One of John Gillingham’s signature exhortations to spur folks who have adored his exercise classes for generations is, “There is NO stopping.” But now there is.
Gillingham retired after 63 years in the exercise industry on June 2, his 90th birthday, leading one final workout for more than 60 longtime friends on a gorgeous Saturday morning in a park near the Denver Tech Center. They did hill sprints and bunny hops with balloons between their legs, step-ups while blowing “birthday whistles,” wall-sits while holding cupcakes in spoons. They huffed and puffed through squats, lunges, push-ups, sit-ups and a lot of laughs.
But they were really there to honor Gillingham, who survived tuberculosis as a boy in England and Nazi aerial bombardments as a teenager during World War II, worked as a cowboy in Australia, became an exercise innovator at the Denver Downtown YMCA in the 1960s, was designated a “Colorado National Monument” by former Gov. Richard Lamm in 1981 and led the Denver Broncos in aerobics classes when John Elway was a shaggy-haired rookie.
Friends came from across the country to make Gillingham’s last workout a love fest. ”It’s overwhelming,” said Gillingham, wearing a hat shaped like a birthday cake that said, “Happy Older Than Dirt.”
Joanna Culbertson, 65, said she was overcome with emotion when she sat down to write a note to insert into the birthday card she bought him.
“I sat there bawling my eyes out, trying to find the right words to express my gratitude,” said Culbertson, voice trembling with emotion. “He gives totally of himself to all of us and all the people he meets. And I learned how to age through John. When he turned 80, I sat there and I thought, ‘If he can be this full of life and this full of fitness and this dedicated to his passion, this is a good example for all of us on how to age.’”
For Gillingham, the secret is summed up in a quote he found in a book named “Growing Old Is Not For Sissies” that hangs on a wall in his home near Washington Park.
“Age gracefully?” it says. “I think not. Age ferociously instead. Extend. Question. Give.”
Jay Stone traveled from Sonoma, Calif., to celebrate Gillingham.
“John has been an inspiration to hundreds of people, showing the joy of an active and fit lifestyle,” Stone said. “And ‘aging ferociously.’ He’s inspired countless people to do more than they ever imagined they could do.”
Growing up in England
Gillingham traces his interest in exercise to the tuberculosis he suffered as a boy, which included spending time in an iron lung.
“Thank God the physician said, ‘John, you need to exercise.’ I started playing soccer. Like 8 or 9, I felt the benefits of exercise.”
He has vivid memories of the German Blitz of 1940-41, which began when he was 12. He lived in Portsmouth, a prime target because it was one of the largest ports in the U.K. He remembers the boat lift from Dunkirk and going to bed every night with a suitcase and gas mask in case the sirens called the family to the air raid shelter. He can recall the sound of German airplanes, unmanned bombs and V-2 rockets. He remembers losing friends and “just being thankful you survived the night.”
In the days just before D-Day, the streets of Portsmouth teemed with military personnel. Then suddenly they were gone, because the Normandy invasion had begun.
“There was this roar of aircraft. You looked up, hundreds of airplanes.”
The war in Europe ended a month before he turned 17. He enlisted in the Royal Air Force, and after he was “de-mobilized” in 1948, he joined the merchant marine. He became smitten by Australia on one voyage, jumping ship in Sydney in 1950. He would spent most of the next 13 years Down Under, but first he had to go into hiding.
A Fugitive in The Outback
“When you jump ship, you become a fugitive, not because you’re in a land illegally but because when you signed on the ship, they had to put a bond up,” Gillingham said. “When the person doesn’t return, they have to pay because you deserted the ship.”
Bounty hunters were out looking for him. He hopped freight trains and got odd jobs, picking grapes, working as a roustabout in a circus and as a demolition diver in a marine construction project. He became a jackaroo — an apprentice cowboy in The Outback — learning to herd sheep and cattle.
After the bounty hunters got tired of looking for him, he studied physical education in Sydney, graduating in 1956. When a visitor from the U.S. who was touring Australian YMCAs and universities explained how the U.S. was using exercise programs to fight the problem of juvenile delinquency, Gillingham was intrigued. As a result of that encounter, he later was awarded a two-year scholarship to work with delinquents at a Y on the west side of Chicago.
When that stint was over, he returned to Australia and went to work at the Sydney YMCA, but three years later his life pivoted while he was surfing at Sydney’s famous Bondi Beach. His wife came running with momentous news: Someone had called from the United States, someone with the national YMCA.
Gillingham had been recommended to work with the YMCA promoting the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, a priority of President John F. Kennedy. Gillingham took the job and chose Denver, which had a state-of-the-art Y in the heart of downtown.
“In 1963 there was nothing going on in Denver,” Gillingham said. “There were no rec centers, there were no gyms, there were no health clubs. The only establishments that were doing anything were the YMCA, the DAC (Denver Athletic Club), the Jewish Community Center. There was no running, there was nothing. Here I am in this huge facility with hardly any members, and I was told to promote fitness.”
A humble start in Denver
The YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) was no longer male only, but when women started using the Downtown Denver facility, there was a problem. The men liked to swim in the nude, and when Gillingham put a stop to that, it didn’t go over well.
“We lost God knows how many members for that,” Gillingham said.
Based on a concept of circuit training he had developed in Australia, Gillingham started conducting co-ed calisthenics classes, but the women and men didn’t want to train in sight of each other. He accommodated their sensitivities by hanging a canvas curtain between them while he led the class from a spot where all could see him. This being two decades before aerobics classes would feel the burn accompanied by Olivia Newton-John’s ”Let’s Get Physical,” Gillingham enlisted a pianist who played marches composed by John Philip Souza.
Eventually the curtain went away. Gillingham created ski fitness classes, perhaps the first in Denver, and remained the athletic director there until 1974 when he left to become the athletic director at the Stapleton Plaza Hotel and Fitness Center where he spent the next two decades.
He put on morning fitness shows for three Denver TV stations. He became a friend and trainer for Gov. Lamm, with whose help he developed the first known fitness trail in Washington Park. Broncos assistant coach Stan Jones heard about him through his wife, who was in one of Gillingham’s classes, and Gillingham became an agility and aerobics coach for the team in 1983-84.
He served for 12 years on Lamm’s Governor’s Council for Physical Fitness. In the proclamation declaring him an official Colorado monument, Lamm compared him to Longs Peak, Sand Dunes National Monument and bighorn sheep, Colorado’s official state animal. Later, in a letter of recommendation, Lamm called Gillingham “a genius in motivating people.”
In 1994 he left Stapleton to become outdoor fitness coordinator for the Colorado Athletic Club in the DTC. He retired last month, four months after an atrial fibrillation episode required a cardioversion procedure to restore normal heart rhythm through electrical shock.
“It’s like a natal passion in him”
Lucia Correll, 74, met Gillingham in 1980 when he was at Stapleton.
“John’s had a large impact on my life,” Correll said at the final workout. “He made classes a riot, but also hard and good. He always brought in the newest trends. But the greatest impact on my life is that he taught us with each new thing how and why to do it. The things he learned, I use today with teachers that really don’t know exactly what they’re doing. Because John has instructed me, I can make sure I am safe in the classes I do now.”
After his last workout, one of his three daughters Kim Gillingham reflected on her father’s vast influence with pride.
“I see people that have had accidents and divorces and death in the family, a community that has helped each other out,” said Kim, who lives in Los Angeles. “His irreverence and joy has somehow allowed the community to bloom around the framework of the fitness. It’s like a natal passion in him. He’s just always wanted to do it. I think it goes back to the war when he was sickly and there was so much vulnerability.”
Perhaps, but he said it’s not about longevity, it’s about quality of life.
“I don’t do it to live longer,” Gillingham said. “The reason I’m 90 probably is genetics. Over all those years of running or exercise or whatever, it’s not to prolong my life but to encourage myself that I can live life. No matter what age you’re at, you should have a zest to do things and get off your (expletive).”