, and perhaps millions more, like me, in the form of a chain reaction.
Here's the story, in Jim's own words.
"My first impression of John Grimek was a profound one, an event that jump-started my weight training that has continued unabated for 53 years, though I've been a priest for 37 of those years.
"It was early September, 1945. I had been training for a few weeks with the old York Barbell Course No. 1. At age 16, I toiled alone in my room, anxiously waiting for muscles to bloom. There had been little progress with the free hand exercise, pushups and chins I had been doing for the previous year to blow up my meager 105 pound frame. I had gained 20 pounds during that year to 125, but my biceps only stretched the tape to 11 1/4" and my chest to 35 inches. I was not surging with confidence that I could do much better with weights, but I grimly pushed and pulled through the exercises three times a week.
"Then it happened! On the drug store shelf I spotted a copy of Strength & Health, the magazine I had ordered the weights from two months before. Lo, there he was, John Grimek, perched on a pillar, a Herculean figure, gracefully reaching up with his left arm as if to shade his eyes, or perhaps salute strength gods, a might right arm braced on the pillar. I was awestruck! I had never seen such a magnificent build - the symmetry, the huge chest, wasp waist, the cantaloupe sized deltoids. It was a turning point! I felt a surge of energy, bought the magazine, and devoured its contents. I was on my way and haven't missed more than a week's workouts in a half century after looking at the pillar pose for inspiration. I still consider that pillar pose the greatest physique shot I have ever seen. Even in an era of more scientific training, advanced nutrition and supplement awareness and use of steroids, I don't believe anyone could match it for overall magnificence, even to the facial handsomeness. It was and is a photographic parallel to the statue of David by Michelangelo.
John Grimek on the September 1945 Strength & Health
"I got a chance to meet Grimek personally in 1950. There was a contest in Kansas City where he was to be guest poser. I went there from Omaha. It was conducted on a boxing ring without ropes, and meager lighting. I'd been in contests in Nebraska before that and this setting was even worse. At length Grimek entered the auditorium, wearing a suit and tie, walking with a rolling, bouncy stride, very light footed. When he came out to pose, he ran toward the boxing ring and leaped up on it, disdaining the stairs, no mean feat. His posing was majestic, fluid, classical, powerful, and included the splits. The place erupted with applause. `This guy is quite a showman,' I marveled.
Afterward I went to the dressing room and met him. It was surreal. His impeccable shape and symmetry were awesome. His abs weren't visible but his waist was trim. He exuded power and grace. It appeared like he'd been dunked in a vat of milk. He had no tan but his skin had a glow to it, sort of a white aura. I've not seen anything like it. He seemed a bit shy standing there answering questions of a group who clustered around. He seemed to have a gentle, friendly nature and made it a point to completely answer all questions.
"Three years later I was competing in regionals and once in a national physique contest, going against people like Mickey Hargitay, Malcolm Brenner, Irvin Kosczowski, Steve Klisanin and Raymond Shafer. The last two later won Mr. America contests, and Hargitay a Mr. Universe. Such competition was a huge challenge for a 5' 8" 180 pounder with a Kosczowski type of build. So I consulted Grimek in writing for training advice and also Olympic lifting tips. He always answered with advice and encouraging words.
"Not long after that I entered the seminary and quit competing but continued training, starting a weight program in the seminary as I had previously done in the Air Force in New Mexico. I didn't see or contact Grimek again for 30 years."
After that long hiatus, Father Schwertley contacted John Grimek again in 1984, and they had a pleasant reunion at the new York building on Ridge Avenue. Surprisingly, Grimek remembered their meeting and correspondence 30 years before. "Wow," Jim thought. "That's quite a memory."
After that, Jim kept in touch with John at least once a year, visiting with John and Angela several times in the 80s and early 90s. Fittingly, he gave John a framed copy of the September, 1945, Strength & Health cover with the magnificent pillar pose which had been his inspiration decades before.
Father Schwertley had been in contact with the Grimeks only two months before and was planning another visit when I informed him of John's death. "I guess our next meeting will have to wait for another time in another world," he mused. "[His] influence will continue here on earth," Jim added.
My friend Judge Dan Sawyer, a resident of Shreveport, Louisiana, was in regular contact with John Grimek for more than 26 years. After first telling me that he couldn't possibly put into words all that John meant to him, he did so brilliantly:
"We are all hero oriented. Everyone carries in his mind the image of an ideal and when he sees that person he knows who it is. In my early teens John Grimek represented what I wanted to be. I told him once, `I worked hard enough to have been a John Grimek over and over.' Compared to him I was like a candle at high noon, but I am ten thousand times better for trying. In the process I developed a lifelong quest to become better in every way and there are hundreds more who are better men because he lived.
"He had life in perspective. His achievements, as we know them, were not his goal. He told me, `It seems everything I did turned to muscle, but the gym is not a place to develop the ego, but the place to develop character and health...that is what it is all about.'
"Whatever were his lifetime achievements, his real greatness was that he was kind and thoughtful and one of the finest gentlemen any of us ever knew. The English language has more words than any other, and is known for its precision, yet it still does not contain the words to describe him.
"As the poet said, `The paths of glory lead but to the grave.' However, there will always be a certain magic in the name John Grimek. He still gives us hope, and his life will float forever through time blessing and inspiring those who follow."
In later years, John always responded to my letters - I loved it when he called me "Clancy Ripped" - so I knew something was wrong when I wrote recently for information to be used in my new book, and heard nothing.
There will never be another Grimek. An era has passed, but John will live on in the memories of Father Jim, Judge Dan and many more like them - and in the annals of iron game history.
To learn more about Grimek and other iron game greats subscribe to Iron Game History (web site: www.edb.utexas.edu/todd-mclean). Iron Game History's special 71-page double issue dated April 1999 is devoted entirely to "John Grimek - The Man."
Historian David Chapman, author of Sandow The Magnificent (which is offered in our products section), has written a wonderful remembering John Grimek piece, which appears in the April 1999 Ironman magazine now on newsstands everywhere. Chapman fills in many of the details of Grimek's life and career, some of which I had forgotten or never knew.
Pinpointing the reason for Grimek's great historical importance, Chapman writes: "In the 1940s John Grimek changed the ideal of the masculine physique forever. No one had ever seen...the massive look he introduced. From then on all muscle builders wanted to look like Grimek"
Grimek emerged on the scene in 1929, when his pictures began appearing in the muscle magazines as "a young man with a massive physique and an uncommon talent for showing it off."
In 1938, John moved to York, Pennsylvania, to train with Bob Hoffman's York Barbell Club. That led to his dual Mr. America victories, in 1940 and 1941. Chapman quotes an astonished witness to Grimek's first Mr. A victory: "Many Judges who had never seen J.C.G. before rubbed their eyes; they never saw such grace, such development, such magnificent physical majesty."
Grimek concluded his competitive career with an impressive victory for the Hoffman camp over the best that arch rival Joe Weider could marshall in the 1949 (Professional) Mr. USA. "Despite strong showings by Steve Reeves, George Eiferman and, especially, Clancy Ross," Chapman writes," Grimek was declared the winner."
Following that spectacular win, John continued to train and offer inspiration through his editorial duties at Strength & Health, and then 21 years as Editor of Muscular Development, the York magazine devoted to bodybuilding.
For many more fascinating facts on the immortal John Grimek pick up a copy of the April Ironman magazine, or call 1-800-447-0008 to order a copy. Better yet, become a subscriber. By the way, the same issue contains an article by the very outspoken George Turner relating his touching and emotional memories of Grimek. It's fascinating reading. Don't miss it.
For more information on Ironman magazine go www.ironmanmagazine.com
Tributes to John Grimek keep coming. One of the best and most moving is an 11-page series of four remembrances by men who knew him well, in the March 1999 issue of Milo, a journal which generally eschews bodybuilding and focuses on "serious strength athletes." Milo publisher Randy Strossen hand-picked three iron game leaders - David Webster, Bill Starr, and Tommy Kono - and asked each for his thoughts on how John Grimek should be remembered. Strossen offers his own memories as well.
The longest and most comprehensive remembrance is by Scottish strongman authority David Webster. In his usual articulate style, Webster tells of seeing John Grimek win the first Mr. Universe contest, held in London's Scala Theatre. Grimek's versatile display, which in addition to formal muscle poses included hand stands and full splits, held the audience "absolutely spellbound," writes Webster. To see a man of such massive musculature performing like an acrobat and dancer was "a revelation" and inspired other of that era to strive for such versatility. None ever quite succeeded, however.
Covering the high points of Grimek's career, the highly-respected Webster calls him "an intensely human, caring being," with a wonderful sense of humor. "I loved meeting with him; he always had a good tale to tell and loved a joke," says Webster.
Bill Starr, a former Strength & Health editor who worked closely with Grimek for a number of years, also focuses on Grimek as "an exceptional human being." He was "easily the most admired man in all of physical culture," says Starr. His finest attribute was "the way he dealt with people," writes Starr. "People flocked to him, eager to shake his hand or talk to him just a moment....He treated everyone the same. It didn't matter if it happened to be some powerful politician or a youngster seeking some training information." Ask Grimek a question and you could always expect a frank answer, Starr remembers.
Starr, who last visited Grimek only a few months before he died, says "I admired and respected him more than any other person on earth."
Tommy Kono, perhaps the greatest Olympic-style lifter America has produced, met Grimek for the first time in 1950, when he (Kono) was a 20-year-old competing in his first National Weightlifting Championship. Later that year, while training in York in preparation for the U.S. Weightlifting team trials, Kono received a telegram saying that his mother had died and he needed to return home. Grimek dropped everything, called the local travel agency to book Kono on a flight out of Baltimore, personally drove him first to Baltimore, where no flights were leaving because of fog, and then to Washington, D.C., where he made certain that Tommy had a seat on the next flight out.
"Here was a legend,busy as he was, going out of his way to help a 20-year-old who had not won a major title and whom he had known only a short time," Kono writes. "I can't say enough good things about the man who took complete responsibility to assist me when I needed help."
Like the others, Kono tells of his experiences with Grimek over the years, some quite amusing, which reflect the goodness of the man. "He will forever be a source of inspiration and epitome of what a person should strive to be," Kono writes. "[He] was 'the King of the Iron Game' to me.
Finally, Randy Strossen tells of meeting Grimek when he (Strossen) was only 16 years old. He drove to York to pick up some weights and asked if it might be possible to talk to John. Much to his surprise, young Strossen was ushered up to the great man's office. "You cannot imagine a less pretentious, more helpful person," says Strossen. Grimek patiently answered his questions and even "obliged me by flexing his arm and calf," Strossen writes. Echoing Bill Starr's observation that people who asked Grimek a question could expect a frank answer, when Strossen produced a physique photo of himself and asked his assessment, Grimek politely responded that Strossen had "what can be called an undeveloped physique."
For many more fascinating stories about John Grimek by these men who knew him well, along with some wonderful never-before-seen photos they provided, Go www.ironmind.com and learn how to get the March issue of Milo, or better yet, become a subscriber.
David Gentle, a well known and respected English physical culturist, writer and historian, has authored a booklet based on his 50-year fascination and acquaintance with John Grimek. John Grimek: Monarch of Muscledom (1999) covers John's life from the early days to his retirement years, including his best lifts and many of his ideas on diet and training.
Grimek didn't like to talk about himself and refused many offers to write or help with a biography, so Gentle has put together the first of what will probably be many books on his life. It's not a fancy publication, unedited with hard-to-read small type and poor photo reproduction, but it's a good read nevertheless; I believe it collects together more information on Grimek in one place than any other publication now available. Especially interesting are the excerpts from and in some cases actual reproductions of letters from Grimek to the author. Pecked out by Grimek on a manual typewriter - and often corrected with pen and ink - the letters offer a fascinating glimpse of the great man up close and personal. In addition to these long and information packed letters, Gentle draws extensively on private conversations and the many articles written by and about Grimek. For anyone interested in the life and times of probably the greatest and certainly the most beloved bodybuilder of all time, Monarch of Muscledom is well worth adding to your library.
Unfortunately, we are told that the book is now out of print.
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Copyright©1998 Clarence and Carol Bass. All rights reserved.