I met John Kemper by accident, an accident that I can only describe as serendipitous. I was working in New Jersey in 1977 and looking for a place to work out. I found Kemper by dialing 411—remember dialing for information? Bill Grant and Henry Jinks, who I knew from their trips to Los Angeles in the ’60s, lived in north New Jersey. They had mentioned the name of a newly opened hardcore gym—Diamond Gym—which I discovered was about 10 miles from where I was working. What I found there was not only a double-storefront gym that was the hardest of the hardcore but also the friendship of John Kemper.
John was a successful bodybuilder from the early ’60s forward and opened the gym as a second job—an avocation really—to his profession as a school counselor. In a lot of ways the gym reminded me of the Division Street and early Duncan Street YMCA gyms in Chicago that were created by Bob Gajda. Heavy iron, solid but basic equipment and a diverse group of men having great workouts, all driven by a singular personality—in this case John Kemper’s.
Like Gajda’s efforts, John’s gym membership ran from black to white and every shade in between, all united by their love of the barbell and by John’s openness and generosity. He was Catholic in the sense that he was all embracing—his actions said, You are all equal. He was a very special guy who walked the walk not only as a bodybuilder but as a human being as well.
When I heard of his passing last week, I was swept back to that humble gym and the fun of being a part of such a place. John’s club always stood for something—because he did.
The ensuing 35 years have done nothing to dim my first impression of John Kemper, and our conversations at various NPC/IFBB events at which he was a judge were always preceded by his solid handshake, engaging smile and gentle energy as he pulled you into his sphere. That’s what I felt in 1977 on our first meeting, and that’s what I felt at our last in March at the ’12 Arnold Classic.
Many thousands have felt the power of John’s openness and spirit and will miss it. I do. For comments about him from his friends, see my blog at www.IronManMagazine.com. IM