In the Beginning | How & Why, I Started Bodybuilding

Strange how some things turn out to be certainties.  From the moment I touched a barbell I knew that I’d do it the rest of my life.  Bodybuilding was the answer to everything in my 14-year-old mind and body.  And at that time, I had good reason to believe it.  My younger brother and I attended Larksville High School and were the best 2-man pee wee touch football players around.  Anything he’d throw I could catch, and we beat every body including lots of the older kids.  Word got around and everyone wanted to challenge us and when we beat them all, many of them wanted to fight us.

To avoid the distraction caused by the constant threat by these punks, my brother and I transferred to Edwardsville High School, since we lived right on the border of Edwardsville anyway.  It was a friendlier environment, but I had to pass by Alfie’s Shoemaker Shop every day where a bunch of Larksville thugs hung out.  I never knew when I was going to run into them, and I felt a constant state of uneasiness.  I had to do something about this.

I studied karate but figured by the time it took to get my shoes off to kick someone it would be too late.  At 5 foot 9 inches and 140 pounds I needed to build myself up.  Then one day in math class as I went up to the teacher’s desk to ask a question about a problem, I spotted a torn muscle magazine in the wastebasket.  I grabbed it and read it cover to cover when I got home.  On the cover was a side chest pose of John Farbotnik (a former Mr. America).  This was 1956.

I had been going to the YMCA to play basketball and swim on a regular basis, so now I started visiting the weight room.  After a month of training, I could bench press 125 pounds 12 repetitions, but I still looked the same.  I had a few bucks because I worked my entire high school years evenings as a pin boy (before the days of automatic pin setters).  We’d sit in the pit behind the pins, being careful not to get hit by flying pins, then pick up the ball, put it on the rack and set the pins back up. I started at Dwyer’s Bowling Alley in Plymouth, Pa and then moved up to a coveted job at the Jewish Community Center in Wilkes Barre, Pa where I made over $20 a week.  Working 7 days a week, I hitch hiked everywhere.

One day I went to the local sporting goods store and bought a set of Billard adjustable dumbbells, each dumbbell could be set from 5 up to 15 pounds.  I began training earnestly in my basement every day after school before heading off to the bowling alley.  My father was really angry, “You should be building your muscles cutting the grass” he screamed.  But he worked night shifts as an electrician in the coal mines, so I trained when he wasn’t around.  In two weeks, I saw muscles popping out everywhere in my upper body.  I immediately bought some tight-fitting T shirts and walked around with my lats sticking out.  How proud I was!   The Larksville bullies noticed too and now no one picked fights with me anymore.

I really had no interest in team sports, there was only basketball and football at Edwardsville High, I concentrated on my workouts and studies instead.  I got A’s in all my subjects, not that it was difficult, it was more like the other kids never studied.  I was shy and a bit reclusive and kept to myself a lot.  I was not really popular with the boys since I didn’t hang out with them, but the girls seemed to like me.

After high school I attended Wilkes College majoring in chemistry.  In my freshman year I met some local bodybuilder/powerlifters.  We’d train and go to Harvey’s Lake during summer.  On weekends I would drive to contests all over Pennsylvania with Hal Raker who was an exceptional deadlifter, pulling 500 pounds at a bodyweight of 132.  While chemistry was hard enough, there was physics and calculus too, and unless you had a thorough grounding in these subjects in high school, you were sunk.  I struggled to make the grade.  So, after 2 years of working in the college library for 75 cents an hour putting books back on shelves and stuffing envelopes for a local mail order house, I snuck in whatever study time I could.  But it was not enough.

At the end of my freshman year, even though my grades were low, I was in exceptionally good shape from training at the YMCA, good enough to place third in Teen Age Mr. America.  It was my first physique trophy at age 18.  I vowed to win more.  But sophomore year got even harder and I had no time to work out.  With grades dropping, my decision to switch my major to education at the end of the year was an easy one.  I would teach chemistry.  Compared to my first two years, my junior and senior college years were a breeze.  I almost made the dean’s list one semester.

After graduation I began looking for a job.  Since there is only one chemistry teacher per school, chances of getting a job teaching chemistry were slim.  But math jobs were plentiful, and I found myself teaching algebra, geometry, and trigonometry at a high school in Hamburg, Pennsylvania.  Still, it was a lot of preparation for little money, $4500 a year.  Luckily, I was able to live above a health studio for free in Reading, Pa, 20 miles away.  It was winter all year, from October to May there was snow on the ground.  I dreamed of California, studying maps of the west coast.  It was a long way off and I wasn’t sure about severing East coast ties, but I needed to make more money to make ends meet and buy food supplements.

So, I got a job teaching math and science in New Jersey for a thousand dollars more a year.  I bought a new 1966 Mustang for $2300 and took my California maps with me.  Not intellectually challenging, the work was downright boring and there was no good place to train.  I set up some makeshift equipment and trained with a few interested students in a little room adjacent to the locker room—we had squat racks, an adjustable incline bench, adjustable dumbbells, and barbells, standing calf machine.  I got plenty strong, squatting 3 sets of 20 reps with 325, doing sets of 10 with 110-pound dumbbells for incline press, my body weight shot up to 220 pounds with 27- & 1/2-inch thighs and a 36-inch waist.  I was getting big, strong, fat and I hated the cold weather.  But I was keen on competition and in 1965 won my height class in the IFBB Mr. Universe meeting Larry Scott backstage.  Talking to him rekindled my desire to move to Southern California, it was only a matter of time.  In the meantime, I wanted to win as many physique trophies that year as I could, winning 6 at once in Holyoke, Massachusetts: the overall title Mr. North America, height class trophy, best legs, best poser, best tan, and best hairdo.  But my mind was focused on training in California.