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The awards named for area fitness personality Artie Levin are given out to local student athletes.
The Roanoke Times | File 1971
Artie Levin, known as “Mr. Fitness,” performs an exercise routine. He had a TV show and managed a health spa.
The Roanoke Times | File 1983
Artie Levin puts an exercise class through its paces at the Blue Cross/Blue Shield building in downtown Roanoke.
The Roanoke Times | File 1962
Levin wore black on TV. “The clothing was not distracting, and when he first started, it was black-and-white TV,” his daughter said. Photo taken 1962.
The Roanoke Times | File 1991
Artie Levin jogs downtown early Thanksgiving morning. He was 77 at the time.
Monday, May 20, 2013
Each year on a Monday night in late May, Cindy Goldstein steps to a podium at the B'nai B'rith Athletic and Achievement Awards banquet and announces the name of a local high school senior.
And each year, a grateful teenager takes home the Artie Levin Personal Life Award, named in memory of Goldstein's father.
[ See the nominees ]
The winner receives a trophy after the audience is treated to a brief history of the man whose name adorns it.
Goldstein also hands the winner a small memento, a bundle of copies of old newspaper clippings that provide a look into her father's life. Because tonight, when the award is presented for the 17th time at this year's banquet at the Sheraton Hotel in Roanoke, the recipient will be someone who probably was in diapers when Artie Levin died in 1996 at age 82.
"I put it into a scroll so they'll have some sense of who my father was," Goldstein said. "They don't know. They're 17 years old. My father passed away 17 years ago. I try every year when I speak, to let them know that this isn't just an award named for some old dead guy."
* * *
Keeping Artie Levin's memory alive is not difficult for those who crossed his path. The man left quite a legacy in the Roanoke Valley.
He hosted Classroom Quiz on WDBJ (Channel 7).
He wrote a column for The Roanoke Times.
He was the president of Beth Israel Synagogue.
He was named Roanoke's 1962 Father of the Year in Religious Activities.
He helped organize the Blue Ridge Bicycle Club.
He was a flight instructor, the manager of a health spa, a door-to-door salesman and a volunteer for just about every civic organization and charity imaginable: the March of Dimes, American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, Virginia Lung Association, Cystic Fibrosis, Multiple Sclerosis, Muscular Dystrophy, the American Red Cross.
He spoke in churches and at women's book clubs. He served as judge for beauty pageants.
However, most Roanokers remember Levin as Mr. Fitness.
Beginning in 1961, Levin first appeared on local and regionally syndicated TV in black pants and a black muscle shirt, performing calisthenics and offering health tips on a 15-minute morning show largely designed for a female audience.
The program eventually expanded to 30 minutes , and so did the volume of fan mail Levin received through the station.
Goldstein and her brother, Larry, often were surprised when people they did not know would greet their father in public.
"People would come over and we'd be really embarrassed and kind of annoyed if they asked for an autograph," she said. "We'd say, 'This is our father. This is a regular person.' "
* * *
Levin was born in Atlantic City, N.J., in 1914, two years after a ship called Titanic was scheduled to arrive just up the coast.
"Way before the casinos were there. My father grew up in Atlantic City when it was truly a beach town," Goldstein said.
Levin was a promising high school athlete, even though he stood just 5 feet 4 inches and weighed 135 pounds.
He soon took up an interest in bodybuilding, bulking up to 185 pounds and developing the powerful biceps that later would allow him to bench-press 350 pounds and prompt a flood of fan mail from female TV viewers.
"He was really interested when Charles Atlas first came out with bodybuilding," Goldstein said. "But he went always a step beyond. He began to get into nutrition and what things you should avoid. My father never smoked. He didn't drink.
"My father was somebody who was way ahead of his time. He was talking about limiting red meat, 40 years before this ever came up.
"He didn't even eat maraschino cherries. He used to tell us as kids, 'They put the same stuff in those they put in formaldehyde.' To this day, I don't eat a maraschino cherry."
* * *
Levin came to Roanoke as a Civil Air Patrol flight instructor.
Later, he worked as a door-to-door salesman for a company called Virginia Home Improvement.
"He extended credit," Goldstein said. "People would pay 50 cents, 75 cents a week on an item. Blankets, TVs, appliances, coffee makers. He'd go out into rural areas, way, way out, to get 50 cents."
Levin was the manager of Cosmopolitan Spa near Tanglewood Mall while continuing to be a presence on local television. His exercise spot on WDBJ became a 5½-minute segment at 6:30 a.m., then the station dropped him in 1983.
Jim Shaver, a former station vice president and news director at WDBJ-TV, was a young assignment editor in the 1970s when Levin still was on the air touching his toes and doing aerial leg splits , accompanied by Irving Sharp on piano.
"I worked with him a little bit there, and he was just a really, really dedicated fellow," Shaver said. "He was a ball of energy, very much involved with what everyone else was doing there. He was just a good guy."
Levin was picked up by WSLS (Channel 10) from 1983 to '86. Then he moved to the former WVFT, where he still was doing his "Funastics" show in 1988 at age 74.
Throughout, Levin wore his trademark black outfit.
"It was easier to instruct that way," Goldstein said. "The clothing was not distracting, and when he first started, it was black-and-white TV. He did have other clothing.
"But getting a fit was quite challenging. Because his chest and shoulders were so big and his waist was so narrow, he couldn't buy anything off the rack."
* * *
To celebrate his 82nd birthday, Levin swam 82 laps in a pool, rode his bicycle 25 miles and finished with a 10-mile run.
"He put on around 15,000 miles a year on his bike, which was more than he put on his car," Goldstein said. "He did triathlons through his 70s. He was rated in the United States. Of course, no one else his age was doing this."
While her brother played football at Patrick Henry High School and at Hampden-Sydney College, Goldstein did not follow the fitness trail blazed by her father until later.
"I was a fairly typical teenager, and I sort of rejected everything he wanted me to do," she said. "Work out? I didn't do anything. That certainly has changed in later years. I'm in the gym five to six days a week. I do cycle classes. I'm lifting weights. My father would be shocked."
Two weeks after he turned 82, Levin died while doing - what else? - work in a gym.
"We're pretty sure it was an aneurysm that no one knew about," Goldstein said. "He was in the gym when he passed away. He was helping somebody fix a piece of equipment. It was very, very quick.
"He never would have tolerated ill health. This would have been the way he would have chosen to go. We just thought he would live forever"
When he was 74, Levin once asked two friends from Roanoke to accompany him to his 55th high school reunion in Atlantic City - on bicycles.
They rode from Roanoke to Harrisonburg, then to Harrisburg, Pa., then to Atlantic City. Then they came back. On two wheels.
"Oh, yeah, it was round trip," Goldstein said. "They had to cross some water and they had to take a ferry. My father was wonderful, but he didn't either walk, or ride, on water."
* * *
The B'nai B'rith Award began in 1951 as a service project by the Israel Friedlander Lodge of Roanoke.
The award initially honored a senior boy from one of Roanoke's high schools who was an outstanding athlete and an excellent student who also was involved in community service.
Levin was one of its early driving forces.
"He thought it was important to recognize the positive things that youth were doing," Goldstein said. "He felt it was a way to bring the community together. It was pushing for some racial equality at that point, which in Roanoke was pushing things."
In 1976, the award was expanded to include senior girls. Today, 19 area high schools submit a male and female nominee and two overall winners are highlighted.
After Levin's death in 1996, the organizers of the banquet established the Personal Life Award, given to the nominee who earns the highest citizenship score from the program's judges.
"Artie carried the torch for this program for years," said Larry Davidson, who has served the B'nai B'rith for more than three decades.
"We came up with this award to accomplish two things. First of all, as a memorial to his years of commitment to keeping the program going. Secondly, we felt it was an opportunity to give greater importance and impact to the citizenship aspect."
Sixteen high school seniors since 1996 have won the Artie Levin Personal Life Award.
The first recipient, Josh Gibson of Franklin County, recently was featured in a Roanoke Times story for developing a successful business called Giant Step Design.
Time has only strengthened the perspective on winning for Gibson, a married father of three children .
"I knew there was going to be a new award, but I didn't really know what it was until I got there," Gibson recalled of the 1996 banquet.
"But when his family started talking about him and they brought out some pictures, I was like, 'That's Mr. Fitness.' It was really inspiring. Even as an 18-year-old kid, I knew who he was. Everybody in the Roanoke Valley knew Artie Levin."
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