Our Founder – Vic Boff
The all-time champion cold weather bather Vic, on Coney Island beach.
Vic Boff – A Wonderful Life
As many of the members of this organization, know, Vic Boff was an amazing man. He touched so many in so many amazing ways that its literally stunning. From small kindnesses, to business rescues to life changing prescriptions of physical and mental cures, Vic’s contributions were all over the map, literally and figuratively.
The following is a brief biographical sketch of Vic’s life. It would take at least a book, and maybe several, to do justice to Vic. And perhaps someday there will be such a book. Until then, here is a summary that will have to do until something more definitive is written.
Vic Boff was born on October 22, 1917, in Red Lion, PA. He was one of two children born to Sam and Rose Boff (the other was his brother Lewis). Sam was the owner of a successful department store chain. Vic’s life might well have been spent in Red Lion and the surrounding areas, perhaps running the family business, had it not been for a major force that swept through country a little more than a decade after Vic’s birth – the Great Depression. During the depression, many businessmen lost their fortunes and Vic’s father was one of them. Seeing his stores close one by one, Sam, decided that the family’s future would be brighter in a larger city. So the Boff family moved to Brooklyn while Vic was still in his teens.
It would be hard to think of a more interesting place for a young man to grow up during that era. Close enough to the center of NYC to be there with a quick subway ride, Brooklyn offered a diversity, a vitality and a semi-suburban atmosphere that provided young people with a uniquely stimulating experience.
A young man of great energy, Vic engaged in many sports and games. When he was between 7 and 8 years of age, he began to exercise on a regular basis, using a variety of calisthenics to build his young body. Later he began to practice extensively on the high bar (in fact, it was while working out on a high bar in Brooklyn that he befriended the great weightlifter, John Davis, as a young man). He also took up weight training, ultimately combining that training with calisthenics, shadow boxing, strong man stunts and year round bathing in the sea, which kept him in wonderful condition throughout his life.
The young Boff developed an affinity for freezing temperatures early on, often venturing out in the most frigid weather with nothing more than a t-shirt, to his mothers great alarm. But this was a habit could not be stopped and, as an adult, Vic never owned an overcoat. By the time of the move to Brooklyn, Vic had developed the habit of sleeping with his window open, even in the deepest of winter. At first his mother worried about his health, but as she grew to realize Vic and the cold were compatible, she simply worried about the rest of the family, so began to put a mat in front of his bedroom door each night, lest Vic’s habits would freeze the rest of the family to death.
By about the time Vic reached his late teens, he had begun to focus most on two sports: boxing and baseball. What could be more appropriate for a lad growing up in Brooklyn? Great fighters and great ballplayers were everywhere. Vic had seen his first major fight at the age of 13, when his father took him to NYC in 1930 to witness the Max Schmeling/Jack Sharkey heavyweight title fight. This experience drove him to begin training in boxing very seriously. With careful boxing training augmented by the strength training and other conditioning work Vic performed, he became very successful as an amateur. After several years on that level, he unexpectedly broke into the professional ranks. While he was working at a resort in upstate NY, he was asked to fill-in at the last minute to fight a professional, whose planned opponent had not appeared. He actually beat the professional fairly handily and thereafter began to fight on semi-professional basis.
With so many interests and a love for a healthy lifestyle, including preventing the destruction of a very exceptional brain, Vic gave up his boxing career by his early 20’s. However, he remained a great fan for many years, being a fixture at the Friday Night fights and Madison Square Garden. Across the years be became friendly with many of the greats of the game, such as Depmsey, Marciano and Robinson, and he witnessed firsthand many of the greatest fights in sports history.
In baseball, Vic enjoyed even greater success. After demonstrating unusual ability on the playgrounds of Brooklyn, he was offered a tryout with the Rochester farm team of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1938. Unfortunately, an injury to his shoulder effectively ended his chance at becoming a major league ballplayer. But as is almost inevitable in life, the closing of one door of opportunity opened another.
In an effort to rehabilitate his shoulder, Vic learned of the reportedly magic healing powers of cold therapy. He had always loved the cold, but on the basis of his continual scanning of the physical culture horizon, he learned about how to use the ice and snow to very successfully rehabilitate his shoulder. He soon became enamored with the idea of cold having more generalized physical benefits than merely rehabilitating an injury. He believed that when the body became accustomed to the cold one’s health would become dramatically improved, often remarking that he’d “seen the weakest become the strongest through winter bathing”. However, he noted that those healthfully stimulated by the cold would turn a bright red while bathing and that “If you turn blue it is not for you” (or at least not until after further training).
Given his love for the cold, cold water bathing was a perfect match for Vic. He joined the Iceberg Athletic (not Polar Bear) Club of Brooklyn in the 1940’s. Part of his initiation required that he carry a block of ice from one breakwater to another on the Coney Island beach. What was typically a major challenge for others proved to be a piece of cake for Vic, with his unique combination of great strength and compatibility with the cold. He became the 3rd President in the Club’s history in the 1970’s and he served in that capacity until his move to Florida in 1992.
I remember Vic telling me that as word of his abilities with regard to withstanding the cold spread, a challenge was issued to him by a winter bather from the Midwest. It seems that this fellow was famous in the Michigan area for his ability to bask in the Great Lakes during the coldest weather. Vic had no interest in “competing” in ice bathing as he simply saw it as a healthful activity. However, he invited the challenger to come to NY to bath with him. The Midwesterner traveled to NY, expecting to return home having established himself as the hardiest of the hardy winter bathers. In commenting on this “match” years later, Vic said in a very matter of fact way, “He had nothing. After 20 minutes they hand to carry him off the beach” (where Vic remained comfortably for a least an hour longer before casually returning to the Iceberg clubhouse). Given his record in ice bathing, it is not surprising that the club members eventually presented Vic with an award for “The World’s Greatest Winter Bather – For His Dedication and Inspiration to Promote Health and Longevity by Winter Bathing”.
Winter bathing always attracted the press looking for what they considered to be a bizarre story. During the NYC blizzard of 1978, one brave reporter requested permission to go with Vic to observe his bathing during the storm (Vic made it a habit to bath every day regardless of the weather). The master ice bather was happy to have someone along and went about his exercise and bathing routine, leaving the reporter/photographer to go about his business of snapping pictures. The reporter appeared to be dressed properly for the occasion, with an overcoat and heavy boots. Nevertheless, after about a ½ hour in the extreme cold, wind and heavy snow of the storm, he nearly collapsed. Vic and helped him back to the clubhouse, where after an hour or so, the reporter had recovered sufficiently to begin his journey back to the office. Vic was glad to help the young man recover, but he regretted losing the time that he could have spent in the snow and water!
During his teens and early 20’s, Vic tried his hand at a wide range of occupations, from writer to stevedore. But the most consistent theme in his life was his growing interest in health. At one point in his evolution, he adopted vegetarianism. In pursuit of his objective of living naturally, he actually moved to a small island off the coast of Cuba in 1940. Then he lived for a year, completely off the land, through farming and other related activities. He enjoyed his life so much that he considered the possibility of remaining in Cuba forever. However, at that point, fate intervened. Word reached him that his mother was gravely ill and he returned to Brooklyn. At almost the same time, WW II broke out and Vic was needed by his country for the war effort. He served in the Coast Guard, where he worked under their Physical Director, his long time hero, former world heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Dempsey.
The return to NY was not without some happy surprises. One day, Vic wandered into the landmark Brownie’s Health Food store in Manhattan. Looking for something healthy to eat, he discovered something(one) completely unexpected – the future Mrs. Boff, then Ann Yunko. Ann was considered by Mr. Brownie to be one of his most promising employees but she was especially helpful to Vic. And soon a relationship between them developed.
While Vic felt an instant and strong attraction to Ann, his wanderlust still burned strongly. So when his tour of duty in the Coast Guard was drew to a close, Boff decided to pursue his physical culture interests in what was the emerging hot spot for such pursuits in the US – Southern California. There he further explored the broad spectrum of natural living, riding his bike everywhere and consuming a quart of carrot juice daily. But soon his love for Ann won out and he decided to return to NYC with great haste. He booked a ticket on the next Greyhound bus headed for NY, even though seating was not assured. He ended up standing much of the way, especially after he got up to give his seat to a mother traveling with a young child who did not have a place to sit (a kindness so characteristic of Vic). But the trip to NY was worth it. He reunited with Ann and they were married at City Hall in 1943.
Ann hailed from a family of Polish coal miners and shortly after she and Vic were married, they ventured to Pennsylvania coal mining country to meet Ann’s family. A rugged, courageous and powerful man in his own right, Ann’s father took and immediate liking to his son-in-law. He became one of Vic’s biggest fans when he saw Boff bend a horseshoe. Vic was equally impressed by his father-in-law’s fearlessness in the woods. Ann’s father dealt with rattlesnakes as if they were gnats and was in total command of the wilds. Vic admired his skill and courage very much.
Back in NY, Vic persisted in his pursuit of wisdom regarding health living. During his younger days, 4th avenue in Manhattan was dotted with dozens of second hand bookstores. Vic haunted those shops searching for books on physical culture, sports and other fields. He spent many hours and dollars assembling a phenomenal collection of books and periodicals. Not only did these resources provide Vic with an incredible breadth and depth of knowledge in the fields of nutrition, natural healing, exercise, strength, bodybuilding and a host of related areas, but his collecting habits made him something of a legend with the booksellers.
On the basis of his reading, and additional training he took in chiropractic and massage, Vic soon built up a substantial practice in Manhattan, as sort of doctor to the stars. In the meantime, he got more serious about his professional writing career (his first magazine article had been published in “Let’s Live” in 1935).
Vic pursued his interest in physical culture with great energy. Realizing that he had a lot he could learn from the greats is the field, he read everything he could find written by the leading writers of the era, such as Bernarr MacFadden and Benedict Lust. He eventually found a way to meet and befriend most of those he admired in the field of health and strength.
For instance, convinced that he could learn a great deal from George Jowett, Vic decided that a meeting with the strongman/publisher/promoter/manufacturer was a must. He learned where Jowett lived and then decided to visit his home without an appointment. When he knocked on the door of the Jowett residence, he was told that Mr. Jowett was not expected to return until the late evening. Since it was a cold winter’s day, the staff at the Jowett home assumed they had seen the last of Mr. Boff, but of course they had no idea what kind of determination Vic had. Unfazed by the cold whether, Vic waited outside Jowett’s home until late into the night. Finally, he saw the figure of a huge man approaching and soon realized it was indeed the legendary strongman. When Jowett reached his home, Vic stepped up and introduced himself. Eyeing the young man with great curiosity, Jowett asked how long he had been waiting. When Vic told him the truth, Jowett invited him into his home immediately and so began a relationship that would last the rest of Jowett’s life.
Boff would go on to write for Jowett’s publications and he and Jowett would become close business associates. Vic contributed to Jowett’s success in many ways, including providing critical assistance during an international law suit that Jowett won and might well have lost without Vic. However, of all the things Vic remembered about his relationship with Jowett, the one of which he was the proudest was his role in reuniting the strongman with Bob Hoffman. The two had been partners during the early days of Strength & Health magazine. A bitter dispute between them soon developed and Hoffman walked away with the magazine in his possession. The two didn’t talk for decades thereafter, but Vic, who knew them both very well, managed to arrange for a reunion, during which these old enemies spent many hours reminiscing. They soon became fast friends again and remained so until Jowett died years later.
While he was in his 20’s, Vic met the famous Joe Bonomo. Bonomo was quite the entrepreneur. He balanced an active film career, a publishing business and a candy company that sold – yes, “Bonomo bars”. Bonomo was perhaps best known for publishing the “little” books on exercise and health that were sold at checkout counters of many stores. Vic became a favorite author of Joe’s, writing many books and often receiving royalty checks on several books at the same time.
In addition, to writing for many magazines, “ghosting” books for others in the field and editing for Healthful Living Publications, Vic wrote several of his own books and did very well with them. “The Bodybuilder’s Bible”, “You Can Be Physically Perfect, Powerfully Strong” and “Molding Mighty Abdominals” were among them.
As a young man, Vic met Bob Hoffman. Early in his relationship with Bob, Vic provided assistance with a legal matter in NY. Hoffman offered Boff a “Big 12” barbell/dumbbell set as repayment for his services. Vic felt a little disappointed with the offer and decided to ask for a much more valuable Olympic set. Hoffman was surprised by this response, but he respected Vic’s pluck and this episode soon led to Bob’s calling him the “big businessman from Red Lion” (who had talked his way into an Olympic set).
Vic represented York in a variety of ways in NY and elsewhere over the years, and he became Bob’s eyes and ears in the community, often relaying critical information to Bob regarding the reception that his products were receiving. In at least one instance, information from Vic’s vast network of associates may have literally saved the scope of Bob’s Company.
It seems that Vic had gotten word that some members of the medical community were lobbying the YMCA’s to throw weightlifting out of their facilities across the country. At the time, Y’s were perhaps the major institutional venue in which weight training occurred across the US. Virtually every Y had some weightlifting equipment and in future years, Y’s were to become the training quarters for many of the greatest weightlifters in US history, not to mention hundreds of thousands of athletes in all kinds of sports.
As soon as Vic heard about the Y’s plan, he contacted Bob Hoffman and suggested that Hoffman and some of his top lifters attend a meeting where this issue weight training in the Y’s was to be discussed. Hoffman recognized the urgency and importance of Vic’s request and brought his top team members, Grimek, Stanko, Stancyzk, Terlazzo and Terpak to the meeting. He spoke about the benefits of weightlifting, exploded a number of myths and then asked John Grimek pose. Grimek’s size, lean body mass and symmetry were astounding for his day (and for very long thereafter) so the physicans and others in attendance assumed that he was a classic example of a “musclebound” person as soon as they saw him. But when John moved into a full split, touched his elbows to the ground with his legs straight and clasped his hands behind his back (one coming from over the shoulder and the other around the back) the audience was literally stunned. Few if any had ever seen someone so flexible and the fact that Grimek could do these things while being so muscular completely blew away any notion that “weightlifters” were musclebound.
Hoffman culminated the demonstration with a challenge. The Y could pick its top 5 athletes who did not train with weights and they could each select 5 sports in which to compete against Bob’s team (but they were precluded from choosing their own sport). Similarly, Hoffman’s lifters could choose 5 sports, but not weightlifting. He offered $5,000 (the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars today) if the Y’s team could beat his. There were no takers. In fact, to his credit, the physician who had intended to put weightlifting out of the Y’s, became an advocate of weight training.
So the battle for weightlifting’s acceptance was won (at least for many decades). The weightlifters were allowed to remain and Y’s weightlifting programs throughout the country flourished. Partly because of the behind the scenes work by a man named Boff.
Vic was a man of many careers, but his longest-lived single business enterprises were his heatlh food stores. The first one opened in the 1950’s on 101st Street and Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan. A few years later, his store moved downtown and few blocks and over to Broadway, where it remained until Vic closed it in the 1970’s. A second store, Vic Boff’s Healh and Fitness Aids, was opened on 86th Street and Bay Parkway in Brooklyn, while the Manhattan store was still in operation. The health food stores were a perfect match for Vic. They gave him a base of operations at which he would be visited by a vast number of those in the Iron Game. They also provided him with a “bully pulpit’ from which to deliver his message of physical culture in all of its varieties.
But the venture into health food business wasn’t without its challenges. For instance, on the eve of the opening of Vic’s first store in Manhattan, disaster struck. Steam pipes near the store burst and Victor’s entire stock was ruined by the heat and moisture. Many businesses would have been crushed by that kind of tragedy at such a crucial moment. But when Vic called all of his vendors to see if he could replace the damaged goods, though his credit had been stretched to the limit when he stocked the store initially, he found that his reputation for honesty was so strong that every vendor agreed to replenish his stock on the strength of his word alone. Hence the store was saved and went on to be a great success.
In 1992, Vic made the decision to sell his health food store in Brooklyn (to a couple who had worked with him in that store for many years) and he and Ann moved to Cape Coral, Florida. While retired from his own business, Vic devoted countless hours to supporting others. He consulted with Tom Lincir, founder of Ivanko Barbell Company for many years. He counseled Tom Ciola of “Hot Stuff” fame. Both of these men give Vic great credit for the tremendous success that their businesses have had, as do many others in the Iron Game. There are countless others who Vic helped as well, on a very personal level. Those stories are too numerous and too personal to tell here, but they demonstrate that Vic could never ignore someone in need of help.
Renowned for his encyclopedic memory regarding the Iron Game, Vic was consulted by anyone interested in Iron Game history when they had a question. He often knew the historic figure you where interested in, or at least saw him/her perform great feats. And if he didn’t have firsthand knowledge, he knew the answer on the basis of what he’d learned from others, or the vast reading he had done. However, his knowledge was hardly restricted to the Iron Game, or to the realm of physical culture.
Joe Marino tells a story about one of Vic’s recent visits to New York, when he was well into his 80’s. Joe and Vic were concluding a meal at the renowned Wally & Joseph’s restaurant in NY (Joe’s and Vic’s favorite) when a sports reporter from the NY Times happened to be seated next to Vic and Joe. A brief conversation ensued and when the reporter learned a little about Vic’s history, he began to question Vic regarding sports trivia. He soon found that there was not a single question he could pose in the areas of boxing or baseball that Vic could not answer. Moreover, Vic posed several questions to the reporter that the reporter could not answer. By the end of the evening, Vic had supplied the reporter with valuable information for forthcoming columns and the reporter had become one of Boff’s newest admirers.
Vic always counted meeting Joe Greenstein (the Might Atom) as one of his most tremendous experiences of his life. “Here he was, a man who only stood 5’5”, 140 pounds, who could perform feats of strength (such as bending iron spikes, breaking chains across his chest, pulling cars or airplanes with this hair) that would put the biggest men to shame. He had no equal.”
Another legend of the Iron Game who Vic admired greatly was Sig Klein. Klein had his doubts about Vic’s abilities when he first met him (as Sig did about all newcomers), but after watching Vic perform some strength feats, he quickly accepted him as the real article and they soon formed a strong friendship. Over time, Vic grew so close to Sig that on the occasion of Sig’s 81st birthday, in 1983, Vic organized a birthday celebration in Klein’s honor. A modest celebration with perhaps a little more than 50 in attendance took place at Lenny’s Clam Bar in Queens, NY. Once word got out that the party had occurred, many of Vic’s associates expressed their desire to attend if there was ever another such event. So Vic decided to organize another party the following year and by that time the size of the group had nearly doubled. The location of the dinner was moved to Wally & Joseph’s restaurant in Manhattan, where it was held for 2 consecutive years. By that time, the gathering had grown once again and Vic began to realize he was on to something very big and important.
Strongmen the world over wanted and needed an annual celebration of their field, a forum to honor the past, renew acquaintances and meet the greats of the Iron Game. So in 1986, with the help of his friends Johnny Mandel and Rudy Riska, Vic moved to dinner (which had outgrown a restaurant setting) to the famous Downtown Athletic Club, home of the legendary Heisman trophy. That year, the dinner evolved from a birthday party to a celebration of the Iron Game and, most appropriately, the first honoree was the “Monarch of Muscledom” himself, John Grimek. This time there were a couple hundred guests in attendance, among them some of the most famous men and women in Iron Game history. It was a fabulous evening for all in attendance (I was lucky enough to have been one of them). The outpouring of support for John Grimek was incredible. I doubt even he realized how many lives he had touched and in how many ways. After such a glorious evening, Vic was sure he was on the right track with his organization, which he was to continue to nurture and grow for the rest of his days.
Those who were close to Vic know how much his wife Ann supported him in all that he accomplished over the years. In addition to raising the family and often managing the health food store for Vic, she was also his part-time editor and confidant in many other areas – including the aforementioned nurturing of the AOBS. And she has been of great support is helping the AOBS in continuing on.
Those who know Ann will testify to her mettle. Once, while she was tending to the health food store, a would-be robber entered. Vic was working in the back. The man demanded the money from the cash register. At first Ann called for Vic, but when it became apparent that Vic did not hear her calls for help, she became so annoyed with the situation that she confronted the robber and chased him out of the store with the steel rod that was used to lower the store’s awning! Vic could only laugh when he heard the story.
Vic is also survived by his two sons. Dr. Kenneth Boff is a renowned psychologist who runs a major division that studies human performance for NASA and the US Air Force. George Boff has had a very successful career in the health food business for many years.
There are also 4 Boff grandchildren: Ken’s son and daughter, Cory and Kyra, and George’s daughters, Amanda and Andrea.
Vic Boff’s life created an amazing legacy. It was a life full of excitement, of adventure, of a profound commitment to values, of helping others and of the sheer joy of camaraderie with those of like values. His story is indeed the story of a wonderful life. But it is also the story of a man who made the lives of so many others more wonderful merely by offering them the priceless gift of his friendship. Thank you Vic, from all of us!