Jim Lorimer: From Handshake To History

By Steve Wartenberg

This is the story of James J. Lorimer.

Actually, it’s “the stories” of Jim. When you’ve been around as long as Jim has been around, accomplished so much in so many different arenas and have positively impacted thousands of lives along the way, well, you’re bound to have a lot of tales to tell.

Over the years, Jim, 92, has become quite adept at telling these stories, combining history and leadership advice along with some common sense, a sense of humor and a big dash of modesty. He is the man Arnold Schwarzenegger affectionately calls “a father figure, confident and mentor.”

So here you go: Several of Jim’s stories and how they helped him find success and happiness, create and build the Arnold Sports Festival and lead what can only be described as a wonderful life.

The Pulling Guard
Sports were everything to Jim growing up in Morrisville, Pennsylvania, a small borough (town) on the banks of the Delaware River, just north of Philadelphia and a little south of where George Washington made his famous crossing.

Jim was the captain of the championship football team, a pulling guard, “but track and field was my biggest sport and I was county champion in the quarter-mile run and pole vault.” He was also the student council president. Morrisville High is also where he met and fell in love with Jean, his partner, best friend and wife of 70 years.

“I learned at an early age the important lesson of sports,” Jim explained. “And that lesson is that whatever it is you do, whatever aspect of your life you’re involved in, you get back in direct proportion to what you put into it. If you want to get better, to do better, work harder.”

The lesson of the importance of education was one that would take a few more years to sink in. More on that story later.

In The Navy
Jim graduated from high school in 1944, and was quickly drafted into the U.S. Navy. He served stateside during World War II, and eventually was enrolled in a program that would have led to an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy. And then, the war ended.

“They lined us up and said those who wish to go on to the Naval Academy step forward and those who wish to go home stay in line,” Jim said, adding he stayed put. “I didn’t want a naval career. I had my sweetheart at home.”

The Navy did teach Jim a few important life lessons.

“It was a wising-up experience for me,” he said. “I quickly found out that I was a nobody. In high school, I was a big man on campus, but my scholastic record was terrible because I was all wrapped up in sports. I learned that I better get my rear end in gear and get a college degree so I wasn’t the low man on the ladder.”

Bucking Down
While Jim didn’t have much of an academic record, he had something perhaps as important: drive and determination. And the GI Bill.

He wanted to attend Ursinus College, a small school north of Philadelphia.

“I went to campus in my Navy uniform and asked to see the president,” Jim said, adding he actually got in to see the head of the college. “I said I come to you as someone with a poor school record, but I know that I must study and I guarantee you I will be a good student. He accepted me on the spot.”

Jim did indeed study hard and become an excellent student. He graduated from Ursinus and then went on to earn a law degree from Dickinson Law in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

“When the FBI investigated me some years later (as part of the application process), the agent went to my college first and then to my high school,” Jim said. “My high school principal, the same principal from when I was there, said this cannot be the same person, this stellar college and law school student cannot be the same person. He said maybe the service had set a new motivational pattern for me.”

One of Hoover’s G-Men
Jim did become an FBI agent, and was assigned to the Detroit and Philadelphia field offices … and loved the work.

“I did intelligence work,” he explained. “I was surveilling and interviewing communists and hate groups. To try and discern if there was a threat, to try and identify the people who were a threat.”

Jim was asked to go to the New York Field Office, where the communist and terrorist threats were the greatest. But Jim and Jean already had two small children (they would eventually have three, Jeff, Robert and Kathy).

“I didn’t want to take my family to New York (and decided to leave the FBI),” he said.

On Your Side
The post-FBI plan was to find a temporary job in the private sector. “I found an opening with Farm Bureau Mutual (which changed its name to Nationwide Insurance in 1955) and said I’ll do this as a temporary bridge into law work. But they were so good to work with, they valued me and almost immediately told me I could have a good career in the home office (in Columbus). My wife and I had to make a decision, and moving to Worthington, Ohio (just outside Columbus) has made all the difference in my life.

Jim – a long-time weight lifter - rose to become Vice President of Government Relations for Nationwide, created one of the largest corporate-based fitness programs at the company, and has been mayor or vice mayor of Worthington for about 50 years. In his “spare time,” he began to organize national sporting events.

The Russians Are Coming
The Soviet Union and Communism played an important role in Jim’s FBI career, and helped launch his venture into sports organization.

“Prior to 1952, the Russians never had an Olympic team,” Jim said. “Then they embarked on an Olympic development program, essentially making their Olympic athletes professionals to make a statement of their superiority.”

Jim travelled home to Philadelphia in 1959 to attend the USA vs. Soviet Union men’s and women’s track and field meet.

“Our U.S. men were able to beat the Soviet men, but our women lost. The women had no real training. In the high jump, our women were doing the scissors kick (a technique that was several years out of date). The scissors kick! They combined the scores of the men and women and the headline in the Philadelphia Inquirer the next day was Soviet Team Beats U.S.A. As a consequence, when I came back here, I formed the Ohio Track Club women’s team and we became a national championship team in 1962.”

This led to Jim becoming a member of and then chairperson of the U.S. Olympic Committee for Women’s Athletics, and later a member of the U.S. Olympic Weightlifting Committee. The commitment of Jim and scores more influential and forward-thinking leaders led to the growth of women sports and eventually to the adoption of Title IX. This was the federal legislation that paved the way for women to compete at the high school, college and professional levels.

“I was always amazed how people, including women, would say to me that women shouldn’t be competing so heavily, they shouldn’t be running in events longer than 400 meters,” Jim said. “It will affect their ability to have children and they’re not emotionally prepared. I said, I don’t know who you’re talking about, because the girls on my track team love to compete and they can run forever … I think Title IX, next to the GI Bill, is one of the most important pieces of legislation ever adopted and helped assure that women would have an equal opportunity to compete.”

Jim believes competing as members of the Ohio Track team was a positive influence for the members. “They were 15 and now they’re 70 and they all graduated from college, and they have six master’s degrees and three PhDs and one Harvard Law School grad. And they’ve said the difference (in their lives) was the opportunity to compete and travel.”

Muscle Up
The next key moment in Jim’s increasingly varied and fascinating career came in 1970 when he was asked to organize the World Weightlifting Championships in Columbus. This was where the seeds were sown for what eventually became the Arnold Sports Festival.

“I knew weightlifting is a great sport, but it’s not a sport that draws people in like the ‘Mister’ bodybuilding competitions. So, when I was asked to run the World Weightlifting Championships, I said we’ll lose money without a ‘Mister’ competition, and let’s call it Mr. World. I went to ABC and their Wide World of Sports show and they agreed to televise both competitions.”

Jim was also able to convince a young, up-and-coming Austrian star to compete in the fledging Mr. World competition. Arnold came and conquered, beating Sergio Oliva, the reigning Mr. Olympia and a man considered unbeatable.

“After the competition,” Jim said, “Arnold said this is best event I’ve ever been to and, when I’m done competing, I want to go into the promotion of the sport and I’m going to come back to Columbus and ask you to be my partner. I said yeah, yeah. And then he went on to win everything the next five years. In 1975, he won his sixth straight Mr. Olympia in South Africa and they made the Pumping Iron movie. Arnold called me, and we met downtown (in Columbus). Arnold said, as I told you five years ago, I want to go into promotion, I want to legitimize and professionalize the sport, and I want you to be my partner. I will get the sponsors and athletes and you run the competition. We shook hands and that’s all we’ve ever had the last 44 years as far as a partnership agreement.”

Building the Arnold
What eventually became known as the Arnold Classic began to expand beyond the sport of bodybuilding in 1989. And, of course, there’s a great story behind it. This one involves the President of the United States, whom Arnold and Jim helped get elected.

“It was 1988 and George Bush was the Vice President and he was running for President,” Jim said. “The candidates always came to Ohio the weekend before the election, and I called the Bush campaign and said if you bring a campaign event here to Columbus, I can guarantee a crowd of 10,000. They said great. And then I said: Would you like to have The Terminator introduce him, and they said yes.”

The promised crowd of 10,000 people showed up and…

“Arnold introduced Mr. Bush and he could see how popular Arnold was, and he asked him if he would go with him on two more campaign visits. Arnold said yes and went with him on his plane to Illinois and New Jersey.”

FYI: Bush won Ohio, Illinois and New Jersey.

President Bush brought up the idea of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. “He asked Arnold if he’d like to be the chairman and he said yes,” Jim said, adding he was also a member of the Council.

“We devised the idea for the Great American Workout and we held it on the White House lawn and then on the steps of the Capital,” Jim said. “We invited a number of people from several different sports and that was my introduction to quite a number of sports leaders. They knew we were promoting our event here in Columbus, and the martial arts and the gymnastics people asked if they could be a part of our event and we said yes, and so that was a pivotal time for us. We started with just a few sports and now we have 80 and we have 22,000 athletes and we’re twice the scope of the Olympics and we generate $53 million for the local economy and now we’re in Europe and South America and Africa and Australia. It was a gradual thing over four decades and it’s been fun watching the number of ways people can express themselves competitively.”

Still Working
Jim still comes into the office every day for several hours. “It’s fun,” he said. “I’m not as involved as I once was, but I have a great team going for me.”

His son, Robert, is now the President of the Arnold Sports Festival and has led the international expansion. Jim’s daughter, Kathy, runs the Arnold Fitness EXPO. “He makes everyone feel valued,” Kathy said of her father. “I think that’s so important and I think that’s why so many people respect him. He’s just a really good person.”

Another of Jim’s gifts is to lead from the background, providing the opportunity for others to shine and reach their full potential.

“He never thinks of himself, he’s the most selfless individual I’ve ever met,” Arnold said at Jim’s 90th birthday celebration. “(He’s) always behind the scenes and the kind of person who wants to lift everyone else.”