My indefatigable friend and mentor, Pax Beale, died a week ago at age 86 marking the end of what, for most people, would have been at least five different lives. Apart from a successful career spanning an eclectic variety of businesses, Pax’s greatest contribution was to help set in motion what we now recognize as “the fitness lifestyle.” Compared to the “couch potatoes” of America, Pax was the red hot chili pepper.
I mentioned Pax in this column back in 2004 when he had just published his book, “Body for the Ages .” The message was the extent to which people contemplating retirement needed to recognize the financial value of making the effort to stay in shape. The average American today gets a woefully inadequate amount of regular exercise, and the statistics just keep getting worse. If pressed to think about exercise in purely financial terms, I estimate that a brisk daily walk and a workout at a health club every other day is worth a minimum $250 a week in quality of life value to the average retiree. But I digress…
Before becoming a middle-aged fitness guru, Pax Beale’s professional life started out innocently enough at Oakland High before winding up with a degree in chemical engineering from U.C. Berkeley. Like someone right out of the movie “The Graduate” he got into “plastics” and turned a failing division at Dow Chemical into his own cottage cheese container company. With the proceeds from the latter, he developed a city block of subsidized housing in San Francisco, and went on to start several clinics, hospitals, medical appliance companies and a pharmaceutical company. He was routinely called upon to negotiate hospital union contract disputes that were otherwise getting nowhere.
But his substantial business acumen was incidental. His real love was athletics, and after a career-ending injury on the famous Cal football team of the day, he took up boxing and tried out for the Olympics in Pocatello, Idaho. He lost to Ed Sanders, a fighter who was undefeated at the time. Unfortunately, Pax didn’t follow advice he got from a friend who had just lost to Ed. “What’s the secret to fighting Ed?” Pax asked, and the friend replied, “Just don’t hit him. You’ll really irritate him.” Meanwhile, Pax’s mother displayed photos of mutilated boxers around the house to discourage him from continuing in the sport.
Starting the first run-for-fun running club in the Bay Area in the early ‘60’s, Pax and some friends later “invented” the concept of the triathlon (swim, bike, and run) which was conducted in Sacramento in the early ‘80’s. He ran over 30 marathons himself and inspired me to compete in the “Escape from Alcatraz” triathlon three times. I felt like I had to do it to maintain enough “street cred” to hang out with him.
The weight lifting/body building chapter of Pax’s life was yet another example of making lemonade out of lemons. Plagued by back problems since his football days, he contemplated back surgery but wanted to develop a set of exercises to see if he could avoid it. His back exercise program worked. It led to the establishment of yet another business – the Back Pax Medical Clinic --- and introduced Pax to the world of professional body builders like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Pax and his wife Sophie began what he described as “one of the craziest things I have ever done.” Both competed internationally in places like Russia and Romania in addition to winning titles for their age groups here in the U.S.
Changing habits and becoming less sedentary is one of the most difficult transitions for human beings to make. A majority would rather undergo open heart surgery before changing diet and lifestyle. A HARVARD Magazine article asks the reader what they thought of a single pill that would “…prevent heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, and 12 kinds of cancer --- plus gall stones and diverticulitis. The same pill would improve your blood lipid profile, make your bones stronger, grow new capillaries in your heart, skeletal muscles, and your brain. …you’ll feel better and you’ll test younger according to a variety of physiological measures. Blood volume will increase and you’ll burn fats better. Even the immune system will be stimulated. (Unfortunately) there is no such pill. The prescription is exercise.”
Pax Beale did everything in his power to bring that prescription to as many as possible. While having lunch with him a few months ago, he made me feel like I was the most important person in his life --- which was how he always made everyone feel. It was sincere, and he did what he could to help us all live longer and healthier lives. He leaves a great legacy and we’ll miss him.