From The Desk Of Clarence Bass
“His pecs and abs rippled as he pulled on the shirt—and his arms. Oh, those arms!” Challenge Yourself, Ripped Enterprises, 1999
What has become of Father Jim Schwertley?
Father Schwertley Found!
Father Jim Passes at 91
Photo from Live Well Nebraska, February 14, 2017
We’ve been trying to reach Father Jim for almost two years. He seems to have disappeared, vanished.
Our last attempt was in December: a Christmas card with a long handwritten note. We sent a card to the same address the previous Christmas. Both were returned marked RETURN TO SENDER, NOT DELIVERABLE, UNABLE TO FORWARD.
Both times, we used the address from Jim’s last letter to us, dated April 28, 2015. The handwriting was unsteady, so we were concerned about his wellbeing. He was 86 at the time.
The latest Christmas card was a last ditch effort, because we called the church office in Omaha—and the number we were given for the mailing address—after the first card was returned. We were told that they had no information about him. A friend (ours and his) Tom MacDonald, Director of Social Ministries in a parish in the Boston area, also inquired about Jim—with the same result.
It’s a bit of a puzzle, because the Archdiocese of Omaha confirmed the address and the phone number a few days ago in an email (2-15-17).
We had about given up, when our hopes of finding Jim were reignited by Al Rainey, a longtime customer and friend who resides in Omaha. Rainey alerted us to the second appearance of a heart-warming article written in 2003 by David Harding about Father Schwertley’s life-long love of bodybuilding. The reemergence was February 14, 2017, on the Live Well Nebraska website: http://www.omaha.com/livewellnebraska/fitness/for-nebraska-priest-bodybuilding-was-the-best-habit-i-ever/article_0dcbf180-ee47-11e6-8d7f-83a63c5c8064.html
There is no suggestion that Jim has passed away, so our hope of finding him has been renewed.
We thought reminding visitors of our decades long relationship with this marvelous man might turn up someone who knows what has happened to him.
* * *
I discovered Jim shortly after he came to Albuquerque with the Air Force in the early 1950s. I was about 14 and had only been lifting weights for a short time. I spotted Jim in the locker room of the Albuquerque YMCA. He was the first bodybuilder I ever laid eyes on with a physique like those in the muscle magazines. I tell about it in my book Challenge Yourself.
I’ll provide a little taste of it here, to help you understand why Jim Schwertley opened my eyes to what's possible.
“I watched him slip a clean white T-shirt over his head and pull up his suspenders. I didn’t get a good look at his torso, just a glimpse really, but it was enough to make a lifelong impression.
“His pecs and abs rippled as he pulled on the shirt—and his arms. Oh, those arms! As he adjusted his suspenders, to my young eyes they looked like hams bursting out of his sleeves! That was it. But it was enough to convince me that weight training really could accomplish miracles. It was like seeing Popeye in the flesh. The thought of it still makes me want to train.”
Many years later, I received a call from Father Schwertley. He ordered some of our books and, in passing, mentioned that he served in the Air Force in Albuquerque in the early ‘50s. He wondered if I might remember him. I think it surprised him when I said, “I sure do.” I don’t believe we had ever spoken before. I delighted in telling him of my reaction to seeing him in the locker room that day long ago.
Thinking about it brings tears to my eyes. That unforgettable guy in the locker room was calling me!
Jim visited Carol and me many times after that. We became close friends.
One of the fascinating things we learned was Jim's long connection with John Grimek--and how it accrued to me. He wrote about it here when Grimek passed away in 1998:
Then it happened! On the drug store shelf I spotted a copy of Strength & Health, the magazine I had ordered the weights from two months before. Lo, there he was, John Grimek, perched on a pillar, a Herculean figure, gracefully reaching up with his left arm as if to shade his eyes, or perhaps salute strength gods, a mighty right arm braced on the pillar. I was awestruck! I had never seen such a magnificent build - the symmetry, the huge chest, wasp waist, the cantaloupe sized deltoids. It was a turning point! I felt a surge of energy, bought the magazine, and devoured its contents. I was on my way and haven't missed more than a week's workouts in a half century after looking at the pillar pose for inspiration. I still consider that pillar pose the greatest physique shot I have ever seen. Even in an era of more scientific training, advanced nutrition and supplement awareness and use of steroids, I don't believe anyone could match it for overall magnificence, even to the facial handsomeness. It was and is a photographic parallel to the statue of David by Michelangelo.
Jim later gave us a framed copy of that September 1945 Strength & Health cover. It adorns the wall in our study.
To read about Jim's one-on-one relationship with Grimek in later years and more: http://www.cbass.com/GRIMEK.HTM
* * *
In 2003, I delighted in introduced Father Jim as my first inspiration when The Association of Oldetime Barbell & Strongmen honored me with the Vic Boff Award for lifetime achievement.
Father Jim stopped visiting because he wasn’t comfortable making the long drive on his own. His earlier visits were with a friend who passed away. They took turns with the driving.
After that, we stayed in touch by mail. His letters were always written in green ink and filled with detail and insight.
He could also belt out church songs with the best of them. He sent us several CDs of his inspiring renditions.
His parishioners loved him—and so do we.
You can see why we are heartbroken to lose contact with Father Jim. If anyone has news please let us know.
March 1, 2017
Father Schwertley Found!
We were delighted to receive a call from one of Jim's former parishioners and training partners, a woman now living in Denver. She has six children and tells us that her whole family knew and loved Father Schwertley.
She came upon our plea for information and wanted to let us know that Father Schwertley is alive, but suffering from dementia. While she hasn't seen him for about ten years, she knows a man who takes him out to lunch from time to time.
The last time she saw him there were clear signs that his mind was not working as it had previously (she picked him up to go to dinner and he asked her to remind him who she was - although he remembered by the time they parted).
Knowing Father Jim well, she reassured us that we could rest easy, that he would say that this is just the natural path of life.
Be that as it may, we prefer to remember Jim as the massively muscled guy Clarence first laid eyes on in the locker room of the Albuquerque YMCA in the early "50s, convincing him that weight training really could accomplish miracles. Getting to know him many years later, we learned that he was much more than a muscular marvel. He was a man who found his calling in the priesthood and came to be loved and admired by parishioners--and training partners, everyone who came to know him.
In our eyes, he was the model priest, training partner--and friend. If ever there was a life well lived, it was (and is) Father Jim Schwertley. May his final days on earth lead to an honored place in heaven.
May 1, 2017
Father Jim Passes at 91
We've heard from many people he touched in wonderful ways and share two of their comments below. You'll find many more by following the link to the mortuary memory book. A common theme is that he was "the perfect priest," who uplifted everyone who experienced his common sense, positive, loving, and charismatic personality. He was an all-around good guy!
Clarence … I noticed on your website that you and your wife Carol were
very good friends with Fr. Jim. What a blessing as he truly was a
remarkable and well-loved individual in Nebraska for decades. His
history and dedication to the sport of bodybuilding only made him all
the more fascinating.
* * *
I see your article looking for Father Schwertley is the top result in Google, so I thought I would drop a quick note to let you know that Father Schwertley passed away this week. He was a wonderful man, and will be greatly missed in this community and beyond.
August 1, 2020
Ripped Enterprises, P.O. Box 51236, Albuquerque, New Mexico 87181-1236
Copyright © 2017 Clarence and Carol Bass. All rights reserved.