By Irene Hilsendager
Although fitness centers try to be friendly, newcomers often feel intimidated. All of those mirrors reflect a perhaps less than perfect body, or outdated workout gear, or someone who might stumble over machines while “regulars” wait less than patiently.
But if they were fortunate enough to walk into a gym with Jimmie Payne managing the front desk, they would always feel welcome. A hearty “good morning, how ya doin” greeted everyone, along with a plate of grapes, melons or oranges.
Despite the fact that Jimmie was “Mr. America” in 1950 and maintained full muscle tone throughout his 85 years, he never judged anyone about their workout abilities or body status. All regulars were old friends and newcomers were simply friends he had not yet met.
Jimmie’s friendly nature made him, along with partner Jack LaLanne, unique in the fitness movement. Though perfect enough in physique to win contests and wow crowds with hand-balancing feats, they never developed big egos.
In fact, both wanted to share their techniques and believed that anyone could develop a healthy body, or what Jimmie always referred to as “a temple.”
While Jack and wife Elaine began pitching fitness to housewives on TV in the 60s, Jimmie decided to do the same for kids. In 1961 he began a “Junior Mr. And Miss America” TV show, featuring his own four children, animals and many celebrities, teaching exercise, healthy eating and promoting fitness as a fun lifestyle.
Jimmie continued to visit with kids in classrooms over the years while owning and managing gyms and in 2005, he and I co-wrote a kids’ fitness book titled “With Payne You Gain.” We planned to use it in school visits, where he would tell his story, get the kids up doing exercise, and then conclude with wrist wrestling, something he participated in successfully in the 1960s and 70s.
Lalanne and Payne preached passionately to youth against steroid use. They spoke with historic knowledge, as they watched with concern while Joe Weider’s early disciples began to suffer bad side effects from Dianobol, an early steroid.
Jimmy was one of the kindest friends I ever met and he trusted me enough to loan his photos and other memorabilia, which were scanned and used in the book and accompanying CD. I spent many hours taping Jimmie’s story which I relayed to the public in newspapers and history websites. Despite his busy work schedule, which ended on weekends at his favorite Indian Casino, or maybe a hop to Las Vegas to see Jack or other friends, Jimmie always had time for me. Even with many challenges late in life, such as loss of family and declining health, Jimmie always had a big smile, an ironclad handshake and hug for me. He inspired so many and was in turn inspired by workouts with his children and later family members Carole and Tony, and with home support from Bella. I am sure he is on some beautiful beach in heaven, with Jack and his other buddies who did rings, bars and hand-balancing at Neptune Beach. If a newcomer should happen by, I’m certain Jimmie would rest long enough to smile and say “Welcome, friend.”
Irene Hilsendager’s column each week touches on moments in the history of Cotati, Rohnert Park and Penngrove.