Thread: A Great Obituary . . .
02-26-2002, 04:09 PM #1
A Great Obituary . . .
Journalist Art Carey is a weight jock. He has done some brilliant and profound reporting over the years (my favorite piece of his was an article titled The United States of Incompetence, which he later expanded into a book. But these days, his first love (other than the gym) is writing about fitness - one of the few weekly fitness columns in a major newspaper that is penned by an unapologetic weight jock - there's no other way to describe him.
His piece this week was a tribute to one Al Berger, a weightlifter who had an influence on the young Art Carey. It paints a vivid picture of someone else who lived for weights. Berger did not approve of anabolics - the guy was a natural. He died old and alone, but in his time he has quite an impact on young lifters. Carey's recollections provide an image of a different generation of lifters, and they are well worth reading.
The original web version of this article can be found here.
AL BERGER COULD BUILD BODY AND SPIRIT ALIKE
By Art Carey, Columnist
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Monday, February 25, 2002
My favorite Al Berger story goes like this:
A few years ago, a conductor made the mistake of helping Al step off the Paoli Local. No sooner had Al touched the ground than he grasped the conductor by the elbows, lifted him off his feet, and set him back on the train.
Al Berger was a bodybuilder and strongman who helped others grow more than muscle. He also renewed spirits and redeemed lives.
A week ago Sunday, Atlantic City police found Al dead in his apartment. In recent months, Al, 84, who lived alone, had been having problems with balance, his niece told me. He apparently fell, and his head struck a piece of furniture, which knocked him unconscious.
I met Al seven years ago, when he invited me to stop by his gym in Haverford so he could teach me "corrective exercise with free weights."
On the phone, Al sounded like a vaudeville emcee or Catskills comedian, an endearing mix of Jimmy Durante, George Burns, and Don Ameche. I was expecting a short guy with a mustache and toupee, wearing a plaid vest and chomping on a cigar.
In person, Al surprised me. He was a big man, with a tapered torso, broad shoulders, and cannonball delts. His hands were like baseball mitts, and his grip was strong enough to squeeze apples into sauce.
Al's "gym" was the opposite of Bally-style glitz. It was on the first floor of a nondescript office building, in a warren of small rooms that resembled a dental suite. The radio was tuned to WPEN, and the music was Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and big bands. The equipment, much of it a half-century old, was welded together from scrap iron, designed and built by Al himself.
His sign proclaimed "since 1930" - the year Al, then barely a teen, began lifting weights in a neighborhood gym he fashioned in an Olney garage. On the walls of the Haverford gym were snapshots of Al with such iron-pumping pioneers and Muscle Beach habitues as Jack LaLanne, Steve "Hercules" Reeves, Bob Hoffman, Joe Weider, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. There were also some vintage photos of Al by himself, taken at his muscle-flexing peak, when he graced the covers of bodybuilding magazines.
In his prime, Al weighed 256 pounds and had a 53-inch chest, a 35-inch waist and 19-inch biceps. He could bench-press 585 pounds and perform a perfect curl (no sway or back bend) with 245 pounds.
He was renowned for his hand strength. He could chin with weights attached to his waist while pinch-gripping the floor joists in his basement. In 1957, when he weighed 240 pounds, he hung 165 pounds of iron on a hip belt and did a perfect chin-up. Another time, he ran 198 yards up a hill with 100-pound dumbbells in each hand.
But Al was also famously bashful. While he showed up at many a contest, he never competed and rarely shed his shirt. "I didn't care much for posing and exhibitions," he explained, "because I didn't want to show off."
He was as concerned about the inside of his body as the outside. He was a regular at the health-food store in Ardmore. He avoided fatty foods, sugar, and white flour and scolded me often for my fondness for pizza, which he never touched. Mostly, he drank gallons of fruit juice, gobbled lots of vitamins, and ate plenty of whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
He was dismayed that bodybuilding today is rife with drugs, that the extravagant muscle is a pharmaceutical confection. "I never took steroids ," he said. "A lot of these young guys look good, with all kinds of definition, but they're ruining their health."
He relished attending banquets with fellow founding fathers of the brotherhood of the barbell. His proudest moment came in October 1995, when he was honored at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York. There, the Association of Oldetime Barbell & Strongmen gave him its lifetime achievement award and declared him "a legend of the Iron Game."
Al's clients were not preening narcissists in spandex. They were cops, housewives, and business execs who'd been going to Al for years. They appreciated the personal attention and his practical body wisdom, which he dispensed in memorable slogans:
"Train, don't strain."
"Don't mess with success."
"To cure your ills, take iron pills" (as in barbells).
While Al's physique was impressive, his biggest muscle was his heart. He was a softie, a sweetheart who helped support bodybuilding contemporaries who were down on their luck. Without compensation, he taught weight lifting to old folks in nursing homes. A lifelong bachelor, he was fond of "the ladies." He enjoyed "mapping out a program" for women who needed to feel better about their bodies and themselves.
"A lot of the women I see are depressed," Al told me. "Maybe their marriage is breaking up, or their kids have left home. I don't give 'em the brush-off. I fix 'em up good. At Al Berger's, they limp in and they leap out."
Al and I became friends. He helped me equip my home gym and counseled me when I wrecked my shoulder. After he retired and moved to Atlantic City, we kept in touch by telephone. He loved watching the passing parade on the boardwalk. Everything about Al and his life was "okey-doke." Always, he signed off with the same advice:
"You gotta live while you're livin', Artie-Boy. Every day is a bonus; enjoy it to no end. The Brinks truck never follows the hearse."
Art Carey's e-mail address is email@example.com.
02-26-2002, 06:05 PM #2
02-26-2002, 10:52 PM #3
Vey touching TNT.....very touching. I wish I knew an Al Berger and could go to him for advice.
Long live the real men of lifting.
02-27-2002, 01:58 AM #4
Think we could all learn something from that - nice peice bro thanks for sharing it
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