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The Strongman-Priest Father Lange

The Strength of His Convictions

Strongman·Priest Bernard Lange forged his boys into men of iron .

by Paul G. Gill, Jr., M.D.
Published in Notre Dame Magazine, Spring 1987
From Father Lange’s Gym 

The old pickax might still be there, lying somewhere in the woods near Saint Joseph’s Lake, where the priest kept it hidden. Year around, he liked to go down to the Lake early in the morning and swim. In one sense, this was a bodily indulgence: He loved swimming. But on blue-cold winter mornings when the lake was sealed by a thick layer of ice, it was no indulgence. He would take the ax out of its hiding place and, with a few powerful strokes, hack out a hole large enough to accommodate his massive, heavily-muscled body. Covering himself with oil to help ward off the cold. He’d slip through the hole and swim down into the depths of the frigid lake.

On such mornings, the ritual was an exercise in self-discipline. This man, who had a reputation for toughness, was toughest on himself. Students who spotted him running back across campus to his room in the pre-dawn hours with oil glistening on his body dubbed him the “bronzed monster.” Others knew him as Father Lange, one of the strongest men in the world.

Rev. Bernard H.B. Lange, C.S.C, the legendary “Strongman-Priest,” Lange (motivated) his lifters with a combination of fear and Teutonic discipline, tempered by love for “his boys.” More than anything he was a hero to those of us who worked out in his quant gym behind the Golden Dome.

His reputation as a non-conformist and superman dates to his years in Notre Dame Preparatory School. It was probably born the day he climbed to the top of the Golden Dome, wrapped his right arm around Our Lady, and waved to his awestruck classmates on the ground far below. The police were summoned, and he led them on a frantic chase through St. Ed’s Hall and down to St. Mary’s Lake, where he made good his escape by swimming under the ice to the far shore, where he broke from the lake headfirst and disappeared into the woods. Not for the last time, school officials failed to appreciate his individualism. “Can you believe they wanted to kick me out” Lange asked proudly years later.

“Dutch”, as the Prussian-born youth was known then, received his degree in 1912 and returned to Notre Dame campus a year later as a Holy Cross novice. He was ordained in 1917. Although the superior’s choice was to send him to Harvard to study English, he preferred science and earned a bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Notre Dame and a Ph.D. in biology at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas. He specialized in comparative anatomy and physical anthropology.

Aside from his clerical and academic pursuits, Lange had an intense interest in “physical culture.” He was acclaimed by Alan Calvert, a weight-lifting authority of the day, in a 1923 issue of Strength magazine: “The record in the way of physical improvement is made by Professor Lange at Notre Dame. He told me that at the age of 19 he was extremely slender, having a chest which measured only 30 inches, his upper arm 10 inches, and his thigh 19 inches. At present, he is probably the most powerfully built man in the whole country. His chest measures 50 inches, his upper arm 19 inches, his thigh 27 inches, his calf 18 inches and his physical strength is almost infallible.”

So dramatic was Lange’s development that in 1922, four years after he started weight-training he was proclaimed the “Fourth Strongest Man in the World.” Today, such a rapid gain in strength might be attributed to self-medication with steroids, but no such chemicals existed then. Lange’s strength was a reflection of his iron will. It was not good enough merely to fight the good fight and settle for less than his best. Adversity was to be met head on and overpowered. As a weight coach in later years, he would tell his lifters: “Grab the bar like you’re grabbing your enemy’s throat!” 

Sometimes the challenges were illusory. I once asked him about his world record in the bench press. His usually flinty countenance softened as he told me the story: While in Brownsville, Texas, in the early 1920s, he was challenged by a local skeptic to bench press 403 pounds, which was better than the existing world record. After making a small wager, Lange positioned his 5-foot-8-inch, 260-pound body under the loaded barbell. He then effortlessly pumped out 11 repetitions. He was laughing too hard to go on, he said.

Lange trained with weights his entire life. He is reputed to have duplicated most of his earlier feats of strength at age 65: dead-lift 600 pounds, rip a deck of playing cards in half using only his thumb and forefinger of each hand, feed birds and squirrels hazelnuts he had shelled with his bare fingers.

As he entered middle age the priest-strongman was confronted by challenges far more problematic than hoisting barbells. He developed diabetes, and the attendant deterioration of his eyesight forced him out of the classroom in 1935. True to his own dictum, Lange met the situation by honing his talents for sculpture and woodworking (he had learned cabinet-making in his father’s shop as a boy) and becoming overseer of one of the first and finest collegiate weight-training facilities in the United States. His headquarters were in the old natatorium behind the Administration building.

His living quarters remained in a cramped room on the fourth floor of the Main Building. It was in this cavernous old edifice that a wino from South Bend had the fear of God instilled in him one day. The man had been surreptitiously availing himself of wine from chapels around campus. His bacchanalian blasphemy came to an end when he was caught by Lange, who dragged the unfortunate wretch kicking and screaming up to the rotunda balcony and suspended him by the ankles over the abyss until he swore off wine–at least from that source.

By then the Lange legend had started to grow. There is no record of where he trained during his glory years of world records, but now he outfitted a section of the natatorium with weights and equipment, most of which he made at his workbench in another corner of the building, and opened “Friar Lange’s Gym” to the student body.

There students met a gruff, tough man with a volcanic temper and no tolerance for foolishness. He was an imposing figure, a huge man with a great barrel chest, massive oaken arms, a tree stump of a neck and close-cropped, iron-gray hair. This son of immigrants from Danzig, East Prussia, who had worked as a roughneck in the Pennsylvania oil fields before coming to Notre Dame for prep school, had a ruddy Germanic face whose features looked as though they’d been carved with an ax. His unusual dimensions dictated a departure from standard clerical garb; he was more comfortable in loose-fitting gray work pants and a sleeveless denim shirt. He wore his Notre Dame monogram jacket with great pride. His sanctum sanctorum was open to students, but he did not exactly welcome them. The front door bore a sign reading:

Fr. B. H. B. Lange, C.S.C.
PRIVATE
KEEP OUT!!

It kept out the timid, but students who possessed a sincere desire to improve their bodies and were willing to submit to Lange’s Spartan discipline used the gym.

“Gym” is a pale word to describe this great workshop where Lange used heavy iron to forge men out of boys. The place had an incongruously humid, tropical atmosphere, because Lange had tapped into the campus laundry’s hot water pipes to divert a steady flow of 90-degree water into the pool. Weary students found it an almost obscene delight to jump into the super-heated pool after a tough session with the weights, especially during northern Indiana’s arctic winters.

In the east corner was Lange’s immense workbench, where he turned out plaques and trophies for his boys; built hauling wagons, benches and racks for the gym; made several busts of his old friend, Knute Rockne; and even built a 9-foot-long, intricately-detailed model of a square-rigged sailing vessel. Many of the altars and missal stands in Sacred Heart Church and other campus chapels were crafted here.

The west end of the building was crammed with dumbbells, barbells, lifting platforms, benches and, between 7 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., the straining, lathered bodies of emerging strongmen. The walls were lined with mirrors, anatomic charts, clippings from weight-lifting magazines, pictures of a younger Lange posing and lifting enormous barbells, and challenges from Lange. One of the challenges read: “One Man in Twenty Thousand Can Press His Own Weight – Are You a Man?” Those who met this challenge were awarded with a brass medal with their name and “Notre Dame” inscribed on one side, their body weight and the weight lifted on the other. Similar challenges and prizes were given for other feats of strength: the coveted “blue list” of those who could militarily press 200 pounds; $50 to any man who could bench press 400 pounds, clean and jerk 300 pounds, or hang by his hands on the chin bar for five minutes.

What students really coveted, though, was Lange’s approval, and nothing pleased him more than to see us succeed. From his freshman year in 1963, Kent Durso, a 170-pound Kansan, had set his sights on the school record of 300 pounds in the clean and jerk. He improved steadily, and by his senior year was captain of Lange’s intercollegiate Olympic weight-lifting team.

Toward the end of his last semester he was struggling desperately toward his goal, but could do no better than 275 pounds. On his very last day at Notre Dame, with only his idol watching, Durso hoisted the massive 300-pound barbell overhead, bringing a great roar of approval from his mentor.

One of Durso’s friends and classmates Rick D’Alton, made a friendly bet with Lange that he would break his school record of 500 pounds in the dead-lift before he graduated. He did it, pulling 530 pounds at a body weight of 178 pounds with Lange “standing there clapping with delight.”

The priest ruled his dominion from a small desk in the corner. In his later years, he would spend hours there doing cross-word puzzles in The New York Times.His vision was failing badly and he had the odd habit of wearing two sets of spectacles at a time while engaged in his pastime. Occasionally he would look up and bellow, to no one in particular, “They ought to cut the pope’s balls off,” or “What South Bend needs is more whorehouses!”

He was blind in one eye, deaf in one ear, and his right biceps drooped grotesquely, the result of a lifting injury. But he never complained. We’d occasionally see him peering through a cardboard cylinder, as though through a telescope, at the clock on the far wall. We were skeptical that this could be much of an optical aid until we tried it one day when he wasn’t there. Sure enough, it brought the dial of the clock into distinctly sharper focus.

Lange always kept a large tin of peanuts on his desk. He’d share them with his pet squirrels, Billy and Bobby, who’d scurry up the stairs to the gym every afternoon and weave their way around, over and through a maze of hulking bodies and bulky barbells to perch on Lange’s desk and feast. He would encourage us to dig in, saying, “Peanuts are good for you, lots of protein. Why do you think elephants are so big?”

Lange was happy in his gym-world. The only irritants were the nuns who lived upstairs. He believed they were too pious, and he liked to “give them a blast” now and then to keep them off balance. And yet he was no misogynist; he had great affection for the infirmary nurses, giving them such nicknames as “Bubbles,” “Tutti Frutti” and “Cricket.”

To survive the gym, you had to follow a few rules. First, you asked Lange for permission to work out there. He was rather arbitrary about this, turning some boys down for no obvious reason. If he decided you were acceptable, he entered your name, class and hometown in a notebook, and you paid $5 annual dues. He said nothing at all about rules. The older lifters would fill you in quickly: no radios, no lifting on weekends, put all plates and dumbbells back in their racks, and–the big one–be out of the gym by 4:30. That didn’t mean finish up what you were doing; it meant OUT. You would drop everything and run for the exit. Laggards would have successively bigger plates and dumbbells thrown at them, along with a barrage of profanity.

Father Lange was at heart a gentle man. In the long dark night of the Great Depression, he gave free swimming lessons to the children of Notre Dane employees. Mindful of his own immigrant background, he befriended the Polish groundskeepers on campus, making them frequent gifts of jackets and money. They were his kind of folks: simple, hardworking, honest. He was known to make small “loans” to them when they were in a bind, and he showed genuine interest in the welfare of “his boys.”

Nevertheless, the list of transgressors whom he threw bodily out of the gym is short and illustrious. During World War II,  the Navy operated an “instant officer” program at Notre Dame. One day two marines sauntered into the gym. They apparently didn’t know what to make of the place. Seeing a burly old guy in work clothes at a workbench in the corner, one of them yelled across to him: “Hey Fatty, what’s the water for?” Lange put down his tools, walked over to the pair, neatly picked them up and bashed their heads together, then threw them over the railing into the pool, roaring, “It’s so you won’t bump your dumb skulls on the bottom!”

Even All-American football players were well-advised to leave their credentials outside they gym door. Lange had his own standards for judging men. One afternoon three football linemen (all of whom were to star on the 1966 national championship team) blew into the gym, which by then had been moved to Brownson Hall. Loud and boisterous, they began to work out. Lange, now in his mid-70s, approached the apparent leader and in an a thundering voice asked him his name and whether he had paid his dues. The cocksure gridiron star arrogantly barked back his name. Lange threw a pile driver right into the lineman’s chest, blasting him off his feet and into the wall. As the trio dashed out of the gym, Lange roared, “Don’t come back or I’ll etch my name on your balls!”

Other varsity athletes showed more respect and benefited greatly from Lange’s coaching. He was decades ahead of his time in recognizing that weight-training could provide proficiency in other sports. He also was one of the first to advocate the use of weights in rehabilitation of injuries. His interest was not in turning out Adonises but in helping athletes develop quickness and explosive power which could be translated into improved performance in their sports.

Knute Rockne was an enthusiastic supporter of Lange’s concepts, and Ara Parseghian was to give him special recognition for his work with many of his players.One of Lange’s star pupils was Mike Burgener, who came to Notre Dame as a 165-pound halfback. Burgener, who became an important member of the 1966 championship team, set an American record of 400 pounds in the press.

Lange had an impact on generations of Notre Dame students. We came under his influence during a stage in our physical, moral and spiritual development when we needed guidance and a model to help us develop our own approach in life.

One bleak winter day in 1969, Kent Durso returned to Notre Dame to pay his respects to Lange. The Athletic and Convocation Center had opened the previous year, and all the weight equipment had been moved from Brownson Hall to a bigger, well-lighted, sterile room in the new facility. “Fr. Lange’s Gym” no longer existed. His body now ravaged by the complications of diabetes, the great man was confined to bed in the infirmary.

The nurse at the desk directed Durso to Lange’s room on the third floor. As he ascended the stairs, Durso heard a faint “squeak, squeak.” At the third floor landing, the strange noise was quite distinct. Hesitating outside Lange’s door, Durso realized it was coming from inside. He knocked and hear Lange’s familiar, but no longer booming, voice invite him in.

He walked into the small room and knew right away that all was right with his beloved friend and mentor. Lange was propped up in bed, each great, gnarled hand wrapped around one of those familiar “grippers,” rhythmically squeezing out a life-affirming concert of squeaks.

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