Jack LaLanne: ‘Helping people help themselves’

A person lives on if but one of their ideas or personal attributes transforms others.

Such is the case with the late Francois Henri “Jack” LaLanne, who died in 2011 at age 96.

For a large majority of his life he was an idea and attribute machine.

My thoughts had turned to LaLanne while working out recently at the Marshalltown YMCA-YWCA.

I credit LaLanne and Wayne Phillips, the latter a Clinton High School physical education teacher and head football coach, for encouraging my interest in fitness starting years ago.

(More on Phillips in another column).

For the uninitiated, LaLanne earned the right to be called “The Godfather of Fitness.”

Ever ebullient and positive, he would tell people, “I can’t die, it’ll ruin my image.”

Readers in their mid-60s and older might remember LaLanne’s trail-blazing television fitness show, which debuted when color television was but a dream.

Younger readers may remember LaLanne and his wife, Elaine, for their “Jack LaLanne Juicer,” infomercials, one of duo’s many fitness-related products.

LaLanne, a San Francisco, Calif. native, was more, much more, than a man who did infomercials.

As a youth growing up in Berkeley, Calif., LaLanne was a self-confessed sugar addict.

“I was once a pimply-faced, miserable kid,” LaLanne told the San Francisco Chronicle. He attempted suicide, tried to burn down the family’s house, and attacked his brother.

Nutritionist and health-food businessman Paul Bragg changed LaLanne’s life.

LaLanne’s mother took her son to a Bragg presentation.

“My dear friends, it matters not what your physical condition is, if you obey nature’s laws, you will be born again,” Bragg said.

LaLanne went home and prayed, asking God to give him the power to refrain from the addictive sugary foods. He did stop. A weight-lifting regimen followed. At 5’6″, the once skinny, pimply-faced kid became a champion high school wrestler. But that would only be the beginning.

In 1936 he opened a gym in Oakland, promoting healthy eating habits and weight-lifting. Later he would sell the gyms to Bally’s Fitness Centers. But LaLanne’s biggest contributions were bringing fitness to ordinary working-class men and women. And through his motivational techniques, he convinced people they could change for the better. How? Through television.

In 1951, according to the Chronicle, he started a live exercise show on a San Francisco television station. The “Jack LaLanne Show” went national in 1959 and ran for 34 years in the U.S and Europe. He also proved that getting older didn’t mean getting weaker. At 40, he towed a 2,000-pound cabin-cruiser swimming the Golden Gate Channel. At 42, he did a record 1,033 push-ups in 23 minutes. At age 70 and handcuffed, he towed 70 loaded boats 1.5 miles in Long Beach Harbor. There was more to LaLanne than push-ups and barbells — he was a 4-handicap golfer, author, businessman and motivational speaker.

Until he fell ill, he exercised two hours a day.

“I work at living,” he once said. “Most people work at dying. Dying is easy.” Another favorite: “If you believe in something, live it!”

“His mission in life was to help people help themselves,” said grand-nephew Chris LaLanne.

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Contact Mike Donahey at 641-753-6611 or mdonahey@timesrepublican.com.