Sorry to be away for so long but the combination of our work here at the Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports and the month-long run-up to the annual Arnold Strongman Classic we direct for Jim Lorimer at the unimaginably large Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus, Ohio left us with little time for blogging. However, before my iron game-lifelong pal David Webster actually leaves Texas to his home in the bosky dells of seaside Scotland I wanted to share with readers how fortunate Jan and I feel to have had him with us at the Stark Center since the middle of January.
I first met David way back in 1964 in York, Pennsylvania, while I was living there and working as a managing editor of the York Barbell Company’s Strength and Health magazine, which by that time had been the leading iron game publication in the U.S. for over 30 years. As it happened, David was the organizer of a group of Highland Games athletes who were touring North America as part of a show made up of lesser-known sports such as synchronized motorcycle riding, cliff diving, and the Highland Games; and because the show was booked in Baltimore he had called the office of the York Barbell Company to say he would soon be in the area and would like to bring a group of his “heavies” to York to see the famous lifters and bodybuilders who trained there. As David was already a major figure in the strength sports he was invited to come, with “heavies,” and so the next morning he and his kilted laddies arrived at the York Gym for what turned out to be a fascinating visit.
Later that evening Bob Hoffman, John Grimek, and their wives along with several other members of the York Gang drove down to Baltimore to watch the Highlanders perform. However, not to put too fine a point on it, their performance was terrible. They couldn’t seem to throw the 56-pound weight over the bar, they kept falling out of the ring as they tried to put the stone, and several of them were almost hit in the head by misdirected cabers that failed to turn over properly. At the conclusion of this debacle David began working his way up the steps of the big hall to where we were seated, and we did our best not to let our disappointment show. But the first thing he did when he got to us was apologize, explaining that earlier in the afternoon his athletes had gone to a garden party in their honor in the neighborhood where they were all being housed, and that the hosts of the party kept filling the glasses of the young men. “They were drunk!” Grimek exclaimed, laughing, and David nodded and said, “Aye, that’s the boys’ Achilles heel.”
Over 45 years have passed since that Baltimore night, and the more I’ve learned about David Webster since that time the more admiration I have for the “wee mon.” For the last 60 years, few if any men have done more to advance the cause of physical culture around the world and particularly in his beloved Scotland. It’s hard to know where to begin, really, but here are a few of his accomplishments. Born in 1928, David joined the Health and Strength League at age 14, took a college degree in physical education, became a fine all-rounder in hand-balancing and lifting, and was able to stretch a custom-made set of cables no one else as of 2010 has been able to stretch. (The cable is now and will remain at the Stark Center and be available to any challengers.) In his professional life he worked his way up in until he became the Director of the Magnum Leisure Centre in Irvine, the largest such center in Scotland, and then for 12 years he was the Director of Leisure, Recreation, and Tourism for a large section of Scotland, with over 2000 people working under his direction.
In multi-sport organizations David has been a Life Vice-President of the Commonwealth Games Council for Scotland since 1990, the Chief of Mission for the Scottish team in the 1998 Commonwealth Games, a member of the selection committee of the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame, and the founder and (for over 30 years) still the promoter of the World Highland Games Heavy Events Championships. He is also the world’s leading authority on the Highland Games and has done the color commentary for many hundreds of Highland Games worldwide.
In weightlifting, David was part of almost every British team at the World Championships and Olympic Games as a coach, technical official, or referee through parts of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s; and he organized and directed the World Junior WL Championships in 1985. He has been the Chairman of Weightlifting Scotland for years, and in his last competition, in 1999, he won the 148 pound class in the Scottish National Master’s Championships. In bodybuilding, he competed as a very young man, went on to become a founding member of the National Amateur Bodybuilding Association (NABBA), and served as a judge at many Mr. Britain and Mr. Universe contests.
In the Strongman sport, he is one of its true founding fathers, having organized in 1955 the first televised Strongman competition, which featured the lifting and carrying of heavy stones. He also consulted with the developers of the first “World’s Strongest Man” contest in 1977 and went on to serve that show for over two decades in contests all over the world. What’s more, he was a central figure in the creation of the International Federation of Strength Athletes (IFSA), and for the last ten years has served as my chief of officials at the Arnold Strongman Classic in Ohio. In fact, when Jim Lorimer and Arnold S asked me to create and conduct a heavy-duty Strongman contest at the Arnold Sports Festival, the first man I asked to help me was David Webster.
David has also done a great deal of television work related to physical culture activities, and most of his media work has been in either the Highland Games or strength sports such as weightlifting and Strongman competitions. He has also created and helped to produce several special tv programs, including two about the Highland Games and one, called “Glamazons,” that was a contest for women strength athletes.
Although David has received many honors and been inducted into most of the halls of fame in the iron game, his most significant honor came in 1995 when he was “invested” by the Queen as an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. He was given this very singular and coveted O.B.E. because of his wide-ranging and effective work in support of physical culture and sports and because of how that work had introduced people all over the world to the ancient sport known as the Highland Games. One thing related to his O.B.E. happened when we asked David to send several letters of recommendation to us as we needed to have the letters as part of his application for a brief term of employment at the Stark Center. Since David hadn’t needed letters of this sort for many decades he was at a loss to know how to proceed. Finally, he told Jan that he did have something which might qualify but added that he’d have to take it out of its frame. Puzzled, Jan asked, “Who wrote it?”–to which he replied quietly, “The Queen.” We didn’t use that document although we were tempted, believing as we did and do that he would have probably been the only job applicant in the history of the University of Texas with a “letter of reference” from the Queen of England, especially one which referred to her “most beloved subject.”
One little-known aspect of David’s remarkable career is that in 1959 he founded the Scottish Amateur Trampoline Association, the first organized association for a backyard and circus activity which went on to become an Olympic sport. Even more significant, David was perhaps the first sporting official to convince a group of scientists to work with sports officials and create a method of drug testing which could be applied to the sports in which ergogenic drugs were already a problem. He began this effort in 1969. David was also a pioneer in the application of film analysis to the “Olympic Lifts,” and in this work he filmed many major championships and conducted clinics about his analysis and research in many parts of the world.
One of the reasons David, Jan, and I have become increasingly close as the years have passed relates to our shared interest in collecting materials about physical culture, and particularly the aspect of physical culture dealing with the history of the strength sports. David began collecting well over 60 years ago and, through his diligence and thorough knowledge, has built one of the largest private collections in the world, if not the largest. This stupendous collection – which includes significant portions of the collections of W.A. Pullum, W.S. Pullum, John Valentine, George Kirkley, Oscar State, Al Murray, Gerard Nisavoccia, Harry Hill, John Massis, Doug Fales, George Dardennes, and many others – is highlighted by what is widely regarded to be one of the best collections in the world of old-time strongman photographs as well as of correspondence from famous men and women in the iron game.
One of the things separating David from most serious collectors is that he has always made full use of his collection by writing about many aspects of the world of physical culture. The Stephen King of physical culture writers, David has written approximately 1000 articles in over 50 publications as well as more than 30 books, including such landmarks as Modern Strand-pulling (1953), Scottish Highland Games (1959), Complete Physique Book ( 1963), Defying Gravity (1964), Scottish Highland Games (1973), The Iron Game (1976), Barbells and Beefcake (1978), The Ultimate Physique (1984), Developing Grip Strength (1986), Sons of Samson Vol. 1 (1993), Sons of Samson Vol 2 (1997), and Donald Dinnie (1999). As of this moment he has three titles awaiting publication – one a history of the Highland Games, one about kettlebells, and one a history of wrestling around the world that we hope to publish as part of the Todd Book Series at UT Press.
Before David came to Texas to help us put the finishing touches on the Joe and Betty Weider Museum of Physical Culture I always wondered how he had accomplished so much in so many fields. However, I no longer wonder, because every morning when we arrive at the Stark Center David says hello to our other staff-members and then goes straight to his office, shuts his door, and immediately begins working at the task he had put down the previous evening when we left the university, usually around 8:00 pm. During those long hours David never comes out of his office except to have a quick lunch in our break room or to ask one of us where to find a particular book, magazine, or photograph. His “secret” is further revealed every night after the three of us get home, eat dinner, and he goes across the yard to our guest house. By the time Jan and I get upstairs to our two home offices and I look out of my window, David is already sitting in front of his computer at his desk and he generally stays there until around midnight. Most nights, if he’s still up then, I’ll usually go over with a bottle of single malt scotch in my hand, knock on his door, and ask him if he’d care for a “wee dram” before turning in. He never says no.
Watching David work these past ten weeks makes me think of elbow grease, grit, dedication, willpower – call it what you will – but a word that works for me is love…a deep, abiding love of the iron game. Having David here to help us shape our shared dream of building a facility in which people with a similar love can see, and read about, and study in detail the history of our game has been a blessing and a gift we can never repay. David has already given us many of the hard-won treasures he collected over the years, including our oldest book – Mercurialis’ sixteenth century De Arte Gymnastica – but the gift of his precious time here, in the late fall of his long, full life is the most precious gift of all. But when he leaves us physically in a few days his spirit – and his image – will remain. In fact, we’ll still see him every day at the entrance to the Weider Museum standing larger-than-life between Steve Reeves and Eugen Sandow on our Wall of Icons. He has earned his place.