When I moved to Long Island 20 years ago, I picked the town of East Rockaway for two reasons: it was 20 minutes from my new job and 5 minutes from Iron Island Gym.
I learned about Iron Island through Dr Ken’s columns in Powerlifting USA. At the time (in between my obsessions with music and comedy) I was obsessed with lifting weights and his columns were funny, informative, straight-forward. He knew everything about picking up heavy things, he was a legit tough guy, and he wasn’t afraid to call out bullshit. Even better, he was a twerp like me – maybe 5’6” in his prime.
When I first entered Iron Island, it looked like a normal gym – treadmills, stair masters, etc. Then around the corner walked a giant, sweating, straining, holding what looked like torpedoes in each hand. They were filled with cement and had handles welded on top (I think about 200lbs each), and matching him stride for stride was Dr. Ken in a sleeveless shirt and overalls.
You could see the big dude wanted to stop but he was scared shitless. Dr Ken was screaming, his veins bulging as much as the lifter’s, waving his wiry tattooed arms overhead, challenging him, telling him to keep going, keep going, never stop. I thought “What kind of place IS this?” as I watched them march toward the lifting platforms in the back of the gym. As the big dude collapsed on the floor, Dr. Ken casually placed one of the designated red “puke buckets” next to him, clapped the chalk off his hands, and strolled back to the front desk.
I introduced myself as a fan who wanted to join the gym. Doc nodded, shook my hand, and took a big bite out of a sandwich he had behind the counter. I knew I’d found my new home.
I’d never seen a man whose motor ran that fast. Dr. Ken only slept a few hours a WEEK. In addition to owning the gym with his childhood friend Ralph, he trained people, ran a chiropractic business, and would prepare and monitor customized workouts for the members. No charge. You simply filled it out as you were lifting and left it in a bin when you left. The next day, it was updated and the weights increased. He did this for anyone who asked.
I thought I knew what hard work was until I was trained by Dr. Ken. One day I noticed he’d increased my squats (always murderously high reps) by 40lbs – 40lbs! – with no explanation. I protested, “Doc, you’re killing me. There’s no way I can do this!” He sputtered and shook his head. “You don’t understand, Joe. You’ve got to go all out. You’ve got to work HARD.” As much as I dreaded it, I was touched that this man who’d lifted with and coached some of the best cared this much about my progress. That he cared that much about ME.
I learned that strength wasn’t something you flaunted. It was something you earned, something you built one rep at a time as your muscles cried out, your eyes bulged, your teeth rattled in your head. The sweat stung your eyes and the chalk and smelling salts burned your nostrils, but you kept going. Whether you lifted 10lbs or 1,000, you kept going and you didn’t quit.
Dr Ken didn’t suffer fools. He was just as likely to crack jokes over the PA system at 6am as he was to grunt and scowl if you said hello at 5pm. It didn’t matter if you were a 700-lb bench presser or a grandmother recovering from a stroke, he treated everyone at Iron Island with respect and made damn sure you did, too. I once saw him pause in mid-conversation to vault over the front desk and to confront a lifter who’d loudly dropped a dumbbell. “Remember, these are MY weights, not YOURS,” he’d say, and he meant it.
He was an intense dude. Sometimes he’d barely look up when I said hello, other times he’d say “I don’t like the way you’re carrying yourself,” grab me in a full nelson and lift me off the floor, shaking me until my back cracked like popcorn. Once after a competition, he put his arm around me to discuss some of the drug tests from the steroid-free lifters like me. He said they accidentally ran a recreational drug screen and the marijuana metabolites were off the charts. “THIS ISN’T GOING TO BE A PROBLEM WITH YOU, JOSEPH, IS IT?” he said, crushing me in a headlock. I promised it wouldn’t be!
Dr. Ken was no meathead, though. His grasp of training and medical literature was astounding, but he also loved music and forged a friendship with Henry Rollins, the surprisingly jacked singer for Black Flag. When he worked the mic at the power meets, he’d give every lifter hilariously detailed (and sometimes factually challenged) introductions before each attempt. And I never saw him happier than when he talked about his children, who I watched grow from busy little weirdos in Ramones & Black Sabbath shirts to well-rounded, kindhearted adults.
I lost touch with Dr. Ken after he sold the gym and later closed his chiropractic practice. But even then, I could call him for a recommendation and know whoever he sent me to would be a mensch. He was a family man in the largest sense; once he embraced you, you were part of his family. The people I met and sweated alongside at Iron Island are still some of the best I’ve ever met.
I think of Dr. Ken often, of course most often when I’m at a gym. Iron Island is still the gold standard. Any time I see a facility with overflowing trash cans, I’d think “Doc wouldn’t allow that.” Or if I see a bunch of gorillas acting like jerks or showboating in front of smaller lifters, l know, “Doc would straighten their asses out, that’s for sure.” Remember, they’re his weights, not yours.
R.I.P., Dr Ken. You showed me what true strength was, and that there was more of it in me than I knew. I’m a better person for knowing you, and there are so many others who would tell you the same.