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Healdsburg’s Mr. America: Once one of the world’s strongest men

Sunday, March 20th, 2011 | Posted by


The rear license-plate frame on the white pickup proclaims “Mr. America” but there’s no hulk at the wheel.

Jimmie Payne of Healdsburg, a former championship bodybuilder and wristwrestler, fitness-gym pioneer and buddy of Jack LaLanne. In his prime, he was widely regarded as the strongest man in the world, pound for pound. (CRISTA JEREMIASON/ PD)

A balding pate protrudes barely above the seatback.

The truck parks in Healdsburg and out steps all 4 feet, 11 inches and 135 pounds of Jimmie Payne, the former championship bodybuilder and wristwrestler, fitness-gym pioneer and buddy of Jack LaLanne. In his prime, Payne was widely regarded as the strongest man in the world, pound for pound.

As a counterpoint to his friend LaLanne swimming from Alcatraz to Fisherman’s Wharf, handcuffed, shackled and towing a 1,000-pound boat, Payne would perform dip after dip while handstanding on a bar suspended from a hovering helicopter.

“The stuff we did in those days, nobody did,” Payne said, shaking his head and smiling the same million-dollar smile he wore while tensing his classically cut muscles or shooting his 1960’s Bay Area TV exercise show for kids.

Well into his 70s, he could still take hold of the grips on a couple of floor stands and raise himself into a nice, straight handstand. Now, six weeks from his 85th birthday, he confessed, “I have a hard time getting out of bed.”

But he said it with a chuckle.

Payne has spent his life working out, eating right and avoiding most of the things he knows aren’t good for a person.

“I drink a little,” he allowed, “but not much.” He knows self-pity is poison.

The native of Oakland and nearly 50-year resident of Healdsburg lifts mostly himself these days, to keep from feeling down.

His kidneys have quit on him and he undergoes dialysis treatment three times a week. He doesn’t pretend that he’s not been lonely since Jane, his wife of 59 years, died in 2003. He struggles to talk at all about the death last year of one of his four children, Cathy.

But rather than mope, Payne rejoices that he’s got 11 grandchildren — “all in sports and athletics” — and that both son Mark and daughter Penny live nearby. His first-born, Jim Jr., is a ways off, in Texas.

Payne is grateful for a life that’s been full of interesting times and people since his childhood in Alameda. As a kid he watched LaLanne, 11 years his senior, lift weights and perform gymnastics at Washington Park.

“I patterned my life after him, in a sense,” Payne said over lunch at a favorite Chinese restaurant in Windsor. He could eat all his meals at Healdsburg Senior Living, where elaborate plans are under way for his birthday celebration, but he prefers to get out.

The challenge of emulating LaLanne and lifting weights and performing feats of strength and agility appealed to him as a kid because he’d been told his life depended on being calm and sedentary. That prognosis came after he fractured his skull, at age 9, by trying to slide on a banister at Alameda’s Longfellow School. He overjumped it and fell head-first 15 or 20 feet onto the concrete floor.

“I was unconscious for seven days or something like that,” he said. He recovered and began to build his strength and learn gymnastic showmanship to prove to himself the injury didn’t have to limit his life.

By 1943, when Payne enlisted in the Navy at age 17, he was muscular at a compact 5-foot-1, lean and astoundingly limber. He returned to Alameda after World War II and, following friend and mentor LaLanne’s example, opened his first gym in Oakland. He was barely 20 years old.

Through his 40 working years he ran a succession of gyms that concluded with the VIP health club in Healdsburg, now Healdsburg Health and Fitness, which he sold in the mid-1980s but still frequents for low-impact workouts.

For years, he was the man to beat in Petaluma’s long-televised World Wristwrestling Championships.

Payne won the title of Pro Mr. America in 1950. He and his kids hosted a TV show, “Jr. Mr. and Miss America,” and in lean times he made ends meet by driving trucks and working San Francisco night clubs as MC. He was a stand-up comic and performer capable of doing amazing things while inverted in a one-armed handstand.

“When you’re in show business you’ve got to do everything,” he said. “So I did everything — but sing!”

Payne spoke, along with musclemen Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno, at LaLanne’s funeral in February.

Having worked most recently as a public-relations man for local gym owner Stan Bennett, he’s now an animated lunch date and a source of delight to fellow residents of the Healdsburg retirement community and to his grandkids.

“I always felt that I was people person,” said Payne.

He recalled one of his favorite gym slogans. “If your waist is unbecoming to you, you should be coming to me,” recited the old bodybuilder whose dominant muscle always has been the one performing repetitions deep in his chest.

You can reach Staff Columnist Chris Smith at 521-5211 or chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

  • Brian Beecher

    I rememer in 1976 when I was 7 I had a 5 week stint at the Childrens Hospital at Stanford University for surgery on my kidneys. Mr. Payne volunteered his time to visit me and many other children in the hospital. Really the only good memory of my stay. I am 43 now and have been living with one kidney since. RIP

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