On some days, Secret Service members worked out with blue-collar workers. On others, world-class athletes such as wrestlers Dick Wilson and Greg Wojciechowski lifted weights next to Toledo lawyers and judges just looking to stay fit.
Everyday, Dick Torio held court.
More than five decades have passed since Mr. Torio, 83, opened his now old-school gym, Torio’s Health Club on Berwick Avenue in West Toledo, but when it opened, it was a state-of-the-art facility and a progressive step for an entrepreneur, given that the nation was nowhere near the fever pitch of its current fitness craze.
In its final years, with its owner’s memorabilia adorning its walls, it was as much museum as a weight room and spartan gym kept immaculate. And Dick Torio, a Korean War veteran and a child of the Great Depression, was behind the counter to welcome you when you walked in.
But almost more important than a gym, Torio’s Health Club was a place for men to find camaraderie. For stories to be told as well as bodies to be shaped. It fostered a special sense of community within the city, became a local staple, and made an impact because of it. And it was the go-to place for any young wrestler who had championship dreams.
But after 55 years in business, the club has closed and the building sold to the Family Video store next door. The gym will be razed, but not before a final gathering at the club today. Mr. Torio will host a farewell open house spaghetti dinner from noon to 6 p.m.
No health club in Toledo will likely ever carry the same mystique, or have as long a list of accomplished athletes, business professionals, and working-class people calling it home. Mr. Torio estimates close to 8,000 people trained there, and at its peak, the club served an active membership of nearly 300.
In its heyday, Torio’s bristled with physical activity and mental stimulation as its wide-ranging membership blended like a Toledo melting pot. Even until his mid-50s, Mr. Torio continued to train wrestlers at his gym, often battling with heavyweights like Mr. Wojciechowski, Toledo’s NCAA champion, and a 1980 U.S. Olympic team member.
“Dick Torio was like a second father to me,” said Mr. Wojciechowski, a two-time state champion at Whitmer and the 1971 NCAA heavyweight champion at Toledo. “If it wasn’t for Dick Torio, I probably would have only been an above-average [high school] football player, a fair baseball player, and probably wouldn’t have ever wrestled.”
Like his club, Mr. Torio has changed too. In two essential ways, though, he never really changed. He built a remarkable physique only to lose it to spinal stenosis in recent years. He always focused on the daily task at hand, and he never longed to become wealthy.
He viewed family and friends as his true rewards.
At Jersey City’s Lincoln High School in New Jersey, Dick Torio was a swimmer, a gymnast, played football, and competed in track. But in his final season of high school football, he underwent surgery to insert steel plates into a broken arm and was in a cast for two months. A doctor told him he would never participate in sports again.
In fact, he was far from finished, transforming his body with weightlifting. By 1951, his muscled physique was judged impressive enough to place fifth in the Mr. World competition in Philadelphia, two years after he came to the University of Toledo to join the wrestling and football teams with his childhood friend, Jim Vitale, the Rogers High School teacher, coach, and athletic director after whom the Rams’ gymnasium would ultimately be named.
“We came here on a Greyhound bus in 1949,” Mr. Torio said. “I went to Toledo partially because [UT coach] Joe Scalzo was starting wrestling there. We didn’t have wrestling in high school.”
Dick Torio became the first college wrestler to earn All-America status at three weight classes: In 1951, he placed third in the NCAA tournament at 177 pounds; in 1952, he took fourth at heavyweight, and in 1953, he placed third at 191.
His time at the University of Toledo sparked a career in wrestling. He dabbled in pro wrestling after college, and once again briefly when he completed his military service in 1957.
He was an assistant coach under Joe Scalzo at UT (1959-63), and also trained Rocket athletes at his health club. An expert official on the mats, he became a top referee and judge and served in that capacity at four summer Olympic Games (1960, 1964, 1972, and 1976). In 1968, he reached the Olympics as manager of the U.S. Greco-Roman wrestling team.
Still, at 36, Mr. Torio was single. But he stepped into an Irish pub for a drink during a world wrestling tournament trip and met Mary Ann Coady, a native of County Galway, Ireland.
They married in 1965 and had five children, But eight years later, Mary Ann was diagnosed with cancer shortly after she found out she was pregnant for the last time. Doctors gave her a choice of cancer treatment or continuing with the pregnancy, and she chose to have the baby. She died in 1977, leaving behind children aged 3 to 11. Mr. Torio married Barbara Grochowski, a family friend, and they had two more daughters. All seven of the Torio children graduated from college, and five received advanced degrees.
“It was just a struggle,” said Coady Torio, 44, Dick’s eldest son. “But dad is just so strong and tough. He’s your old-school guy. Whatever the challenge is, you just do it. You don’t complain about it, you just go out and make it happen. He was an absolute rock.”
The place to meet
Toledo criminal defense attorney Jon Richardson was a regular at Torio’s from 1980 through 1995, and believed Dick Torio’s personality defined the facility, as well as his expertise in fitness, which at the time was considered progressive.
But there was intellectual discourse along with pumping iron.
“The debates were spirited because Dick was never bashful about his views,” said Mr. Richardson, 70. “In other words, when you worked out there, you were also treated to Torio on politics, or Torio on the world.
“It wasn’t even a debate. What you did was listen to Torio. That’s how that worked.”
John Robinson Block, publisher and editor-in-chief of The Blade, also worked out at Torio’s.
“I will always cherish my memories of Mr. Torio, his wonderful club, and the many friendships,” Mr. Block said. “It was the best of Toledo.”
Frederick McDonald, a Lucas County Common Pleas judge, exercised at the club from the late 1980s through the 1990s and was taken there for the first time by a friend who was a Secret Service agent. He enjoyed it immediately.
“It was a great cross-section of people,” said Judge McDonald, 69. “There were guys all the way from the Olympic athlete to the neighborhood guy. There were priests and schoolteachers and several lawyers. There were coaches and athletic directors.”
The former professional wrestler known as Dr. Jerry Graham, 65, was first trained by Mr. Torio at the downtown YMCA when he was in junior high school and went by his real name, Jerry Jaffe.
“It was a magical place,” he said. “In a few years, it’ll be gone with the wind. But it was really an experience I had there for 30 years, and I enjoyed every minute of it. Of all the people who came in, there was not one person I disliked. It was a great place to go.”
Facilities not fancy
The facilities were not fancy in any way, with cinder-block construction and old-school weights lining the walls, but the club had character. In the steam bath, Judge McDonald said, stories shared between gym members swirled, and the gym had an outdoor heated pool, open year-round, but not always heated year-round.
“Torio didn’t waste a lot of money on heating that pool, so the water was always cold,” Judge McDonald said. “There were times when I would climb up the ladder to get out of the pool and there would be ice on the ladder. You would run inside and jump into the steam room. You didn’t have to fight to get time in the pool, that’s for sure.”
Some club members did not quite match up physically, but that was never a barrier.
“There were a lot of athletes that came to Torio’s to work out, and I was not one of them,” said Mark Goodremont, 59, owner and president of Goodremont’s Inc., a West Toledo business dealing in copy machines, printers, and business supplies. “Dick used to give out T-shirts that said ‘Body By Torio.’ He made me give mine back. I’m not in his book of champions. He has a book of before-and-after pictures. I actually have two before pictures,” Mr. Goodremont said.
And then there were politics. Yes, politics.
Torio’s political proclivities leaned well to the right, and often prompting debate, especially the articles he pinned to his famous club bulletin board near the main door. He highlighted the passages that best agreed with his views.
Some gym members didn’t agree with Dick Torio’s views, which sparked spirited discussions. When Rush Limbaugh’s conservative daily talk-radio show went into syndication in the late 1980s, “It was fuel for Torio’s fire,” Mr. Goodremont said. “One guy started to wear a Walkman so he didn’t have to listen to it.”
The political discourse became a staple of workouts.
“If you’re busy arguing while you’re working out, you’d talk about that stuff and get your workout in without realizing it’s done,” Mr. Goodremont said. “It’s boring otherwise.”
If Rossford’s Louis Bauer had a claim to fame, it came when he was elected as one of the nation’s youngest mayors in his hometown in 1975 at age 23. He served until 1991.
Before he became mayor, however, Mr. Bauer, 60, was a member of the University of Toledo wrestling team, and he was a member of Torio Health Club. These were two pursuits that provided him with lifelong memories.
“What kept me coming back was Dick Torio, and the companionship,” Mr. Bauer said. “It was a different atmosphere. You had a lot of friends there, and you knew what was going on in each other’s lives. I considered it more of a close friendship than a club. Some of those memories I really cherish.”
Now, in its final days, Mr. Torio can’t help but to reminisce, and grieve over what was once a Toledo institution.
“I’m brokenhearted about it,” he said. “Even though I’m crippled up, I’m still a good teacher. I have no regrets.”
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6510, or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.