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Tuesday, Oct 21, 2014

Otto: No more weighting for Harry

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“Dedication’’ is a word Harry Smith likes to toss around, like one of his medicine balls. And he means it. It’s what separates all of us, he says. It’s also what separates Harry Smith’s Health Club from all the others.

So wouldn’t you know it, the place at 3415 Horatio St., just across from the Outback Restaurant on Henderson Boulevard, will close Oct. 25.

Smith, in a sense, also is shutting down, although he says he might help out at another place not too far away. “I can’t leave my people alone,’’ he says of his customers.

He figures at the age of 88 and after a couple of minor strokes it might be time to put away the weights and get back to his love of golf. “Yeah, I also had a knee replaced a couple of years ago so I figure golf might be the way to go,’ he adds.

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I don’t know if he realizes he can’t go away. He has become one of those institutions that is always there. Decades ago, long before Spandex and those big box fitness centers with their legions of walking machines, all manned by the beautiful people, there was Harry Smith.

At 5 feet 8 inches, he probably hasn’t changed much since playing quarterback at Atlanta Tech High. “Well that’s not exactly true. I weighed 150 pounds, but I was just getting into weights.’’

Smith went off to the Navy and when he came home he discovered Muscle Beach in California and the world of body building.

He also was getting into wrestling, under the name “Georgia Boy.’’

“I came down here to Tampa to wrestle for Cowboy Luttrell,’’ he says, “and wrestling was the big thing in Florida.’’ Smith showed up on cards with the likes of Eddie Graham, Dory Funk and Haystacks Calhoun in armories and arenas throughout the South.

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Smith was determined also to stay with body building and, at age 38, he won the “Mr. Florida’’ title.

In 1953 he opened his first health club in the old Lafayette Hotel building on what then was Grand Central near the University of Tampa . In 1958 he moved into his current location on Horatio. I mean he actually did move in upstairs with his new wife.

From then on, especially if you were a jock, you came to see Harry Smith.

“In 1958,’’ says John Olivia of Olivia Cigars, I was a junior at Jesuit and we all came to Harry’s. Someone warned me I shouldn’t start out with him because he was too tough and might discourage me completely. So I went somewhere else for a few months and that was a big mistake.

“It took Harry awhile to not only correct my mistakes but help me understand he was serious about being dedicated.

“You know, he had a reputation for being, I guess frugal is a good way to put it. But there were times when I would come in and discover he had put someone up who had no place to stay, letting him sleep on one of the sit-up boards. He would give you the shirt off his back.

“I know people who really couldn’t afford to use his club or his equipment and they never paid. He was that kind of guy.’’

Olivia is right. We can’t afford to lose the likes of Harry Smith. My guess is he isn’t going to let a few minor things like a new knee and a couple of strokes keep him out of the gym very long.

sotto@tampaatrib.com

(813) 259-7809

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