John Hartill stands 6 feet 4 inches, a burly man who once was a decathlete at St. John’s University. He’s a man who knows a thing or two about working out. Hartill signed up for a membership to Planet Fitness in Riverhead before the gym opened its doors in 2009.
On a recent Thursday morning, as Hartill began his final few exercises, he hunted down one of the more familiar faces around the gym who has helped him train.
Enter Wallace Smith, a volunteer trainer extraordinaire.
Hartill headed toward the free weight section, grabbed a bar and laid back on a bench. His palms facing forward, he extended the bar above his head, rotating his arms up and down, working out his triceps.
Standing behind him, Smith held his hands out as a spotter, ready to snatch the bar at any moment.
It was a scene that’s unfolded countless times in a gym, except for one detail.
Wally, as he’s referred to, is 85 years old.
“He’s just a great motivator,” Hartill said.
Around the gym, Wally has become a legendary figure. On Tuesdays and Thursdays he spends most of his morning at Planet Fitness as a trainer, offering help to anyone willing to listen. The three other weekdays, he’ll head to the gym for his own workouts.
“I’ve been to a million gyms and this is one of the best,” Wally said.
Wally may be 85, but he has the energy and enthusiasm of a man half his age. He was well known around town for his prowess on the softball field. He played against men half his age in Riverhead Town leagues up until a few years ago.
“The last year I played, which was a few years ago, I played 127 games in one season,” he said. “Four leagues — over 40, over 50, over 60 and over 70.”
He claims as recently as three years ago he could bench 300 pounds before undergoing back surgery. He rarely benches anymore, but could still do about 150, he said.
The legend of Wally grows on a weekly basis, as young kids turn with curious glances toward the elderly man wearing the body-conforming Under Armour shirt.
“Dude’s an inspiration,” said Ken Cereola, 30, who was running on a treadmill as Wally trained at the front of the gym.
He’s more than a figurehead. Although his mere presence is a motivator.
“I’ll be walking around and some older man will come in, contemplating whether to sign up,” Wally said. “They’ll look, ‘Who’s that old guy?’ They’ll tell them and they’ll say ‘Sign me up!’ ”
John Mahoney, the owner of the Riverhead gym, joked with Wally that all he has to do is stand there to be effective.
Born in Queens, Wally spent more than eight years in the Navy through 1952. He spent some of that time as a photographer, although he never had any background in it until he was handed a camera. In 1951, while aboard the USS Princeton, Wally captured the heroic moment of when a pilot landed aboard the ship blind. While flying a reconnaissance mission, the pilot’s plane was struck by enemy fire, shattering the front Plexiglas into the pilot’s face.
“Isn’t that something?” Wally said as he recounted the story, one of many someone might hear while working out with him.
Wally hoped to join the Marines. But he was too short.
So he joined the Navy, although he still had to forge his birth certificate to change his birthday because he was too young.
Wally wasn’t always so fit throughout his life.
About 30 years ago, his wife asked him if he’s looked in the mirror recently. Wally had ballooned to a 42-inch waist and weighed 215 pounds.
He recommitted himself to working out and has been a lean, fit man ever since. Now at 85, he has a 31-inch waist.
“I would still be playing softball if it wasn’t for the back,” said Wally, who now lives in Glenwood Village in Riverhead.
As a trainer, Wally’s philosophy is to maintain proper form and not worry about lifting heavy weight. For older people, it’s not about getting buff, Wally explained. It’s about staying in shape and being healthy.
Wally pointed toward a woman lifting weights.
“Watch this,” he said as Diane Infantolino kept perfect form with the dumbbells.
“Strong like Russian bull,” he said.
Wally is chock-full of advice. For example, on a leg press, don’t lock your knees, he said, as he demonstrated just how far the leg should extend. For many of the older crowd that the gym attracts, little tips can go a long way.
“They come and get me,” he said. “ ‘Hey, Wally, you got a few minutes to see if I’m doing this exercise right.’ I’ll walk around and if I see somebody doing something wrong, I’ll show them how to do it. You want to tone your body, you’re not looking to build muscle.”
It doesn’t have to be an older person for Wally to jump in and offer some wisdom. He said he recently worked with three big young men, showing them how grabbing the bar the wrong way can raise their blood pressure higher than it should be.
As Wally approaches the second half of his 80s, he has no plans on slowing down.
For as long as he’s capable, he’ll throw on his workout gear, head up to the gym and help anyone he can.
“You take care of your body, your body will take care of you,” he said.