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Doug Hepburn and Buck, c. 1955

Doug Hepburn loved animals. Here he poses with his husky, Buck, c. 1955.

I came across a marvellous little vignette of Doug Hepburn at Geist: North of America, a Canadian literary site (click the link to read the story). The writer, Stephen Osborne, does a great job of portraying the unique strongman in a style that fits perfectly with Doug’s character.

I remember very well the place described in the story. From there Doug moved shop and living quarters to West 4th Avenue for a number of years, and then to his final workshop on West 5th Avenue. He continued to sell protein supplements and weightlifting equipment, and to invite guests in to discuss anything and everything. When I took my daughter there once for a visit in January, Doug was wearing four heavy sweatshirts and sweaters, because, as he put it, “I’m beating B.C. Hydro!” Times were often tough for him.

The description of Doug’s estimation of a tranquil life lived under the beneficent rays of the sun is classic Hepburn: “’I’ve seen life,’ he would say, with a sweep of the hand, ‘and nothing gets better than this.’” One is reminded of the story of Diogenes, the Greek philosopher who lived in a barrel (or jug, or tub, depending on the version of the story) on the outskirts of Athens. One day while leaning against a rock, enjoying the sun on his body, he observed Alexander the Great riding toward him on his horse. Alexander approached him and expressed his admiration for the philosopher about whose simple way of life he had heard many impressive tales. He offered to grant Diogenes anything he wished for. Diogenes merely replied, “Stand aside, for you are blocking the sun.” Alexander is reported to have said as he rode off, “If I were not Alexander, I should wish to be Diogenes!”

The folding deck chair mentioned in the story followed Doug to West 4th Avenue and then to West 5th Avenue. In fact, he had more than one chair, and the last time I visited him on 5th Avenue, I found him sitting in the laneway parking area behind his shop, enjoying the sun on his bare upper body. Beside him was a second chair, unoccupied. He looked at me, said nothing, but pointed to the empty chair. I took the hint and sat down, ready for a typical philosophical encounter with the Master. I had planned on a half hour visit, but as it turned out I sat there listening and exchanging ideas for more than two hours. As I got up to leave, Doug said, “That was good! You know, you’re one of the only guys I can have a proper political discussion with these days!” I felt honoured to hear him say that, and I waved a good-bye, saying I’d come back soon. I had no idea that I would never see him again. Within a few months he had died of a misdiagnosed perforated ulcer, otherwise still strong of mind and body. Given his strength and the fact that his mother had lived into her mid-nineties in spite of having smoked cigarettes throughout her life, we all thought he’d live past a hundred. A lot of people felt the loss. They still do.

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The story contains a couple of inaccuracies. First, neither Doug nor any strongman untainted by heavy steroid usage ever held “a hundred and fifty pounds in one hand straight out from the shoulder”; Doug did, however, perform a strict, straight-arm (locked elbow) holdout with one hundred and twenty pounds, a feat which may be unequalled by anyone since (I’m not counting, of course, the walking drug-stores posing as natural strength athletes).

Secondly, the actual year of Doug’s victory in Stockholm was 1953, not 1958.

A point of clarification: The name of the narrative poem mentioned in the story is “Chinook,” a poem about the friendship between a wolf and a prospector in the Klondike, during the gold rush, written in the style of the Canadian poet Robert Service. I don’t recall Doug’s ever having sung it, let alone its playing on the radio, but it certainly could be put to music. Doug took pleasure in reciting the poem aloud to guests. I enjoyed that pleasure more than once.

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