Friday, August 30, 2019

The Bill Pearl Story, Part One - George Coates

Entire Series Courtesy of Liam Tweed.
Thank You!  


During the compiling of this biography, Bill and I would often sit in my house or his, drinking tea, and chatting with my tape recorder running. Some of Bill's remarks on certain individuals are so sincere and well-spoken I think it would be a shame not to relay these remarks just as he said them. Also, some of his observations on some facets of the game he finds disturbing. Consequently, I will be injecting into this story remarks by Bill taken right off the tape, but will always let the reader know when this is so.

Bill and I are very good friends and I feel honored to be allowed to do an article of this magnitude. Men of true integrity are a rarity these days I'm afraid. In fact, it seems a shame that a man's success is usually judged by the amount of riches he has amassed either by fair means or foul. If hard work, honesty and dedication brought about riches, I think Bill Pearl would rank with J. Paul Getty. 

Here then is the Bill Pearl story; I only hope I can do it justice. If I am able to pay him just a small part of the tribute he truly deserves, I will be happy..


Part I - The Early Years
(Photos by Leo Stern)

"George, I had known Bill for over 17 years at the time and had worked with him on his posing until the eleventh hour so to speak, but when he stood on the rostrum I couldn't believe my eyes. I was a awestruck as the thousands of others in that standing-room-only audience in London on that day in 1967. I mean I was really moved. I know Bill probably better than anyone else in the world but there was something extra on this particular, something I had never noticed before. It's kind of hard to explain but he seemed to "glow;" that's the only way I can seem to describe his appearance that day." 

It takes a lot to impress Leo Stern, particularly in regard to great physiques, as he has seen them all. John Grimek, Steve Reeves, Clarence Ross, Reg Park and any other star of the past 30 years. This includes the present crop of men such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Boyer Coe, Sergio Oliva, Dennis Tinerino, Dave Draper, etc., etc. You name him, Leo has seen him!    

Bill Pearl has a charisma that not many people can match. I can remember being at the judging of the 1961 Mr. Universe Contest and I swear a lot of the contestants could hardly concentrate on their own posing as all eyes were riveted on Pearl. John Grimek was a great attraction and had a tremendous stage presentation. Steve Reeves during his short run as a contestant also seemed to have crowd appeal. Reg Park and Clancy Ross were big crowd pleasers along with a few others, but when Bill Pearl appears at a show as a contestant or guest poser there appears to be an atmosphere unlike any other I've ever seen. It's almost as if the whole show revolves around this one man. "Can he be as fantastic as his pictures?" seems to be the most repeated question. Bill Pearl never disappoints them! Most people can only gasp and shake their heads in disbelief at first sight of Pearl. Even the old hands who have seen him many times always end up by remarking, "He's even greater than he was last time." 

The Bill Pearl story started 40 years ago in Pineville, Oregon where he first saw the light of day. He didn't stay there very long, though, as the Pearl family moved around quite a lot before finally settling in the town of Yakima, in the evergreen state of Washington.  

From an early age Bill had an intense desire to be strong and well built. The main reason for this was due to the fact that he has  an older brother and anyone who has an older brother knows what that means. There was an age difference of three years, and  when Bill was just a little fellow of 14 his brother was 17. As everyone knows, there is a world of physical difference between kids of these ages. You can probably guess the rest. Bill's older bother used to kick the heck out of him with alarming regularity. I understand the official term for this behavior is "brotherly love." Anyway, "little Billy" swore that one day he would get even and be big enough to knock his brother right on his "can!" He would carry all the heavy objects he could lay his hands on and offer to chop all the neighbors' firewood thinking this would make him big and strong. I guess it did help him keep fit, although he still wasn't a budding Hercules.  

Then one day a friend of his came to his house all excited and said, "Bill, I finally got the answer." In his hands he had a wartime copy of Strength & Health magazine. Bill couldn't believe his eyes when he looked through it and saw pictures of John Grimek. He figured this is it, this was the way! 

He and his friends worked all summer long and pooled their hard earned cash to send away for a York barbell set. Due to the war effort iron was in short supply and the kids had to wait two whole years for that set. When his hands first touched that lump of iron little did he know it would set up a chain reaction that would be a guiding force for the rest of his life. The end result being acclaimed the best build man in the entire history of the world.

During these early years when still at school Bill was so enthusiastic about the game he would write papers about strong men of the past such as Louis Cyr, Arthur Saxon and others. Bill was never a sickly child, in fact he was quite a stocky kid and interested in sports. He played basketball and ran track and was on the school swimming team. He admits, however, he wasn't a natural athlete and everything came only after much hard effort. In fact, the only two sports he made rapid progress in were wrestling and bodybuilding. 

 Bill can remember taking pictures when he was a lad of 17 or 18 and his arm hanging at his side measured 11.75", which is a pretty good measurement for a young kid. Unfortunately, he can't remember any other measurements apart from that, but admits that he had grown into quite a big kid at that age. Incidentally, Bill's brother started to work out many years later. He is a huge man and Bill thinks he could have done well for himself in contests had  he dedicated himself a little more. 

After Bill had been training for a while his one goal in life was to get his picture in Strength & Health magazine; in fact in any magazine.

I asked him if there was any particular physique of those early years that impressed him to the point he would wish, "If only I had a build like that." 

"Well, George, those of course were the years of John Grimek and I really admired him. I was torn between him and Clancy Ross, who at that time were the two most outstanding physiques, and they would still be even by today's standards. These two at their best would still be the greatest ever. I liked Clancy Ross's physique because it was a real flowing type of physique, I mean it was really radiant; whereas John Grimek had that massive ruggedness that I thought I could obtain because I was a fairly big boned fellow and I had some structural advantages. I would say that John Grimek has been the largest influence on my life as far as being a physique star is concerned. I look up to this man, and over the past 20 years any dealings I have had with John have always been one-hundred percent successful for me. I have never been steered wrong by the man and I really admire him as a person. Even today in his 50's the guy is super fantastic, and the amazing thing is that a person could stay in the limelight for so long. Especially when you see a person like Larry Scott (no offense meant here, but he was in and out in five years or so). He's gone, and so is Don Howorth, and there isn't one person in 50,000 who is around for any length of time at all in this game. So when you consider the shape John Grimek has been in over 35 or 40 years, it's just incredible. I would also like to mention that Steve Reeves was also a big inspiration for me during my early years.  

In 1950 Bill entered the service and consequently had very little time to work out. To use his own words, "We worked our cans off in those days, and I trained as best I could on the Navy bases and I never really got any help at all until I went to Leo Stern's gym as I was stationed in San Diego." 

Leo tells me that when Bill first started to work out at his gym he didn't pay too much attention to him. He was just another well built kid who seemed to be interested in becoming stronger to improve his wrestling. Bill was the wrestling champion of the 11th Naval District and had high hopes of representing the United States in the Olympic Games.

The big name at Stern's gym in those days was a fellow called Keith Stephan. He was a great big man of 6'2" and weighed about 240 lbs. When Bill first saw him he couldn't believe his eyes. Coming from a small town in Washington and being the product of home training he hadn't seen any physique stars in person. He didn't dream anybody could get that massive. I must agree because when you see a big man in the magazines, I mean a really big man like Reg Park, you get a shock when you see the same man in person. He will always look twice as big, especially when posing. Bill remembers he would go upstairs to the gym and ask Stephan if he wanted to work out. Stephan would say yes, but would always want to snooze for about five minutes on a big couch that Leo had in the rest area of the gym. Bill would do everything he could to keep the big fellow sleeping there, because he figured the longer he slept the faster Bill would catch up to him physique-wise. Bill vowed he would get as big as Keith Stephan come hell or high water! Stephan had some bad breaks in his personal life and gave up training, but Bill says at the time Keith was a great inspiration to him.

The real big inspiration to Bill when he first training at Sterns was a colored kid by the name of Hugh Cobb. He was Bill's training partner and they were real good friends. In Bill's own words, "Hugh was probably the most instrumental person in my early training, even in some respects more than Leo. I trained with Hugh and I'm not taking anything away from Leo who used to help me with my workouts and all, but I did train with Hugh and I got a lot of help from him. But always went, and will always to to Leo Stern, even to this day, for advice. I know I couldn't get any finer advice anywhere. It's awful hard to have eyes in the back of your head and Leo has been in my corner all these years, and I look up to him all the time. If it wasn't for Leo I couldn't have accomplished anything I had ever done in the game. In fact, if it wasn't for him I don't think I would be in the gym business today." 

It's nice that Bill feels this way because I know for a fact that Leo is Bill's number one fan. Whenever the name of Pearl crops up in a conversation Leo's there and wants to know what's being said and if it isn't right he almost has a fit. I've seen him jump all over people on account of conversations regarding Pearl. Bill speaks further of Leo: "He's a fine friend and I don't mind telling you he put out a lot of money and time to help me when I was a young kid in the service. He fed me for months on end and put out a lot of money to help me travel here and there. I mean money from his own pocket when he had absolutely nothing at all to gain from it. I haven't made enough from magazine articles and pictures to buy a good set of clothes and Leo is the same. It was a lot of hard teamwork to see if we could make the best out of what we had." 

By now Bill was training real hard and making some progress so he decided to have a go at a physique contest. It was the annual Mr. San Diego affair and he placed third. He was really pleased with this showing and it inspired him to work harder.   

I would like to inject at this point some of Bill's comments on things that were happening on the weight scene at this time. One of the places that always intrigued me was Muscle Beach which was the bodybuilders' so-called mecca. I can remember sitting indoors on those cold rainy evenings in Northern England reading about Santa Monica's famed Muscle Beach. The late Earle Liederman's gossip columns were always full of fascinating stories about the place. Alas when I finally did make it to the golden state of California, Muscle Beach was no more. The place I had read about and dreamed of visiting for so long was just another stretch of sand with winos and hippies walking the promenade where Steve Reeves and other immortals of the iron game had once strode. I have since found out, after talking to a great many people, that Muscle Beach was not the hallowed place it was cracked up to be by certain magazines. I would like you to hear Bill Pearl's impressions and I hope I'm not bursting too many people's balloons or dreams here, but truth will out, and Bill's opinion was and is shared by a great many people who knew the place well. 

"I was training at Leo Stern's gym at this time and Muscle Beach was going full blast. I can recall I had gone up there a few times to see what went on and at that time things had gotten really bad. There were a lot of new kids coming out from New York and other parts of the country and some of the things these guys were doing down there were absolutely degrading to the sport. The antics they were pulling on the boardwalk and some of the comments made to the young girls -- in fact most of the things that were taking place were just a little bit too much.

"I recall going to a physique contest one time and there were so many vulgar comments from the audience at the people up there posing. They were so loud and rude I was disgusted at the whole affair. I remember going back to see Leo and I told him I was going to quit training. He couldn't understand why and I told him I just wasn't raised that way and I was just going to continue on with my wrestling. In fact, I was doing so well at my wrestling I was hoping to make the Olympic Games team in 1952. Leo came up and saved the day by telling me that just because some of these clowns were acting this way it didn't mean that I had to be like them or get involved in any way. Leo said to me, 'Let them play their games; divorce yourself from these people. You don't have to associate with them.' I haven't even to this day, and I have never really been accepted by the crowd at Muscle Beach, and while I'm not on the outs, I'm on the other side of the track, so to speak. Not that I'm a goody-goody, it's just that my attitude toward the sport is entirely different from theirs. Some of these kids were on an evil kick that wouldn't quit and I never was like that and didn't want any part of it."

Came 1953 and Bill Pearl took the physique world by storm. Leo by this time had taken a deep interest in him and was helping him all that he possibly could. Bill just went wild that year. He took the Mr. Southern California, Mr. America and Mr. Universe titles all in one year. 

It was during this year that Bill first came into contact with Zabo Koszewski.   

He got to know him real well at these contests and they have been good friends ever since. There is only one Zabo Koszewski. He's as much a part of Santa Monica as the sand itself. Bill has some real nice comments on Zabo and I would like to quote him.

"Zabo is about six years older than I am. When I won the Mr. Southern California title Zabo placed second. When I won the Mr. America title Zabo was third. At that time he was hard on my heels all the way and I think he would have done a lot better if I wasn't on the scene. Zabo is about as remarkable a man as you could find anywhere. He's 46 years old and has been in really fantastic shape all the time, year in, year out. He's devoted virtually his entire life strictly to the game. I really admire the man and I feel he is another one of those people who have given much, much more than they have taken from the game.

"I think it's a shame that Zabo never won the Mr. America title as he wanted to so very much. To continue on year after year in great shape as he has done really takes a lot of will power, believe me, I know. Zabo is like me in one respect; if he can't beat them on stage he will beat them in age. He is a real nice person and has been a good influence on a lot of kids down around the beach area over the years. They look upon Zabo as the King; in fact that's what they call him, and believe me, he is the King. Zabo's words are never ignored and what he says is the gospel. He has done a great deal for these you7ng kids and he tries to keep them on the right path. I see him every now and again and I can honestly say I've always liked the man. I hope he will be around for a long time yet." 

After Bill had won the Mr. Southern California and Mr. California titles over such outstanding competition by a substantial margin, Leo suggested he should enter the Mr. America contest to get some additional experience and exposure. He was improving by leaps and bounds and Leo thought he would make a good showing if he kept up his present rate of improvement. One snag that confronted them was the fact that the Mr. America event was to be held not too long after the Mr. California contest. In Leo's learned opinion, a man can only peak out about twice a year, and his normal plan would have been to have Bill bulk up for a while, then cut back to be in top shape for the Mr. America.

Here are some of Leo's comments on his thinking at that time: "Bill had fooled around with weights a lot but his serious training time, at the time he won the Mr. California event amounted to only two years. which is a relatively short length of time. Bill, however, surprised me by coming along as quickly as he did. When he had first set foot in the gym I can recall him having a large-boned, rugged type of physique that had possibilities, but at that time he was nothing more than a sturdy individual. He told me he had worked out at home and at the YMCA and anywhere else he could locate weights. His main interest at that time seemed tobe his wrestling, at which he was very good.  

"Bill responded very quickly to coaching; he was an excellent pupil. I had only to tell him once how to perform any exercise and when I outlined his programs he followed them to the letter. It's always been a practice of mine when working with anyone that they follow the workout exactly as written, and do as instructed or there isn't any point in my coaching them. The individual who is seeking instruction shouldn't be telling the coach what has to be done.

"Bill got along very well with everyone as he is an extremely likeable person although he was prone to being rather shy and lacked confidence in his own ability. He made remarkable progress in those first two years. Let's face it, you just don't come out an unknown and win everything in the state of California in your first year of competition unless you are outstanding, and that is exactly what Bill did.

"Normally it takes time to develop a reputation, and although the judges look at everyone, human element being what it is, they are usually inclined to observe more fully an individual who is known and has been around for some time."    

I must agree with Leo on that point. There's no doubt about it that a reputation has some bearing on a person's thinking either as a judge or as a member of an audience. A person doesn't become a big name in any sport without years of exposure via the press and the magazines.

Bill was stationed aboard the tender U.S.S. Sperry in the middle of San Diego Bay at this time; consequently his time was not his own. This didn't make the task of preparing for the Mr. America contest any easier, but a plan of campaign was embarked upon by Bill and Leo which was to be successful beyond their wildest dreams.

As the day of the Mr. America contest grew closer, Bill was shaping up real well and Leo thought he had a good chance to place quite high, maybe in the top five. He didn't tell Bill this at the time, though, because knowing how inexperienced and nervous Bill was, he wanted him to treat it just like another contest to get some more experience. 

Bill had some leave coming from the Navy so Leo got in touch with "the Master" John Grimek and the next thing Bill knew he was winging his way, suitcase in hand to York, Pennsylvania. 

This is how Bill describes it: "Leo sent me back to York at his own expense to have John Grimek give me a hand for a week of so. John was to help me with my posing, as I was a real novice. Believe me. there was no one greener than I, and some of the other guys who were entered in the Mr. America contest that year had been trying for years to win the title. I was a newcomer who hadn't even gotten his feet wet in the Mr. America event so we didn't expect much; in fact, we didn't expect anything at all." 

Here is Leo's description of that move: "I classify John Grimek as 'The Master' because of his many accomplishments in the sport. He is still, even to this day, recognized as the leader. Since the beginning of his illustrious career John has been the most idolized man in the game and I think more people have wished to emulate him than any other physique star. John has always been an individual who will help or advise anyone who approaches him properly. He agreed to take a look at Bill and help him, especially in his posing. Bill had idolized Grimek for so long, my feeling was if he met him and found out what a wonderful person he is it would have a big influence on him and help him at the same time." 

This was Bill's first meeting with the one and only John Grimek whom he had admired for so long. It was the beginning of a long and lasting friendship.

It's hard to believe that Bill's posing ability wasn't much in those days, as he's a master poser now, thanks to Leo for making him practice year in and year out. One thing that may have been in his favor that year was the fact that the contestants in the Mr. America event were limited to only four poses that year: one front, one back, one side, and one optional. That John Grimek did an excellent job in helping Bill choose and arrange his poses was to be borne out a week or so later.

The plan was that Bill spend a few days in York, then go on to Indianapolis where Leo had booked his accommodation ahead of time as he wanted Bill to be able to relax as much as he could. This is typical of the way Leo organizes things, paying strict attention to even the minute details. He didn't want Bill running around in a strange town looking for a good place to stay. Leo had looked into it ahead of time and booked him into a hotel close to the contest venue.

Even though Bill was in the Navy this was really the first time he had been anywhere on his own. When he arrived in Indianapolis he found it very hot and uncomfortable and he felt somewhat like a fish out of water. To use his own words, he was like a "hayseed from the sticks in a big city, a real country bumpkin." He didn't know anyone and felt rather lost. I'm sure anyone who has traveled knows the feeling. I know I can understand Bill's discomfort only too well. He became very apprehensive about his chances, consequently he could neither eat nor sleep, and his bodyweight dropped below the target Leo had set for the competition. 

Leo spoke to him on the phone and sensed right away that Bill was so worried about the contest that he was almost ready to quit and come home. Leo told him, "Stay put," and promptly flew to Indianapolis on the first available plane.

These are Leo's comments: "When Bill called and was so upset, I decided the best thing to do was fly back there and be with him to help him out. We had spent a lot of time and hard effort to prepare him for the contest so I thought it only fair to all concerned to do the best we possibly could. Upon my arrival I noticed right away that he had lost quite a lot of weight. When he had left the coast he had weighed well over 200 pounds and I wanted him to compete at 200 even. I left San Diego in such a hurry that my wife had forgotten to pack my trousers for me and I had to go out shopping that very day and get some pants in order to attend the show looking presentable. We located a place for Bill to train and got him back to eating and consuming liquids as he was almost dehydrated. He immediately responded and quickly got back to normal. The rest of the time was spent practicing his posing and just taking it easy and getting him into the right frame of mind for the upcoming contest." 

There were some very strong favorites that year. Zabo Koszewski was in tip top shape and had looked very good at the Mr. California contest. One fellow highly fancied was Tony Sillipini who did extremely well in the contest. Like Bill, though, he hadn't had too much publicity and was one of the surprises of the contest. There were a lot of other well-known men entered that year but the hot favorite appeared to be Dick Dubois. It was no secret that most people thought Dubois would get the judges' final nod. He would usually win best legs, best arms and most muscular. 

These were Leo's thoughts at the halfway stage of the 1953 Mr. America contest: "When the subdivisions were over I was very surprised that Bill hadn't won at least one of them. I know the subdivisions don't determine who is to be the overall winner but they usually give some indication as to which way the contest is going. 

"We went back to the hotel that might after the first day of competition and decided we would pack our bags and be prepared to leave right after the contest and get back to the coast. Our thinking right then was that Dick Dubois was the heavy favorite and the leaning in general seemed to be toward him, with Tony Sillipini and Zabo Koszewski close behind. We had by then resigned ourselves to the fact that Bill would be very fortunate to place in the top five. I thought he had made a good showing and with a bit more exposure would fare better in future contests. Bill felt he had done the very best he could and had accepted "his lot" as it were, very graciously, which is very typical of him. The competition was very outstanding and the best he had met to date. We decided to just practice posing and make a good showing on the second day of the competition then catch a flight back home. It was extremely hot and neither of us was used to the high humidity, consequently we both felt rather uncomfortable."

Bill recalls this is how he felt at that point in the competition: "Leo was very, very sympathetic and said, 'Don't worry about it, Bill, we can compete again next years. You made a good showing and that is just what we wanted.' I wasn't too discouraged for myself, other than the fact Leo had spent a lot of money on me and I felt badly for him. I almost felt I had let him down as he had come all that way to look after me. I didn't care for myself as I hadn't expected a great deal of success anyhow." 

When Bill and Leo retired to bed that night little did they realize what was in store for them beginning the very next day.

They were up with the birds next morning and Bill was more relaxed than he had been in weeks. He had already had his first taste of the big show and with Leo there a lot of his nervous tension had disappeared. 

When Bill's turn came to pose Leo thought he looked real good and he once again wondered why Bill hadn't fared better on the previous day. A glimmer of hope that Bill may place quite high entered Leo's mind. Let me say here that Leo can spot them a mile away; the good physiques, I mean. I don't think I've ever met anyone with the uncanny accuracy that Leo Stern has when it comes to second guessing the judges in a contest.

I would like you to hear a conversation that took place between Bill and Zabo Koszewski just before the results of the contest were announced.

Zabo: "Hey, Bill, I've got the results of the contest." 
Bill: "Good, how did you do?" 
Zabo: "I placed third, Dubois was second and you won." 
Bill: "You must be kidding." 
Zabo: "No, I'm not, Bill. You have won the contest." 
Bill: "Well, isn't that something. I'll be a son of a gun. Did I really win?" 

Continued in Part Two: 



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