Iron Man's Golden Anniversary

The indefatigable Johnny Gibson's gym equipment store turns 50.

"Let's go," Johnny Gibson says, and the 81-year-old sprints away from me. He's 81, and he's not trotting, much less shuffling; he's actually sprinting. I'm a 30-year-old with a well-worn YMCA membership card, but Johnny charges off like a mad javelina, so I'm hustling to keep pace.

It's Saturday morning at Orange Grove Middle School, and we're running a 200-meter dash. We're running partly because I've refused to race Johnny in the alley behind his gym equipment store, partly because Johnny has already beaten all the old guys in town.

At 50 meters, my brain makes an announcement: I might lose to an 81-year-old. My ego tells my legs to hurry, to which my legs reply they're already hurrying, thank you, and they'd hurry better if ego didn't visit Baskin-Robbins so often.

I catch up, and we settle for a tie. "That was good," Johnny says, although later he'll accuse me of holding back.

Two or three mornings a week, he comes to the school. He sprints and he broad jumps. He greets fellow joggers and their dogs. "Well, hi there," he says to a jogger's dog. "Come here." Unlike most of the joggers, but like most of the dogs, Johnny seems really enthusiastic about a morning workout.

"I want to stay alive, and I want to stay healthy," Johnny says. "And if you do that, you have a good chance of being happy."

Fifty years ago, he opened a downtown Tucson store and sold barbell sets, since department stores didn't carry them. Johnny Gibson Gym Equipment became a fixture, part of a movement that changed how Americans viewed barbells and bench presses.

This morning, the man whose name-brand gym equipment is used in Europe and Saudi Arabia, works out with a rock and a tree.

He does 10 chin-ups on a mesquite branch, then throws a heavy stone. He's 130-some pounds, square shoulders, sinewy limbs, a stomach that still is better described as abs, not a belly. Johnny's body and fat are strangers who've never met.

Two days before, Johnny stood in his store, amid elliptical trainers and weight benches, and described the mesquite branch chin-ups. His son and store general manager Steve called it a workout for a caveman.

"You don't need a fancy gym," Johnny said.

"Dad," Steve said, amused and exasperated. "Don't tell him that in the store."

Not missing a beat, Johnny looked me in the eye and said. "You need a fancy gym. You need an elliptical trainer."

Gibson Gym Equipment's history is of hustle, hard work and the individual touch, not sanitized corporate public-relations smooth talk.

MORE THAN A HALF-century ago, Johnny started buying used barbells and, after making his kids apply a new coat of black enamel, selling them in his back yard. When his house couldn't hold any more used barbells, he opened a store, and marketed used barbells as "refurbished spa equipment."

"That's how we started hustling it," Steve Gibson says, "and it was hard, hard work."

The logo was, and is, a cartoon weightlifter who looks like an extra from Archie Comics.

The customers for Gibson's weights included boys who were scrawny or asthmatic, boys like Dennis Moore who met Johnny in 1961. Moore, an asthmatic boy who took to lifting at 13 and eventually won a national weightlifting championship with Johnny as his coach.

Moore says Gibson's store in the 1960s drew a subculture of Tucson strongmen: boxers, weightlifters, arm wrestlers and pro wrestlers. "The guys back then were friendly, more sports-minded, into the communal aspect of having fun and helping one another," Moore says. "Not so narcissistic."

Johnny was a bodybuilder, Mr. Arizona 1950, and a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne on D-Day. Without being strong, Gibson says, he wouldn't have survived 17 days in 1945 with shrapnel lodged in his liver and lungs. He was awarded the Purple Heart. "Being confident and being in shape helps carry you through a lot of situations," Johnny says.

Gibson had been the smallest boy in his class until he started lifting weights at 17. "My friends said, "Hey, Gibson, you're getting a good build.' What are you doing?" Gibson says. "This gave me an identity. I was sort of somebody. This grew on me."

Back then, weightlifting was what people today would call an extreme sport. When Johnny Gibson Gym Equipment opened, Moore says, "there probably weren't three stores like that in the country." Many department stores didn't carry weights. Fitness experts warned of becoming "musclebound,"--too muscular to move properly.

In the 1950s, thanks to pioneers like Jack LaLanne, Joe Weider and Johnny, weightlifting and bodybuilding gained respectability. Johnny's store grew.

"In those days, it was magic," says Steve, who runs the business today. "My dad was a consummate entrepreneur of buy low, sell high." Steve made his first sale when he was 8, an exercise bike to furniture mogul Sam Levitz. Trucks would come from as far as North Carolina; two days later, they'd leave with the contents for an entire health club.

For 30 years, the store had no forklift, no pallet jack, just strong employees. The only labor-saving device was the Manhattan Club, a downtown dive. When a truck full of weights arrived, Gibson's guys went to the Manhattan Club, found six of its most sober-looking patrons, and paid them $3 apiece to carry a few thousand pounds. The temps collected their $3 and usually headed right back to the bar.

Three years ago, a customer wrote Steve a letter. "I bought a home weight set in the 1960s from the trunk of Johnny Gibson's car," he wrote. "... Generations of local athletes have used Gibson iron. And maybe iron symbolizes what you've meant to your town, your country. Solid. Reliable."

The front of the downtown store says "Johnny Gibson Gym Equipment Co." in big, red block letters on a red, white and blue building. In red neon is the cartoon weightlifter logo, either a sentimental relic or a vintage classic, depending on one's taste.

In the late 1970s, Nautilus exercise machines replaced barbells as the rage at the gym. Gibson hustle faced corporate muscle--lots of it. Gibson Gym Equipment Co. began making its own exercise equipment. Now, 22 years later, Gibson is downsizing its manufacturing business. It'll leave most of that to the big boys.

Until recently, Johnny still prowled yard sales looking for used barbell sets. He sized up young people at the sales and made a friendly wager: Johnny arm-wrestled, paying double for the barbells if he lost, nothing if he won.

"If my dad is betting money," Steve says, "he's probably going to win it."

When Johnny finishes his morning workout at Orange Grove Middle School, I ask him how he stays flat-stomached and fleet-footed. He says he married well. Pearle and Johnny Gibson have been married 55 years. He tries not to overeat, favors fresh fruits and recommends wholesome soups made with a food processor. ("It chews the food for you.")

He's still competing, running and jumping at the Senior Olympics. The week after I talked to him, he won four gold medals in Flagstaff and even beat some guys in their 70s. He marvels at athletes older than him. "I'm amazed by how strong these guys are," he says. "They're 85, 86. And they can run."

Johnny says he'll keep at it until he's 90.

As Dennis Moore says: "He's still got a biceps on him."