“As I sat in the lobby of the airport in Columbus, Ohio on Sunday, June 11, 1967, just one day after winning the “Mr. America” title, I heard the last call coming over the loud speaker for all boarding Flight 17 for Kennedy Airport, New York. When I was seated and buckled down in my assigned seat near a window, I heard the roar of the engines and saw the All American city of Columbus slowly drifting away. Next to me was a silver trophy which I will cherish the rest of my life.
I picked it up and glanced at the inscription which read in bold letters “Mr. America, 1967.” At that very lade for which the title stands. The “Mr. America” title stands for more than an ideal muscular physique.
More important it stands for the things which are a great part our American heritage, namely sound character, athletic ability and a sound and spiritually alert mind.
I was born in Brooklyn, new York, on December 23, 1945. During my youth I was interested in many different sports.
Coming from an athletic family I was always participating in either baseball or boxing. My father was always happy to see me playing ball or going swimming at the beach during the summer months.
He was very athletic himself as a Golden Glove competitor and champion in the 40’s. my father was a great incentive during my youth, guiding me in pursuing whatever sport my heart desired.
My first introduction to bodybuilding came through the world famous Jack LaLane television program.
I would watch his program as regularly as possible. Exercising along with Jack LaLane was a half hour watching television well spent and a very stimulating one.
I can remember during the summer months when my friend, Stanley Schuster, and I used to keep our eyes glued to the television screen exercising together and watching Jack LaLane perform the calisthenics correctly.
Being young and impressionable, all of sudden I lost interest in the program completely and in training and body condition (as I called it).
I am very thankful that I did watch the Jack LaLane television program for I now know that those light calisthenics gave me a stable frame to build upon.
I have never met Jack Lalane, but I respect him very much for the great job he’s doing spreading the concept of sensible exercise, bodybuilding, and body conditioning.
One day while walking through the neighborhood park, I stopped to see some husky boys doing chins and various other exercises on the parallel bars.
Trying to duplicate the movements only left me feeling let down and my ego deflated. I knew from that day on that I wanted to get stronger and improve my weak and scrawny body, but where would I start and how?
I remember looking through the comic books and seeing the strong man ads. I sent away for the Charles Atlas course right away, but after five months of pulling and tugging, I was very unhappy about improving my physique and thought it was very unusual for anyone to look like Charles Atlas, I once said, “He must have been born like that.”
Never really quitting, but losing my interest in improving my physique, I looked around for other ways to get the development I desired. A few neighborhood boys were fooling around with weights.
After watching them, I half-heartedly tried a curling movement. My arm felt as if it was going to burst and it seemed that it grew to inches. As I was the smallest, the other boys didn’t encourage me to train with them, so I went out and bought my first weights.
A set of 5 pound York Solid Dumbbells. I still have them and I hope they never feel heavy. If they do, brother, I’ve had it! With my two five pound dumbbells I was now more interested than ever in developing a better physique. Looking for ways to improve my physique, I one day happened to see a magazine with a giant of a man on the front cover.
The name of the “giant” who was on the cover of my first physical culture magazine was the “World’s Best” none other than my now good friend, Bill Pearl.
The pose of him was a side arm pose. I still have that magazine in my collection. Time has a way of “turning the tide” for it has been six years or so since I bought my first physique magazine and needless to say it was Strength and Health.
If anyone had told me that I would be on the cover of this magazine and also be writing my own story, I would probably said with deep sincerity and with a little doubt, “I hope you are right.”
Through the knowledge acquired in the pages of this great magazine, I began to get familiar with the different terms such as repetitions and sets.
Writing out a routine for my friend and me, we began to train three times a week with the 200 pounds of weights we now pooled together.
Living in an apartment house, it was very hard to train, especially in an average size room. But since I didn’t know of any local gyms I had to make the best of things.
“Where there is a will, there is a way” as the saying goes. I’m sure my downstairs neighbor didn’t care for my training too much especially when I banged my weights on the floor from time to time.
During my early years of training at home, my folks had to put up with a lot of my idiosyncrasies. Without their understanding and devotion, things could have been twice as hard as they were in my training. I remember when I started to show improvement, my father encouraged me even more in my training.
At 14 years I had a 13-inch arm and a 42 inch chest and weighed 140 pounds. I took the normal amount of ridicule from the neighborhood wise guys, they used to say, “You’re only wasting your time, you’ll never get any bigger.”
I just let their words go in one ear and out the other.
After a year or two of training at home, my workouts began to get dull, and I started to lose interest. My father made a suggestion to try the Brooklyn, Central “Y” where he was training to keep in shape. I was glad that I joined the “Y” for at the “y” I met other fellows who were just interested as I was in improving their physique.
The equipment was good enough, so all I needed was a lot of energy and love for training and I had plenty of that.
I now was 16 years old and had the following measurements: 16″ arm. 43″ chest, 29″ waist, weight 175, and height, 5’9″.
I attended East New York Technical High School. I wasn’t interested in the school sports because I wanted to devote all my time to bodybuilding. One day I heard an announcement which said if any boys would like to try out for his fencing team to report to the gym.
I wasn’t at all interested until a classmate who knew I was weight training said, “I’ll bet you are already too muscle bound to even try out for the team.”
So, at 3:30, there I was in the gym trying out for the fencing team. I’m glad I did, for during my three years in high school, I won numerous interscholastic fencing tournaments. I missed out in winning a scholarship by losing just one match.
I can still remember punching up and down the gym floor doing 100 lunges and counter-retreats.
At this time I still continued my bodybuilding training. After doing 100 lunges I used to sneak in two sets of barbell curls, while my coach wasn’t watching.
During my junior year at school, I stopped bodybuilding completely because I wanted to win the interscholastic state championship and I felt that if I was to excel in this sport I would have to give it all I had.
We won the tournament and during the summer months I again embarked upon my bodybuilding. I now weighed 185 pounds, my arms was 17″ and my chest measured 44″. All during my early years of training I never worked my legs because I couldn’t do squats at home. I began to realize that I was starting to look top heavy.
The two years of fencing gave my legs plenty of cuts and shape so all I needed now was more size. I enjoyed the summer months and especially the workouts I had along the beach.
I used to do chins and pushes and run along the beach. My friend, Tommy Aybar, used to train with me at times and he loved to do pullovers and presses. Tony Alota and Philip Finelli used to encourage me to train harder. After training I would go to Jimmy’s Health Bar in Coney Island and buy a health drink which was usually a carrot and papaya juice.
As the summer months flew by, I started my senior year at school. During my senior year I had the misfortune of suffering a broken collar bone (left clavicle)..
This left me in a cast for three months. During this time, I did little training, so during my recuperation period, I trained harder than ever to make up for the three months I missed.
I still continued my fencing, but I knew that it was secondary and my training was first. I always had a hard time with my back and chest development so I had to work them twice as hard.
After school, I trained at the “Y” and there was a period of about y year when I made very little progress. But I didn’t get discouraged and kept training because I knew nothing comes the easy way.
I was quite muscular and at 185 pounds looked like an anatomy chart. However, I have big bones and wide clavicles, so at the same time I looked lean. I never wanted to enter or had the desire to win any physique titles at this time, I just wanted to improve my physique.
After graduation from high school at 17 years of age, I got my first job for Olympic Radio and T.V. and continued my studies at R.C.A. after work.
Bodybuilders usually get to meet other bodybuilders in one way or another. At lunch I met a fellow who looked the strength his size showed. His name was Roger Marti. One day while talking about bodybuilding, he told me that his life long friend was none other than Joe Abbenda, Mr. America and Mr. Universe”.
I was always impressed with Joe Abbenda, through the pictures in the magazines. Roger said that Joe was competing in London for the professional “Mr. Universe.” When he got back, the three of us would get together and train in his home gym. I became very interested, and trained harder than ever.
After Joe got back, Roger spread the new that Joe had won. I was happy because from Roger’s description of Joe, he had to be one heck of a nice guy.
Meeting Joe Abbenda for the first time was a great experience, for I was impressed with his personality. He seemed to be just one of the boys. Joe was weighing about 230 and against my 185, I looked like one of “Snow White’s dwarfs.”
Joe showed me the numerous awards he had won from his different contests and he seemed to generate a feeling of pride, respect, and at the same time humility when he talked about the different shows he had competed in. He was most sincere about the winning the “Mr. America” title and said that it was the greatest thing that ever happened to him.
During my first workout with Joe, I was on the side line. The weights he handled were just too heavy, but I was in there pitching. After training, Joe said he would like to see me pose.
Not knowing much about posing, I did the best I could. Joe was impressed with my muscularity and structure. He said, “You look good Dennis, but you’re kind of skinny, I mean you need more weight. If you train hard you could possibly win the “Mr. America” title in say, 4 years.”
I remember feeling a little let down but I said to myself, “I’ll train harder and try and make Joe’s prediction of winning Mr. America in four years come true.”
I continued to train at the “Y” but now I was more enthused than ever, and in six months I gained ten pounds and made great improvements. I would call Joe up and ask him about my training problems and diet.
Joe invited ne over to train with him again. It had been 6 months since I had trained with Joe and after training Joe said,
“Dennis, let’s see how you are looking.”
I half heartedly gave him a few poses and he was shocked with the improvements I had made. It made me happy because I really had trained hard. Joe mentioned something about a contest coming up and said I could win it if I kept training hard, I told Joe I would like to wait, but he was all enthused about the idea, and said it would give me something to train for.
I had three months before the contest was to be held and I was beginning to look forward to my first meet. I entered and won my first physique contest, “Mr. Jr. Metropolitan.” Joe was about as happy as I was, it seemed that this contest was the first one that Tome Sansone and he had won and from there they went on to win the “Mr. America.”
A change of employment brought me to withing walking distance of Joe’s home. Joe invited me to train regularly with him and through our training together, we became very close friends.
We could train together 5 times a week after work, which was about five o’clock. Our workouts usually lasted two hours. Training together allowed us to push each other and not to “goof off.”
At times we would have contests to see who would say “uncle” first. One day we did 34 sets of barbell rows with 250 pounds. I think we finally compromised and threw in the towel at the same time, and dragged our aching backs into the house together. During the course of training 5 days a week at Joe’s house I met almost every member of his family.
The Abbenda’s are the greatest people in the world and it would be almost impossible to thank them for all the good deeds they’ve done for me. They know my sincerity and appreciation is true so I know they were glad they could help me in any way.
Joe’s Mom would wash my sweat clothes and invite me to eat dinner with them. Guess it was like a second home. I would call Joe’s Mom my “coach” for she was always helping me in one way or another.
I entered quite a few contests in 1965, winning: Mr. East Coast, Mr. Atlantic Coast, and Mr. North America.
Joe and I trained harder than ever during this year. Even though Joe was not competing in any contests he would keep pushing me in m workouts.
The 1965 Mr. America Contest was in California that year, and I was lucky enough to place 9th among a field of the world’s best.
Bill Pearl invited me to stay at his home and to train along with him. Joe had told Bill about me and through this I got to meet Bill.
I found Bill to be a great guy and who without a doubt has the best physique in the world today.
This was the greatest part of the trip West. Leaving for New York, I told Bill I would train hard and see him next year.
Once home I continued my training and was fortunate enough to win the Teenager Mr. America title. Boyer Coe was second and looked great. Boyer is one of the finest and I wish him success in the future.
I entered the Mr. USA contest in York in September and placed second to Bob Gajda. He looked great and was a deserving winner.
The months flew by and before long it was time again for the 1966 “Mr. America” contest. This year it was to be held in York, Pa. John Terlazzo was running the show so everyone knew it would be a great contest and a well planned one.
After seeing the list of entries, I knew that I would have my work cut for me. Sergio Oliva looked great along with Ralph Kroger and Jim Haislop. As everyone knows, personable Bob Gajda won that year and his victory was applauded by a packed house.
Bob did not rest on his laurels but went on to win the Mr. Universe title and became a great weightlifter. He really made a wonderful Mr. America.
I placed sixth in the contest and knew that I would train harder than ever for 1967. I also had to get the full 5 points for athletic ability, so my work was doubled.
About two months after the senior Nationals, I decided to try my hand at a little weightlifting to get my full five points.
Morris Weissbrot was always inviting me to come down to “Lost Battalion Hall” in Queens where he was coaching. I ventured down with my new lifting belt and with plenty of guts to try my hand at the sport. Morris was very helpful and he worked out a routine for me which was ideal.
Within two months I totaled 840 pounds as a heavy, with lifts of 275 press, 325 jerk and 240 snatch. September was nearing and the Mr. USA contest was just weeks away. I wasn’t doing any bodybuilding movement at all.
I decided that I wasn’t looking good enough, but Morris and Joe both agreed that the lifting had pulled out my weak points.
Up until the Mr. USA contest, I did nothing but lifting.
At one time, I was under the impression that you would get sloppy looking from lifting – seeing and doing really changed my mind 100%.
I entered and won the Mr. USA and Most Muscular man titles for 1966 in Dallas, Texas. I was overwhelmed with winning and everyone seemed to agree that the weightlifting was doing my physique some good.
The Mr. USA contest concluded the competition until the Mr. America contest in June, so I continued the weightlifting combined with some bodybuilding.
I won the Jr. Metropolitan lifting meet with a 850 total. Then a month later I won the Troy open meet with an 865 total. Unofficially I made lifts of 300, 280, and 350.
I enjoyed the lifting and the competing very much, and am bitten by the lifting bug. I think a physique competitor should be as strong as his muscles make him appear.
During the year, I gave numerous lifting exhibitions with Morris at schools and churches and was happy to help give tips to others.
As the new year approached, June seemed as if it was a million years away. In preparation for the 1967 Mr. America contest, I made many changes in my training, diet, mental outlook and social activities.
For I knew that the competition would be greater than ever and if I hoped to win I would have to give it all I had, or it wouldn’t be fair to me, or to my close friends who expected maximum effort from me.
The Junior Mr. America contest was held in York before the Senior Nationals. I decided to enter and came out victorious. Not resting, I trained harder than ever anxiously waiting until the Mr. America contest. During one of my last training sessions, days before the Mr. America contest was to be held, I remember feeling “pooped” and it was only half my usual workout.
While I was debating whether to call it quits, I remembered a few words someone close to me once said, “Anything worth having is worth fighting for.”
I’m las that slogan came to my mind when it did, for it gave me the spark I needed to continue and do a little extra.
The time was up, the weeks which seemed as if they would never come were gone. It was now time for the pre-judging of all Mr. America contestants.
As I gazed at the other contestants who were all winners in their own class, I was glad I hadn’t spent the past year thinking about the show, but rather had been busy training for it.
As the top ten winners were called out, I felt as if I was on pins and needles and I was. Suddenly, I wasn’t aware of what was going on. When my name was called out as the new “Mr. America 1967” I felt a few tears of joy roll down my face. My dream of winning Mr. America was now reality.
I wish I could personally thank the many people who have helped me in any way. My family was a great help. Without their understanding, I doubt if I could have done it.
The Senior Nationals in Columbus, Ohio, was the greatest contest I had the privilege of competing in. I would like to commend Fraysher Ferguson and all the many people who had a part in running this show. Also I would like to thank the people of Columbus for their warm reception.”
note: photos by Doug White