Iron Game Historians

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Until a week ago, here at the Stark Center things had been humming at a higher rate than ever during the spring semester, at least as far as the “doing” of History is concerned. I say that in part because David Webster, Scotland’s venerable chronicler of the strength sports, had been here with us since early January–engaged in research on several projects and especially on a book about the history of wrestling, which he’s coauthoring with his friend and fellow Scot Willie Baxter. (This will be just one of the more-than-30 books written by the indefatigable Webster.) But besides David — who has spent three months or so at the Stark Center during each of the last three years — Professor of History John Fair has been in residence here since early February.

John is a bona fide part of the Stark Center team now and his official title is “Adjunct Professor.” John’s office has been right next to David’s office, and it’s been strange and a little sad to pass in front of their offices the last week or so and see lights in only one. But they make quite a pair, these two, quite an addition, and we feel truly blessed to have had them both with us for almost two months. John, for those who might not know, has been engaged in the study of physical culture for approximately 25 years and has served as a member of the editorial board of our journal Iron Game History for about the same amount of time. What’s more, over the past ten years or so he’s become a leading light in the growing field of sport and exercise history because of his many publications in academic journals, his attendance at professional conferences, and, especially, his definitive history of Bob Hoffman and the York Barbell Company — Muscletown, USA.

An important aspect of John’s growing affection for the history of physical culture and the “strength sports” is that it grew organically out of his personal participation in those activities. As of 2012 he has more than 50 years of experience in the iron game. John began to compete in both weightlifting and powerlifting way back in the mid-1960s, and by now he’s taken part in 75 contests in those two sports. He has also been active as an official, serving in the past as a member of the National Weightlifting Committee, as Chairman of the Southern Region Powerlifting Committee, as a National Weightlifting Referee, as a Judge at the 1973 Mr. America Contest, and as a Judge at the 1973 Senior National Powerlifting Championships. Over the years, John has officiated in over 50 regional and national meets in Weightlifting, Powerlifting, and Bodybuilding.

John has also taught courses in weight training at the university level, and served as the coach and faculty sponsor of competitive lifting teams at several universities. I should add that John and his able wife Sarah have been invaluable members of the Arnold Strongman Classic team of officials from our very first contest in Columbus, Ohio in 2002. Without question, his many decades of weight training, competing in lifting events, officiating in all three of the major strength sports as well as in Strongman contests has infused his historiography with a depth of understanding that, quite simply, is not available to those who approach a field of human activity as a kind of tourist or, at best, a temporary resident.

In any case, what has come to pass is that Professor Fair — whose main training, teaching, and writing over his 45-year career as an academic has been in British History — has retired from his faculty position at Georgia College and State University so that he could focus all of his professional time and energy on what has become over time his passion: the field of physical culture. In pursuit of that goal John has agreed to serve as an adjunct faculty member here at the Stark Center, where he will spend at least six months of every year advising graduate students, helping us with Iron Game History, and working to develop physical culture research projects in which we all have an interest.


As can be imagined, the banquet-sized table in the Stark Center break-room/kitchen has seen many animated discussions/debates over the past weeks with John and David engaging in free-flowing conversations with our own Dr. Kim Beckwith, Jan Todd, and me — along with our archivist Geoff Schmalz, our head librarian Cindy Slater, our Ph.D. students such as Dominic Morais, Jason Shurley, Desiree Harguess, and Scott Jedlicka as well as a constant flow of visiting scholars who come for a few days or a few weeks to do research in our archives. To me, those lunch-time dialogues are often the most fulfilling part of my days at the Center. To me, they represent what, at its best, a university can and should be. This is what Jan and I hoped might happen once the Stark Center got up and running and now—with the help of people like John and David, plus our genuinely exceptional graduate students — we can see it and, what’s even better, be part of it.

And speaking of graduate students now might be a good time to say how proud we are about Dominic Morais, one of Jan’s PhD students. Dominic did his undergraduate work and played a little football at Vanderbilt and, in the process, built an outstanding academic record before being accepted into our interdisciplinary doctoral program. What’s more, he’s one of about 30 of UT’s “Presidential Fellows,” which means that he was awarded a scholarship worth about $35,000 per year. Nor has Dominic rested on his laurels. In fact, he got word just last week that his research paper, “Branding Iron: An Examination of Eugen Sandow’s Utilization of ‘Modern’ Marketing,” had been selected as the best graduate student paper of 2012 by the North American Society for Sport History. This is a significant honor and means that: 1) his way to the annual NASSH Conference will be paid, 2) his paper will be delivered in front of the entire membership, and 3) a longer version of the paper will then be published in the NASSH journal. (Dominic plans to write his dissertation on one aspect or another of resistance exercise.)

As for how the daily presence of David Webster and John Fair here at the Stark Center can matter to the development of a graduate student, consider what Dominic said one day to Jan when she asked him why he almost always had his lunch when David and John were having theirs and why he always seemed ready to join in if a group of old timers like David and John and Kim and the two of us decided to go to a nearby café for dinner. “All I can say,” Dominic responded, “is that every time I’ve spent time with people who’ve been students of the game for a long time I’ve always learned something. I feel lucky to be here.”

I should also mention that Jason Shurley — another outstanding doctoral student – recently co-authored with Jan and Terry Todd a long article about the remarkable career of Dr. Thomas DeLorme, the orthopedic surgeon who first came up with the term “Progressive Resistance Exercise.” (The article has been accepted for publication in the July issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.) And there’s more: Desiree Harguess, a PhD student working under the direction of the Stark Center’s Dr. Tommy Hunt, was the co-author with Jan Todd of “Doris Barrilleaux and the Beginnings of Modern Women’s Bodybuilding”, which was published in the last issue of Iron Game History.

We’ve also had a steady stream of researchers from other cities, states, and even countries who have come to use the library at the Stark Center and to dig into projects dealing with one aspect of physical culture or another; but I’ll save the details about those people and their projects for a later posting in “Don’t Weaken.”

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