Saying Good-bye to Jack LaLanne

Born in 1914, Jack LaLanne, 96, wasn’t far from making it to the century mark when he died this week at his home in Morro Bay, California. LaLanne, the son of French immigrants, who was born in San Francisco, did more to define the fitness movement of the Twentieth Century than any other individual. For that alone, we should pause for a moment to honor his memory and reflect upon his life.

LaLanne, who was all of five feet six inches, was an unchallenged giant in the field of fitness. His firsts, not to mention his stunts, could easily fill a book. But principally he will be remembered for two pioneering accomplishments. One, in 1954 he opened what is widely believed to the first fitness center in America. This club in Oakland, California was the very first to push the idea that a health club was not just for weightlifters and athletes, but for every individual interested in physical fitness and nutrition.

LaLanne’s most radical innovation was when he launched a television fitness show in the mid 1950s aimed at housewives. It’s hard to imagine today that a fitness program aimed at women was a radical concept but it was when LaLanne introduced it to a nationwide audience.

Television audiences of the 1980s and 90s best knew LaLanne as the infomercial guy hawking his vegetable juicers. That fervent sales pitch, coming from this hard driving older man, at best, was a bit off-putting. But it was a true reflection of the man who became a convert to fitness as the age of fifteen when his diet consisted solely of cookies and pies.

As LaLanne tells it, once he began down the path to perfection he never again touched a desert, took a drink, or ate between meals. His birthday stunts alone were legendary.

At age 60, he swam from Alcatraz to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, handcuffed, shackled, and towing a 1,000-pound boat. The following year, he repeated the stunt, but this time swam underwater. But LaLanne, who had a keen sense of public relations, always aimed to top himself. Incredibly at 70, he pulled 70 boats carrying 70 people from Queen’s Way Bridge in Long Beach Harbor out to the Queen Mary — Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that he did this while handcuffed and shackled.

LaLanne, at the age of 92, described himself in an interview with the Los Angeles Times as a lifelong evangelist. Of Billy Graham, his spiritual counterpart in the early years of television, LaLanne said, “He was for the hearefter, I’m for the here and now.”

Jack LaLanne, health and fitness pioneer, lost his final fight to pneumonia. I suspect he did not go gently into that good night.

*Photo:  LaLanne at seventy-one

–Martin Brown

Health Channel Editor –