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The Centenarian Who Never Grew Old

Joe “The Great” Rollino (1905-2010)

See below for Artie Drechsler's Reflections on the life of "The Great One"

The physical culture world is in shock! The incredible Joe Rollino, who seemed immune to Father Time, has died, two months short of 105. The irony is that it wasn’t age that caught up with him. It was a minivan. He was run down while crossing the street at the crack of dawn to buy a paper and keep up on the news. (A tragic mishap, the driver was not charged.)

Joe walked every morning and went to the gym regularly. He was operating on all fronts. He went out with guns firing.

When Carol and I last saw Joe he was holding his own magnificently at the “Wisdom of the Ages Seminar” presented in conjunction with the 25th anniversary reunion of the Association of Oldetime Barbell and Strongmen (AOBS). He faired extremely well alongside legendary honorees Tommy Kono, Clyde Emrich, and Red Lerille—all decades younger. He spoke without notes and answered questions from the audience without hesitation. He exhibited surprising aplomb. His composure and poise were remarkable. He had it all together.

His performance far exceeded what you would expect of one his age. To my mind Joe was the star of the presentation—and the weekend. If that’s what aging does to clean living, active, engaged people, bring it on.  

It’s heartbreaking that Joe Rollino has left us. But if it had to be, it’s uplifting and fitting that he when out on top of his game.

His will live on in memory as The Man Who Never Grew Old.

Joe kidding around with physique artist Russ Testo at the 2008 AOBS gathering (photo by Carol Bass) [For more photos of Rollino and others at the AOBS reunion: http://www.cbass.com/AOBS25Reunion.htm ]

To see and learn more about Rollino, read “Gone While Still Going Strong” in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/12/nyregion/12ironman.html

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[The following is a eulogy delivered by Artie Drechsler, President of The Association of Oldetime Barbell & Strongmen (AOBS) and adopted nephew of Joe Rollino. Don't be dissuaded by the length; you'll find every word a meaningful reflection on Joe Rollino's life. Artie Drechsler, an Iron Game historian par excellence, knows the story of "The Great One" perhaps as well as anyone--and tells it like no one else could. I thought I knew the story, but Artie added facts and perspective that complete the picture with remarkable clarity. As Artie suggests, Joe Rollino's life story may be the most amazing of them all.]

Reflections on “The Great” Joe Rollino

by Artie Drechsler

I’m deeply honored to have been asked by Joe’s loving niece, Christina Vadala, to deliver this eulogy, for the man who adopted me as his nephew. However, I must confess that on one level, it is an impossible task. To do justice to the achievements, the experiences, the relationships and the insights that this amazing man accumulated across his nearly 105 years on this earth could not be done in the time we have here today. That would literally take volumes – many volumes, and very long ones at that. Perhaps Joe’s best friend, Mike D’Angelo, said it best, when earlier this week a reporter asked Mike if he could record his memories of the great Joe. Mike simply said, “You don’t have enough tape”. Indeed he didn’t. He couldn’t.

As I look around this room today, I see those who know Joe as a neighbor, a friend, a relation, a fellow parishioner, a boxer, a stevedore, a strongman, a trainer, a teacher, a motivator, and a role model. He was all of those things and more. Today I will try to give you all, especially those who did not know him very well, just a sense of the many extraordinary facets of this remarkable man.

Joe came into this world as part of a family that was to grow to a total of 10 children, born of parents who had recently come to this country from Italy and Austria. Joe’s father was a giant in terms of his physical size and strength. His mother, though diminutive in physical stature, had a brilliant mind and a powerful character. Together these earnest parents gave their young son many gifts, and he took those gifts and developed them to an extraordinary level.

Joe’s father recognized that his son had inherited his great strength, so he decided to try to apprentice young Joseph, at the age of 10, to the “Strongest Man in America” at that time, Warren Lincoln Travis. However, when he was approached by Joe’s father, the famous strongman was dubious about taking on someone so young and diminutive (Joe was well under 100 lbs at the time), but when the youngster managed to lift the strongman’s 250 lb. dumbbell off the ground, Travis’ doubts vanished. Joe would indeed be his protégé.

By the time the youngster was 15, he was Travis’ opening act and a superman in his own right. Under Travis’ guidance Joe built his body, his mind, his showmanship, his knowledge of this country (through his travels with his mentor) and a keen sense of strongmanism worldwide. At Travis’ side, young Joseph met virtually every strongman of note who lived in, or entered, the US between 1915 and WWII. Those strongmen always wanted to meet America’s leading strongman.

While under Travis’ tutelage, Joe developed incredible all around body strength. He was eventually able to perform a back lift with 3200 pounds, one of the greatest lifts ever performed, pound for pound, in this strength test (Joe weighed only 145 pounds at the peak of his strength). He also lifted 635 lb. with just one of his thick and powerful fingers and regularly bent coins with his phenomenal grip. 

In 1919, Joe developed a new interest when he witnessed the legendary Jack Dempsey- Jess Willard heavyweight world championship fight. He was so excited by what he saw that he became a boxer, fighting by his estimate approximately 100 “armory fights” under the ring name “Kid Dundee.” Perhaps the highlight of his boxing career came when he had the opportunity to spar with Jack Dempsey, who he later said hit him harder than any person he had ever fought. In fact, when he was well past the age of 100, Joe used to say he could still feel the force of Dempsey’s blow as it crashed into his ribs during that sparring session.

Joe grew up to be extremely patriotic, ready to defend his country at any time he was needed. He was just a bit too young to serve in WWI but, anticipating the coming of WWII, he joined the US army in 1939. He went on to see much action in the Pacific theater of the war, earning bronze and silver stars for his heroism (such as carrying four injured soldiers under his arms as he raced to pull them out of harm’s way while under heavy enemy fire).

Eventually Joe was gravely injured himself, by bullets and shrapnel, earning several purple hearts and requiring two years of rehab in army hospitals (during which his leg was nearly amputated) before returning to civilian life. Joe’s mentor, Warren Lincoln Travis, had died while Joe was away at war. So when the strongman left the service he took a permanent job as a stevedore and worked non-stop in that rugged occupation for the next 20 years. He retired 39 years ago, at the age of 65, and probably received a pension longer than any man in the International Longshoreman’s Union’s history.

After his retirement as a longshoreman, the indefatigable retiree worked two other jobs simultaneously, trained in earnest, taught others how to become strong and healthy, and gave an endless stream of strongman exhibitions. He continued to enthrall audiences well into his 90’s and worked two jobs until he was 98 (when he retired from one).

As remarkable as his physical accomplishments were, Joe’s mental acuity matched his physical strength. Fluent in at least four languages (perhaps more for all I know) he was incredibly well read and had a memory that could trap virtually anything he ran his eyes over. There was scarcely a field that he did not have some knowledge of, from history, to philosophy, to religion, to medicine.

His ability to recall the events of his life was stunning. Several years ago, I went to see the movie “Cinderella Man,” which is about the underdog world heavyweight boxing champion James Braddock, who gained his title in a fight with dominant champion of that era - Max Baer. Braddock won despite being considered a 10 to 1 underdog.

Upon returning home after viewing the film, I called Joe to inquire whether he’d seen the fight. He said he had and proceeded to tell me it occurred on June 13, 1935 at the Madison Square Garden Bowl (an outdoor arena in Queens). He gave me the exact bodyweights of both fighters and said that Braddock won by unanimous decision (these all turned out to be completely accurate statements).

Very few people have that kind of strength of recall, but those of us who are a little older recognize that as we age, older memories are often more easily accessed than some more recent ones. Yet Joe was remarkable in terms of recent memory as well as long term memory. For instance, at our Association of Oldetime Barbell & Strongmen reunion in 2008 (which was attended by more than 300 people) one of our guests came up to me in a breathless state. He pointed out that he had attended only one reunion in the past, 4 years prior. At that reunion, he’d met Joe and was duly impressed by the then 99 year old superman. When he approached Joe four years later, in 2008, before he could introduce himself, Joe said “Artie” (his actual name) and welcomed him like an old friend. Artie could not fathom how Joe had remembered him, out of hundreds of others who attended the affair 4 years earlier. I happily disclosed Joe’s secret – he simply remembered everyone.

That same year, at our reunion, we hosted a seminar that was entitled “The Wisdom of the Ages”. It was designed to bring together the strength building insights of the most accomplished senior citizens of the strength world, among them Mr. America, Red Lerille, Olympic Champion, Tommy Kono and one of the first and most successful Strength Coaches in the NFL, Clyde Emrich. The youngest of these men was in his late 70’s, and Joe, at 103, was of course the oldest in the group.

Although I had invited Joe to appear on the panel, which called for introductory remarks of considerable length, I had some trepidation about extending the invitation. The trepidations were not of course about his knowledge and wisdom, or his advanced years, but rather, I worried, would he be comfortable standing in front of a large audience and speaking at some length. Joe proceeded as if he’d been making public speeches for years and soon had the audience mesmerized with his encyclopedic knowledge and flair for delivery. But in closing his talk he did something no one, least of all me, expected.

He offered some wisdom on an entirely different subject – war and peace. He said that war is a terrible thing. That he had to kill many Japanese soldiers during his service in the Pacific and that he remembered each and every one of them. He acknowledged that he had to do what he had to do to defend his country, and that he would do it again if asked, but that didn’t change the fact that the men he killed were human beings with families and feelings. He said “Every day I pray to those men and to God for forgiveness that I might be forgiven for what I had to do.” There were probably a couple hundred strong men and women in the room at the time. Tough people who can bend steel and lift huge weights, but there was hardly a dry eye in the house, or a person who didn’t understand Joe’s profoundly subtle appeal for peace.

Joe worshipped his family and spent his life providing and caring for them. He buried his mother, his father, and every one of his many brothers and sisters, assuring to the end that they lived in comfort, even when he had to work two jobs into his 90’s to make that happen. And he saved his niece Tina’s life on several occasions, putting his own at risk. He gave the term “family man” a new meaning.

In his later life, Joe became most famous for something he had been working on his entire life – his health. He took up exercise as a young boy to improve not only his strength, but his health.  In addition to lifting weights, he walked several miles every day, a practice he continued until the day he was taken from us. He gave up eating meat at the age of 20 and got even healthier. He took up winter bathing, at one time not having missed a day in the ocean at Coney Island for a period of eight years, because he believed that cold water was a curative for a multitude of ills and prevented a host of others. Joe never drank or smoked. He went to bed at the same time every night and got up at the same time every morning, noting that keeping regular habits was one of the keys to a healthy life. He once told me he wouldn’t eat a steak if someone offered him $50,000. And at his 104th birthday party last year, I saw him refuse a piece of his own birthday cake, because, he said, “You don’t live to be 104 by eating things that aren’t good for you.”

The result was not only longevity, but a quality of life that is staggering. Here is a man who at the age of nearly 105 did not wear glasses, or a hearing aid, or use an assistive device to walk, or take a medication of any kind.  It is true that heredity played a role in all of this. Most of Joe’s brothers and sisters lived into their 90’s after all. But none lived anywhere near as long as Joe and none enjoyed his boundless good health until the end of their lives.

Joe took every opportunity to share what he knew about how to be healthy and strong. When I attended his 100th birthday party I met many of the people who Joe had helped with his knowledge and powerful desire to teach what he knew.

I learned about Angelo Cuomo, who he coached to become one of the country’s top bodybuilders, without the use drugs. Then there was Lou Lecesse, who became national arm wrestling champ under Joe’s tutelage. There was his lifelong devotee and friend, Bobby Liquari, and countless firemen, policemen and strongmen who Joe reached with his message. Then there was the octogenarian who had been saved from living in a wheelchair by learning to exercise, and the young boy who learned to defend himself because of Joe’s influence. I came to realize that those many who did come to offer their good wishes on Joe’s special day were only a fraction of those who he had touched across his long and rich life.

As for me, although I profoundly admired my Uncle Joe’s prodigious physical and mental strength, in the end, what I came to admire most was the strength of his character: his honesty, his integrity, his kindness, his caring, his devotion to his family, and to a moral life. As we grow out of our childhood years, many of us find our childhood heroes ultimately disappoint us later in some profound way. Joe Rollino never disappointed in such a way – ever. That is one of the reasons why I loved him so dearly and considered the day he called me his nephew one of the proudest of my life.

I want to conclude my remarks today with a pledge to my Uncle Joe that I hope and believe you will all join me in. Uncle Joe, I pledge that I, and the others in this room, will carry on your memory and your values for the rest of our lives. Your messages deserve to live on. And I believe that everyone who is in this house of worship, and all who are not here today but who were touched by you, will help to deliver those messages, to a world that very much needs to hear them, now and in the future. Thank you for what you taught us. Thank you now and forever. You will always be in our memories and in our hearts.”

Postscript: Many people had a lot of interesting and touching things to say as they reflected on the life of Joe Rollino, but a strange incident that occurred outside the church after the funeral may have placed it all in a broader perspective. A well-dressed man who I did not recognize walked up to me and said “I wanted to let you know that I did not know Joe Rollino (which immediately had me thinking “Then why are you here?”). But I’ve been to them all (which had me wondering, what does “them all” mean? - I would learn the answer to that question in the man’s next sentence). “I’ve been to the funerals of Alfred Hitchcock, Walter Cronkite… “(He went on to name half a dozen more true celebrities and people of great accomplishment). “I can tell you that from what I learned from your eulogy, Joe was the most amazing of them all.” The man then simply walked away.

At first, I almost wondered whether the above really happened. It had never occurred to me that there were people who went to funerals of people they didn’t know, apparently selecting from among funerals announced in the news media the most high profile and/or interesting ones. But upon reflection, I realized that this man’s observation was simply another statement of wonder about the man we all regarded as “Great.” Apparently, even someone who’d heard much about many of the world’s luminaries, and who knew little about Joe before entering the church, grasped at least a sense of what made him special. Many of the famous have entertained, informed and/or inspired us, but very few indeed have not only told us how to live a healthier and happier life but lived every day by the advice that they gave. Many of us have found that hypocrisy is to be expected in people, it surely could not be associated with Joe Rollino.

[Artie Drechsler's eulogy first appeared in written form in the February 2010 AOBS NEWSLETTER and is reproduced here with permission.]

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