Commentary

Shaffer: 93-year-old instructor spreads fitness gospel in Wilson

josh.shaffer@newsobserver.comJune 22, 2014 

— In a time-honored “Seinfeld” episode, protagonist Jerry meets an elderly and wildly egotistical fitness nut named Izzy Mandelbaum, a sadistic white-haired workout guru who tosses a mean medicine ball.

His few lines of dialogues remain catch phrases after more than a decade: “It’s go time!” or “If you want to live in a butcher shop, I’m going to treat you like a piece of meat.”

The gag: Izzy repeatedly strains his back and ends up flat in a hospital bed.

This week I met a real-live Izzy in Wilson, a doppelgänger for the TV character but for three exceptions: 1.) He’s older. 2.) He’s friendlier. 3.) He’s in better shape.

“I can do everything but hear,” said Jack Saylor, pointing to a device in his ear.

At age 93, Saylor leads a twice-weekly fitness class at the Wilson County Senior Center, coaxing roughly 40 older women through a regimen of lunges, stomach crunches and light aerobics.

Born in 1920, he can climb 100 floors on the stair-stepper in 25 minutes. He spends an hour a day at the gym, except on weekends, when he doesn’t want to hog up the whippersnappers’ machine time.

So I took the challenge as a 40-ish dad with a mild pudge: Endure the worst a nonagenarian can dish out.

“The worst invention ever made was the chair,” said Saylor, leading his class through a marching exercise.

“Psst,” whispered the woman next to me. “You’re on the wrong foot.”

Saylor built his muscles the gritty, old-school way: climbing ropes, tossing medicine balls, pumping barbells on the beach while bikini-clad girls oohed and ahed.

While in the Army Air Corps in California, he met a Navy man named Jack LaLanne, the first superhero of fitness, a man who once bested Arnold Schwarzenegger in a body-building competition.

“When we got out of the service,” Saylor recalled, “Jack said, ‘I’m going to open a gym in San Francisco.’ And I said, ‘I think I’m going to be a tobacco buyer.’ Jack was a showman. I wasn’t.”

And so Saylor lived for decades, trading in tobacco but never smoking it, retiring in Wilson in 1981. Even as 90-year-old, he had arms like whips and no hint of a belly. He ate well. He took no medications. But when his wife, Doris, died four years ago, Saylor took up his old routine in spades.

“Something to do,” he shrugged. “People retiring, there’s so many of them now, and they’re in such bad shape.”

His class consists of former loafers and onetime sluggards whom Saylor jolted off the couch.

“I was walking around the building with a walker,” said Rose Hall, 76, “and he said, ‘You come to my class, you’ll throw that walker away.’ Well, I threw my walker away.”

“And then she turned around and threw me in here,” said Georgia Hall. “I’m 84.”

“He’s my inspiration,” echoed Jean Walston, 70, who is legally blind. “He’s written out a diet for me, what to eat, what not to eat. I’m going to live to be 100.”

I’d settle for 80, so I marched alongside Saylor’s class, worked the old obliques with free weights, managed to finish the hourlong workout with a light forehead sweat. If I’d come another Friday, Saylor would have had an helper playing calypso tunes on conga drums.

Having survived, I can tell you that Saylor is no Izzy Mandelbaum. He’s not shaking his fist at old age, daring it to wrinkle his skin or rob his breath. He’s carrying out a lifelong habit of treating himself well, showing us all how it’s possible to reach the outer limits of the human lifespan with our minds sharp and parts intact.

I will never be Saylor. I’ve tossed out many vices over the years: cigarettes, Mickey’s Big Mouth, Hostess Ding Dongs. But the ones that still remain are too precious to shed, and I guard them like Grandmother’s pearls. Still, it’s helpful to have a light to move toward – a living monument to the virtues of good behavior.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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