Bill Howard, a former Mr. America, wears a silver hair piece styled in a pony tail.
He doesn’t spend his days lifting at Muscle Beach anymore, so he buys his sun-kissed look at a tanning bed near his apartment in Costa Mesa.
Howard turns 75 next week and he’s still turning heads with his rippling biceps and bulging chest. In fitness and life, Howard has built himself up from nothing over and over again.
But before he tells his story, he’s got to work his arms.
Howard arrives at Fitness Authority driving a red Chrysler with a vanity plate that reads “MUSCLEB.” He’s wearing what he calls his “show off” short denim shorts, and a black racer-back tank top. He keeps the same 8 a.m. lifting routine five mornings a week, isolating a different muscle group for an hour.
As he does 12-rep sets of 100-pound bicep curls, he closes his eyes and grimaces and growls. His wrinkled face looks much older than his taut body.
“I’m trying to make a statement,” he says in his deep, booming voice. “We don’t have to get old and decrepit.”
His friends revere him as a bodybuilding icon.
“You look at the guy, you just go Holy Smokes,” says Bernie Rubio, owner of Fitness Authority gym in Costa Mesa. “He was asked by Arnold to be in “Pumping Iron,” but he went on his honeymoon instead. This guy was there. He was part of it.”
When asked about Rubio’s version, Howard laughs.
“That’s another honeymoon I shouldn’t have been on.”
Howard was born July 22, 1933, in Milwaukee to an unwed mother. He never knew his father and his alcoholic mother frequently couldn’t care for him. He was 10 and living in an orphanage when his mother died.
“I cannot remember seeing her face looking at me and saying the words, ‘I love you,’” says Howard, who years later tattooed an angel and “Mother” on his left arm. “I have forgiven her a long time ago. I don’t know what her torments were.”
At 14, he ran away from an orphanage and hitched rides to Santa Monica. He fell under the spell of palm trees, warm weather and the muscle men of California’s original Muscle Beach. He met George Eiferman, a future Mr. Universe.
He touched the strong man’s bicep.
“It was like steel.”
Howard slept in cars and eventually moved back to Wisconsin. At 17, he studied magazines to teach himself body building. Soon, he bulked up, started training clients and got married.
He also drank heavily. “I probably started drinking the day I was born.”
Howard could quit drinking for four or five months to train for a competition. But the night the contest finished, he hit the bottle. Drinking made him angry – about his upbringing and what he was doing to his life. As he screamed at his family, his veins would pop out.
His first marriage ended, as would three more, including one to a woman 19 years older and his last to a woman 25 years younger.
In 1963, Howard settled in California for good. At his strongest, Howard could bench press 425 pounds and dead lift 550 pounds. He worked out with Arnold Schwarzenegger. At 40, the 6-foot Howard won the tall category in the International Federation of Body Builders Mr. America.
After his big win, his drinking escalated. He stopped drying out for training. His life disintegrated.
“I woke up one morning when I was 49 years old, went to the mirror and said, ‘Big Mouth, you have been saying for years you could quit drinking anytime you want. How about now? And I did.”
He spent three months in rehab. Through his alcoholism he lost all his trophies, pictures and mementos from his muscle days. He has a few things friends have given him, like a magazine in Arabic with photos of him inside.
His three children, all in their 40s, don’t speak to him.
“Every time I think of my kids I hurt. Every father would.”
He was sober, but he was also overweight and out of shape. Then he rediscovered his old discipline in the gym and began training clients again.
Four years ago, after two decades of sobriety, Howard began coughing and frequently clearing his throat. He was diagnosed with throat cancer, a disease often linked to alcohol abuse.
“I’m embarrassed. I’m hurt,” he says of the diagnosis. “I felt like somebody reached back into my heart and pulled out my philosophy of life and beat me over the head with it.”
During chemotherapy, he didn’t miss a workout. Next came radiation, which wasted his body. He lost 50 pounds and, with that, the physique that had been his identity nearly all his life.
Outside his room at Hoag Hospital, one of his training clients hung old magazine photos of Howard and a personal get well letter from Gov. Schwarzenegger that read in part:
“Your energy and determination are an inspiration but not really a surprise. This is the same kind of energy and determination I always saw when you were my workout partner and when you were doing so much for bodybuilding in Southern California.”
But treatment had sapped Howard’s determination. He didn’t care if he died. He refused any more radiation.
He remembers one nurse fussing with the tube in his stomach. Howard’s sky-blue eyes fill with tears.
“She says, ‘Bill, I’ve heard that you have helped a lot of people. She looks me right in the eye and says, ‘Why aren’t you helping yourself?’ I said, “By the way, I’ll start my radiation tomorrow.”
In the spring of 2005, with his cancer in remission, Howard went back to the gym. He started with 2.5 pound plates.
“I laid on a bench and did flies. It was my first workout and it killed me. That was the start of it. I just kept going.”
He says it has taken three years to return to top condition of 195 pounds. He still trains clients. Strangers notice him, compliment him and shake his hand everywhere he goes.
“I’ve been putting myself under microscopic attention through my whole career,” he says. “I would think about what I would look like as an old man. There’s nothing special about me. The only thing special about me might be my results.”
Credit: COURTNEY PERKES | Orange County Register