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transitions

For fitness guru Harry Smith, retirement is a weight on his shoulders

The first note about the closing went up in September.

Then the handwritten revisions began.

"… sometime in early October," replaced the original date.

"Early" became "late."

Eventually, a new note appeared on the mirrored wall of the Harry Smith Health Club. Scrawled beneath a typed LAST DAY NOTICE: "Nov. 1st."

Halloween came and went and the gym remained open, despite being half empty of equipment and nearly void of people.

Most of the last group of faithful members had moved on to new gyms where air-conditioning cranked and treadmills had cable TV. The once lively place where generations of South Tampa families had trained sat abandoned.

When are you closing, people would ask. Harry Smith's answers always came with a "maybe."

At 88, he wasn't ready to let go.

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Smith's love of exercise began in the Navy. Stationed in San Diego, he drove to Santa Monica's famed Muscle Beach to lift weights alongside Jack LaLanne and Steve Reeves. He began competing and brought home dozens of titles.

By the time he opened his gym in Tampa in 1956, Smith had a following. "They knew I knew what I was doing," Smith said.

In 1964, he expanded, building a new facility on Horatio Street. At the gym's peak, there were more than 300 members. Each received a workout plan handwritten on index cards and an earful of old-school advice.

"He yelled and carried on a lot," said Craig Newman, a member for 30 years. "He would scream at someone who dropped their weights or hadn't paid their dues yet."

"He ran a tight ship, made sure people were picking stuff up," said Fred Branch, who worked out at Harry's in the 1960s. "If someone was waiting on a machine behind you, he would come tell you to get out of the way."

But, just like its owner, the no-frills gym was aging.

Many of the original members died or moved away. A bulletin board near the stair climbers was plastered with newspaper obituaries.

Smith's weight-lifting machines, which he designed and had custom built decades ago, still worked but their brown vinyl cushions and exposed chains looked outdated compared to the calorie-counting, heart rate-tracking cardio machines at all the big-box gyms.

After a leak in the gym's flat roof a few years ago, buckets became standard next to the barbells.

The few members who hung on didn't stay for the amenities. They stayed for Smith.

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The decision to close wasn't easy.

A stroke this past summer landed Smith in the hospital for weeks. Members stepped in to care for him, running the gym in his stead and driving him the eight blocks from his house.

Childless, Smith had no one to continue his legacy. Selling the business didn't seem viable either. "The land is more lucrative than the gym," Smith said.

When an offer came in August, members encouraged him to accept. A company bought the property for $495,000 with plans to demolish the gym and build apartments or condos.

Smith began the process of closing.

Members threw him a retirement party. A hundred people filled the small gym, sitting on the equipment they once lifted, and lamented the end of an era.

"This was the place where anybody who was anybody came," Branch said. "It didn't really matter where you went to high school or what sport you played, as long as you lifted, you were welcome."

Smith slowly sold off some of the barbells and weight machines. Some went with longtime members eager to re-create the feel of Harry's at home. Others went to neighboring fitness centers.

But where would Harry go?

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"Our concern is that if he doesn't have a gym to go to," Newman said, "he'll sit in his house and it won't be long."

He arranged for Smith to join him at Anytime Fitness just a few blocks away. He billed it to Smith as "Harry's in the 21st Century."

Smith sniffed. Said he thought it had a lot of cardio machines. Not enough plain old lifting.

Kendall Trosky, another longtime member, invited Smith to a CrossFit gym on Henderson Boulevard.

"He needs to do something else," Trosky said. "I'm afraid leaving the health club will mean losing his zest."

Trosky brought him for a tour, Lady Gaga blasted from the stereo. It's nice, Smith said, but a little loud.

If it was up to Smith, he would spend his days watching sports on television and golfing at the Palma Ceia Golf and Country Club. But he's not exactly rushing to make a tee time.

He said his clients come first. "They need me."

//

In late November, Smith asked the power company to turn out the lights.

He was sad, he said, but it was boring to spend six days a week at a mostly empty gym, sitting alone in an office, sometimes reading, sometimes dozing.

Days later, when no one had come by to shut the power off, he didn't ask questions. Instead, he opened like usual.

As the familiar clang of weights hitting metal drifted into his office, he smiled.

"Where else would my members go?" he asked.

Times researcher John Martin contributed. Shelley Rossetter can be reached at srossetter@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3401.

For fitness guru Harry Smith, retirement is a weight on his shoulders 11/27/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 27, 2013 3:33pm]

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