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He was the superstar of his era, a man whose physique, feats of strength and posing ability were legendary. More than a pioneer of our sport, John Grimek was a personality, a man you'd want to
know and a delight to watch onstage. Few knew him well. Fortunately for us, Irv Foss did. Here he remembers the everyday man behind the body.
On occasion John Grimek would come into the old York Barbell Co. gym at 51 North Broad Street on Saturday to accommodate his many fans. People would drive amazing distances in hopes of catching a glimpse of the Monarch of Muscledom. John would shake hands and talk with as many of them as time would allow. He didn't particularly enjoy having his picture taken; however, there were exceptions. I recall one day in the gym when John accommodated a group of people who asked him to pose. He was in street attire at the time, but he carefully rolled up his trousers and shirt sleeves and struck the pose as cameras clicked away. Then he walked over to the squat rack and grabbed a 300-pound barbell, pressed it to arms' length and proceeded to walk all around the gym holding this weight overhead. Again the cameras clicked away. We were all amazed at how flexible his hips were and the ease with which he performed the feat.
Another day, around 1946, as I approached the gym I could hear the exciting noise the barbells made as they were dropped back to the lifting platforms. Climbing the stairs to the gym, I heard hoots of laughter. The weightlifters had taken a break to watch as Grimek and Ray Van Cleef each kicked up into a handstand. The basic idea was to see who could hold the handstand longer.
The loser was the one who hit the floor first. Most of the guys were watching this contest with smiles on their faces. Ray didn't have a lot of hair on the top of his head, and before long his head and face were becoming quite red. I also noticed his arms beginning to tremble. Soon Ray crashed to the floor amid much merriment. That was a routine afternoon at 51 North Broad Street.
On yet another occasion Steve Stanko and Grimek were discussing a pending trip to Southern California by air. This was probably the spring of 1946. Obviously neither John nor Steve had done much flying. Stanko was explaining to John where they should sit on the plane. He said, "Now, when an airplane goes down, it goes down nose first, right?" John just kept looking at Steve but didn't reply. Steve then said: "The way I see it, we should get the last seats located at the back of the plane. (Here is the important part.) If the plane starts to go down, we will simply need to jump into the air just before the moment of impact. This plan should give us our best chance, don't you think?"
John replied: "Steve, get a life. What if the plane flies into a mountain?" Steve said, "Oh, you mean, then the plane could slide down the mountain tail first where we would be located?" John remarked, "Steve, let's just forget it and get on with our training."
By that time Joe Lauriano, Jules Bacon, Stan Stanczyk, and the rest of the guys were hysterical I never ceased to marvel how the York weightlifters and bodybuilders could laugh and kid around so much, and still achieve such success in the iron game. I guess laughter is good medicine.
I don't remember how I got into this next situation, but I did. Joe Lauriano and I were going to help Grimek remove dirt from his basement. The Grimek family lived on the opposite side of town from where they lived in later years. I could walk the distance easily from the YMCA where I was staying. For some reason John didn't think I would really show up. I never did figure out why. I would have walked across America to help him out.
I was there bright and early on this memorable Saturday morning. There was a one-way alley behind Grimek's house. Lauriano had pulled a YBBC flatbed truck into the alley. I should add, the truck was headed in the proper direction! The job was quite simple. Joe would pick the dirt loose and John and I would shovel it into a large galvanized tub with a handle on each side. When the tub was filled, John and I would carry it across the backyard and throw the dirt into the bed of the truck, which had sideboards to hold the load in place.
Now I ask you, how could anything possibly go wrong? John was in charge of the operation, of course. Joe and I picked to loosen the dirt and shoveled same into the tub. While we were carrying the dirt, Joe would be picking more dirt loose. What a team! As the day wore on, it was getting downright hot. Cars kept slowly cruising past Grimek's house, trying to locate where he lived. I thought that was interesting. After a while that darn tub of dirt was getting harder for me to throw up on the bed of the truck. My hands were getting sore. Even my calluses were getting calluses. I told John my one arm was about an inch longer than the other. John could look at you expressionless, but if you knew him, you could tell he was laughing to himself.
So I said, "Look at this," and I dipped my left shoulder to hold my left hand lower than the right. I told John, "My basketball coach is going to be mad at me because I won't be able to shoot free throws." In those days we had to use both hands and swing the basketball between our legs, releasing it at the proper time to make a basket. (The one-hand shot from the free-throw line was a no-no in those days.) At any rate, John decided we needed a break and a cold drink. Joe and I agreed. By then we had removed and loaded a considerable amount of dirt on the YBBC truck. The project was going well.
After a break we were once again ready to return to work. Just was we prepared to start shoveling dirt into the tub, the door to the basement opened and one of John's daughters yelled, "Phone, John." Before John went up to answer the telephone, he said, "For gosh sakes don't use the pick in this area. The water pipe is right around here." He emphasized the point and ran upstairs. I am not going to say who hit the water pipe with the pick. I will say it was not John! I can still hear the sickening metallic sound made by the pick striking the water pipe. The powerful stream of water coming out of the pipe didn't make us feel any better.
When John came walking down the basement stairs, I was amazed at how calm he remained. Perhaps he was at a loss for words. I am sure he felt disgusted, but he didn't carry on about the break. He reacted quickly, using a pocket knife to cut shavings off a piece of kindling. Once he had it to the size required, he carefully tapped it into the hole in the pipe, and in short order the problem was resolved - at least for the moment!
Next John had to go under the front porch where the cold-water shut-off was located. That's when I finally heard - and saw -John show disgust. He had just boxed the front porch in a short time before all this happened. Realizing he was now going to have to remove part of what he had just finished on the front porch, he let loose with some rare cursing. John was not a happy camper.
During all this commotion Joe had jumped into the truck, intending to go dump the dirt. At that moment I noticed a large car with four or five big dudes in it bumper to bumper with the YBBC truck. They were headed up the one-way alley in the wrong direction. Joe was about to jump out of the truck. Standing halfway between the fence and Grimek's house, I could see the faces of the men in the car. Trouble was imminent. I yelled, "John, come quick!"
John came out of the basement like an enraged bull buffalo. He was all sweaty, and his T-shirt was half ripped off his upper body. He was a frightening sight indeed. I saw the strangers' eyes grow big as the most heavily muscled man they had ever laid eyes on ran toward their car. Tires squealed as the car hit reverse gear, and they simply roared backward down the alley. I never laughed so hard in my life. What a sight to behold! I swear John and Joe would have torn the front bumper off that car. Thankfully they escaped unscathed.
Fast forward from the mid-1940s to 1984. We were sitting in a private club in York that John and Angela had taken us to. My wife, Jane, her mother, Teresa, and Angela drove in Teresa's car, and John and I drove in his car. Man, what a trip! John was telling me the neighborhood we were passing through had pretty much gone to heck. I was trying to make out a house, anything for that matter, but we were going so fast all I did was hang on. We all arrived safely and were having a great evening.
When John and Angela would get up to dance, all eyes would be turned in their direction. At 74 Grimek was still an imposing man. The tables around the dance floor were occupied mainly by young fellows and their dates. John would do only the fast dances, so the young crowd got their shock treatment. Grimek used dancing as exercise. He told me he didn't start dancing until he was 50. He said, "I used to think dancing was for sissies." I won't tell you what Angela said.
John also danced with my mother-in-law, a nice slow dance. She had rheumatoid arthritis and hadn't danced for some years. I was surprised and pleased to see her take the floor. John was so gentle with her. He could not have been more attentive. I am sure they both enjoyed the dance.
After a full night of eating and dancing, we were just sitting and enjoying the music and relaxing. That was when I first heard John singing, ever so softly. I remember reading in Earle Liederman's magazine of the era an article about Grimek written by Dr. Frederick Tilney. He wrote: "No matter what Grimek would have applied himself to, he would have been a success because of his remarkable mental prowess. Few know that John has a very fine singing voice." This memory came back to me as I heard John singing in that club in York.
During the evening an elderly lady made her way over to our table. She said to John, "I understand you are a former Mr. America." Angela spoke up and said, "Yes, and much, much more." Well, the lady wanted John to look at a physique shot of a guy her friends had sent to her birthday party. He was supposed to be some muscle hunk, who would flirt with her and be the surprise of the party. John took the picture and looked at it very closely. He smiled and passed it to me. The guy was covered with tattoos. He showed some muscle but no beef. The old gal, who had had a few more snorts than needed, asked John what he thought. John looked at her and said, "He looks to be suffering from malnutrition." We all laughed hard, even the elderly lady. She said, "I thought he was a little on the thin side myself." Then she thanked John and waddled back to her table. Thus ended a great evening with John and Angela Grimek.
Our last visit with John and Angela was at their home in York on May 5, 1997. As we prepared to say our goodbye's, rain was pouring outside. This deluge was good for me because the rain on my face helped to camouflage the tears in my eyes. I knew we would not be seeing these dear people again. We kept in touch by letter and telephone. When I received word of John's passing [November 20, 1998], I said nothing at first. I had to steel myself before I was able to talk. With my friend and mentor gone, how would I manage? But life goes on and the memories will always be with me. Angela, who recently turned 90, was also a special person - so much fun, so much laughter. Angela and John made a perfect pair. Their family were also very kind to my wife and me. We love them all.