Sergeant Tony's Blog

Life Changer

Wednesday, Dec. 19th 2018 11:33 AM

“Pick up one dumbbell with your right hand, left leg forward, right leg back! We’re gonna start up Jim Steiner’s wood-chipper!”

If you’ve been on the Quarterdeck, even for a week, you’ve heard me say this. Most of you only know Jim Steiner’s name from the exercise I call “Starting Up Jim Steiner’s Wood-chipper.” Often new people ask, “Tony, who is Jim Steiner?”

I’ve even been asked if “Jim Steiner” is the name of a brand of wood-chipper! As if you could go to Home Depot and ask where the “Jim Steiner Wood-Chippers” are! (I personally think that would be a great brand of wood-chipper.)

Jim was a real person and a Boot Camper. He was also one of the best people I’ve ever known … and THE person who saved Boot Camp from oblivion … and saved me in the process.

Jim joined us after his wife, Carole, gave him a month of Boot Camp as a Christmas present in 1999. When Jim showed up in January 2000, he instantly became everyone’s best friend!

He was a flame. People were just naturally drawn to him! He had an inner light that illuminated everyone around him. He had a way of making everyone feel special. He inspired you to be a better person.

Jim engaged the world, and everyone in it, by being friendly and genuinely interested in everyone he met. He was winsome and warm, intelligent and funny, kind and thoughtful, self-deprecating but confident, audacious but reflective. And he was a consummate prankster. He loved everyone and everyone loved him back! You just couldn’t help it! To me, he became my older brother.

Jim was a walking lesson in personal relationship building. He could have taught seminars on how to make friends with anyone, anywhere, anytime. On the issue of political correctness, I said to him, “People ought to be able to relax and take a joke, but you better not call my mom a whore.” “Tony, there’s something particularly wonderful about your brain!” Jim said.

Jim was an Army veteran (of course, I ridiculed him about that without mercy or end) and he was an accomplished athlete. He was a voracious reader, an avid runner, triathlete, skier, hiker, and adventure racer. Jim was always up for foolishness and a laugh, often at his own expense. “The only person I have permission to ridicule is me … and sometimes you, sir,” he said to me.

He was also something of an amateur astronomer and he’d bring his telescope to the Quarterdeck well before the 0530 class, set it up, scan the dark sky for things to observe, and have something for us to see by the time we arrived!

For years we enjoyed Jim’s daily dose of fun, fellowship, and enthusiasm for life. If he had a story to tell or an anecdote to share, I gladly yielded the floor! He was the best storyteller I’ve ever heard. My own attempts at storytelling pale by comparison to his.

Jim was a true renaissance man. I can’t think of any subject that didn’t inspire his interest.

Unless he was out of town on business, Jim never missed a day on the Quarterdeck! He was a faithful Boot Camper and a wonderful and loyal friend.

One morning he came to The Quarterdeck complaining of a pulled upper back muscle. He said he’d strained it trying to start his old-school-pull-start-wood-chipper. So I incorporated the “bent-over-single-arm-row” into the routine to help develop and strengthen the muscles of the upper back and shoulders, renaming the exercise “Starting Up Jim Steiner’s Wood-chipper.” And I’ve called it that ever since.

And because Jim saved Boot Camp from extinction, naming an exercise after him seemed like a small thing to do.

How’d he save boot camp?

Well, once upon a time …

One dark and cold morning during our first winter, and in the pouring rain at 5:25 am, Jim and I sat in our cars parked next to one another. I think we were waiting to see if anyone else would show up . . . and which of us would make the first move to get out of our vehicles. USMC Fitness BOOT CAMP was on the campus of the University of Memphis for the first six years and part of the Continuing Education Department of the U of M. But Mt. Fuji (the parking garage on Zach Curlin) had yet to be completed and we had no rain-day option except to trudge outside and get bone-soaked, which we did often.

But this particular morning it was raining hard. Really hard.

By 5:45, no one else had shown up.

Jim rolled his window down and yelled to me over the pounding rain, “WHAT. DO. YOU. THINK?”

“I. DON’T. KNOW!” I yelled back, a little defeated. Then Jim saved the day!

“LET’S. GO. TO. PERKINS. AND. EAT. PANCAKES!” Jim suggested with a laugh!
Since it was just us that morning, and since I happen to love pancakes, and since I’m not particularly fond of getting cold-drenched, I agreed. Hot coffee and a warm and dry restaurant sounded like a better option.

As Jim and I ate breakfast that morning I whined to him that maybe the program just wasn’t going to survive. There were no boot camp programs at all in this part of the country except us; there were only 4 other boot camp programs in the entire United States at the time. This was on the cusp of the dot com explosion and there was no boot camp presence on the Internet. There was no social media; there was no MySpace or Facebook, no Twitter.

“Maybe this should be our last month,” I said to Jim with a dejected sigh.

I loved my career as a high school US History teacher and coach and seemed resigned to admit that my early morning exercise experiment had run its course. I was reluctantly ready to face the fact that Memphis just wasn’t ready for this kind of fitness program. Maybe it was time to pull the plug, I suggested.

“Tony, don’t do that,” Jim said. “This is the best program I’ve ever been a part of. Hang in there, my friend, just wait! They’ll come out of the woodwork! You’ll see!!” Jim insisted. (It was his version of the “If you build it, they will come,” speech.)

That morning, I was discouraged and ready to quit. But Jim’s words of encouragement gave me a new commitment to make Boot Camp work. “If Jim says it’ll work, then it’ll work,” I reasoned.

He had that kind of effect on people.

If it weren’t for him, I might have thrown in the towel that morning. I might have quit. But with renewed determination, I stayed the course. And Jim was right! People came and have been coming for almost 20 years!

In 2002, two years after that morning in the rain, Jim, Carole, their son Rob, daughter Meredith, and I were making plans to run the Marine Corps Marathon together later that year. But in the spring, suddenly and without warning, Jim suffered what appeared to be a mild stroke.

But in the weeks that followed it was discovered that it wasn’t a stroke that Jim had experienced. Jim had a brain tumor. We were in shock. But Jim took it all in stride and approached his treatment and recovery like a triathlon to conquer or a mountain to climb.

Because of medical treatment, Jim had to quit coming to boot camp a few months after his diagnosis. After that, I made visits to his home to check on him and to swap stories. I continued to receive invitations to Steiner family gatherings, including their world famous Christmas party. Those parties were attended by the broadest of cross sections of Memphians, evidence that Jim and Carole’s hand of friendship had been extended into the most unlikely and unusual of places. Their friends came from all walks of life, all races of people, and all ranges of personalities.

Jim’s surgery removed an extensive amount of the tumor, but unfortunately not enough of it.

Even though his condition continued to deteriorate, Jim made the most touching of returns to the Quarterdeck on October 24, 2003.

With the aid of his brother and sister-in-law, Jim came back to Boot Camp early that October morning in a wheel chair.

He had dumbbells in hand and worked as hard as anyone there! You should have seen him! It was one of the most remarkable and moving things I’ve ever witnessed. I fought to hold back the tears the whole morning. Once in my car, I cried all the way to school where I was still teaching.

Always upbeat, always an encourager, Jim had a huge capacity for joy and fun! I never heard him say a single bad thing about anyone. Not even about me! He laughed that morning in October and clowned as if nothing was wrong with him. New boot campers who’d joined since Jim had become sick, gathered around him after the workout to meet the famous Jim Steiner! He was a real celebrity!

It was also the last time Jim would be on the Quarterdeck.

I have always said, “In the Kingdom of the Kind … in the company of true gentlemen … Jim Steiner is royalty.”

I was privileged to have known him and deeply honored to have been numbered among his countless friends. And I was profoundly heartbroken and irreparably torn apart when he was taken from us.

For months after, I wore one of those WWJD bracelets. The “J” stood for Jim. I had no idea how Jesus would run a Boot Camp program. But I had some idea how Jim Steiner would do it. He’d remember people’s names. He’d try to make everyone feel important and welcome. He’d have a good time! He’d joke and clown while giving everyone a hard time in a playful and winsome way. He’d call people goofy nicknames and they’d love it. And he’d make people proud of themselves by giving them something significant to accomplish every day. He’d work everyone like rented mules! He’d help people get fit and achieve new things. And he’d love them. And they’d love him.

Jim passed away on December 19, 2003, fifteen years ago today. He was only 58.

Jim taught me that the power of simple encouragement can’t be overstated. The spoken word can change the world. The book of Proverbs says: “a word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.”

Jim taught me that pushups alone don’t inspire or motivate people. Adding humor, warmth, wisdom, a sense of community, and motivation inspire people to lead more productive, focused, and happier lives.

It’s been reported recently that many people go through their whole day without smiling even once and that most people who do smile don’t do so until after 10am. (Possibly when their coffee, or meds, have kicked in!) Jim taught me the value of laughing before the sun comes up! Jim taught me what the Apostle Paul said, “I have become all things to all people so that by all means I might save some.” He taught me what Runyard Kipling’s poem meant:

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

One cold and rainy morning over pancakes, Jim Steiner’s words of encouragement changed my life and inspired me to keep on keeping on. And if you’ve ever been a part of USMC Fitness BOOT CAMP, his words have influenced your life too.

I’m certain Jim had no idea that morning that he was going to alter the course of my life during a simple conversation over breakfast. But that’s what happened. For Jim, it was just another day and another conversation in his life. It’s what he did. That’s who he was.

Today, like every day, your words could change someone’s life and encourage them to do something awesome! Your words could give hope to someone feeling hopeless. What a priceless gift that would be!

Today, and every day, I’m thankful for you who give me the privilege of your daily trust and the value of your friendship.

And today, and every day, I’m thankful for you, Jim Steiner!

— 30 —

Jim Steiner

Jim Steiner


This Friday will be our last workout of the year! We’ll be back in business on January 3rd.


Merry Christmas and Happiest of Holidays, my friends!

Sincerely yours,


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