How Two Powerlifters Founded One of UT’s Most Unique Places

The Alcalde
Nov 1 · 13 min read

By Andrew Roush

The Stark Center, UT’s museum and research center dedicated to the study of physical culture, turns 10.

Jan Todd at the Stark Center; a bust of Muscle Beach gym owner Vic Tanny, sculpted by Roberts Berks.

Hercules stands watch over the north end of Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. His head dipped, eyes weary, body in the swivel-hipped pose of European classical sculpture. The great demigod of Greco-Roman myth leans heavily on his club, which is topped by the densely furred pelt of the Nemean lion. This towering figure, easily twice life size, brims with purposefully sculpted muscles, the kind you can only get through focused effort — or, perhaps, through the divine power of a father like Zeus.

The archetypical hero stands imposingly in the lobby of the H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports, one of UT’s newest and most fascinating public and academic collections.

The Stark Center is a rare institution. It’s a museum and academic research collection dedicated to the study of physical culture. Initiated in Germany in the 19th century, the health and wellness movement grew in popularity in the U.S. over the century due to increased immigration from Germany, a reaction to the more sedentary lives of the growing white-collar class, and an evolving belief in the value of personal health and wellness, among other factors.

It is also a place unafraid of the “culture” in physical culture. The Stark Center, envisioned and created by husband-and-wife powerlifters and UT professors Terry and Jan Todd, holds a trove of rare photos, books, documents, memorabilia, art, and more on the subjects of strength training, weightlifting, strongman contests, and other historical feats of strength. Among the collection are more than 30,000 books and a full array of recorded media, from correspondence, posters, and promotional materials to films and, of course, statuary. It includes the collections of Tom Kite, BBA ’03, Life Member, and Ben Crenshaw, ’73, Life Member, along with vast holdings related to the early years of athletics at UT. Opened in 2009, the Center also has a strong focus on the most classical of sporting contests, the Olympics. To that end, it contains one of the two Olympic Study Centers in the United States, denoted by the International Olympic Committee in 2011.

Few universities could balance the counterweights of old-fashioned sport, the kind of vim-and-vigor, health-centric views of physical culture, with modern notions of physical excellence and of intellectual and academic virtue. Think leotard-and-handlebar-mustache strongman meets tweed-with-elbow-patches man of letters. Though only a decade old, the story of the Center stretches back to the beginning of athletics at Texas. It took root here because UT is the kind of place that can attract two record-holding powerlifters with a bold vision — the kind of place that can draw people like Terry and Jan Todd.

The 10 feet, 6 inches tall, 2,000-pound plaster cast of the Farnese Hercules statue in the Stark Center lobby, sculptor unknown.

When Terry Todd died at age 80 in July 2018, his obituary struggled to hold all that he was. He was described as a “writer, academic, journalist, champion lifter, coach, sport promoter, founder of the H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports at The University of Texas at Austin, and director of the Arnold [Schwarzenegger] Strongman Classic.” The latter two achievements came later in life, after the Todds came back to Texas. By the time they did, they were the biggest names in powerlifting.

Powerlifting was a brand-new sport in 1964, when Terry, BA ’61, PhD ’66, Life Member, became its first champion. He began his path to becoming a legendary lifter at UT, where he lettered not in weightlifting or football, but in tennis. Before college, he’d already captured titles in table tennis and even in the citywide Cheerio-Top Yo-Yo Competition in Austin, where he grew up.

He had initially started weight training in 1956 with the intention of making his left arm as strong as his right. By the time he was a Longhorn tennis player, his arms and shoulders had grown bulky in comparison to the more lithe figures of tennis players. In photos from the time, Terry looks more like a football player holding a fly swatter than a tennis player ready to hit the court. Todd’s coach, Wilmer Allison, told him to lay off the bodybuilding, fearing Todd would become too hard and steely to execute the flexibility and precision tennis requires. Terry didn’t believe this, and poured himself into the new world of powerlifting, defined by three now-common lifts: the deadlift, the bench press, and the squat. He’d already claimed the national junior Olympic weightlifting contest in 1963, and won the first national powerlifting championship in 1964. He soon became one of the biggest names in the sport, winning the first senior nationals competition in 1965.

A 1977 article in Sports Illustrated, a publication held in its entirety today at the Stark Center, described the sport of powerlifting as “elemental,” contrasting it to the graceful, swift, and tightly regulated Olympic weightlifting category. “Technique plays a part, but not nearly so much as brute strength,” wrote SI author Sarah Pileggi. Her story chronicled the rise of a new star in women’s powerlifting, one who would go on to win the first women’s championship that same year. In fact, Jan Todd, PhD ’95, Life Member, organized the event with the help of her husband, Terry.

Terry had already retired from the competitive lifting world by the time he met then-student Jan in 1969 at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. He was a professor of education, physical education, and sociology, who, SI noted, was “visible not only because of his size but also for his activist stance on the campus issues of the day.” During his time at Mercer, from 1969–75, Terry, who was white, founded the African-American Studies program and hosted a series of seminars on educational theory and reform.

But the article was about Jan. Titled “The Pleasure of Being the World’s Strongest Woman,” it outlined how Terry and Jan met at Mercer, how she had learned of the great strongwomen of history, the circus performers and vaudeville acts of yore; how the two had fallen in love; and how, after Jan graduated, they married. They eventually moved to Nova Scotia, where Terry took a job as a professor at Dalhousie University, while Jan helped teach strength training to local women and ran a 100-acre farm, managing one-ton bay horses and helping produce 5,000 bales of hay in July of 1977.

“She was never afraid to try anything. I guess I admired that most about her,” Terry told SI. “She was a natural force. Mount Rushmore. She had a sort of love-hate relationship with the college president [at Mercer]. She was a thorn in his side when she was editing the [school news]paper, but once I heard him say, ‘She’s a helluva man.’ That was his greatest compliment.”

Jan’s grandfathers on either side worked with their hands: Suffolk worked for U.S. Steel in Pennsylvania, where her father eventually worked before moving on to other jobs in steel, and Yerty was a carpenter. Born Jan Suffolk, she was always a tomboy, but also ran the household while her mother supported the family as a nurse: doing laundry, cooking, baking, cleaning, and preparing food. In high school, she was named — “to her everlasting embarrassment,” according to SI — the “Betty Crocker Homemaker of Tomorrow.”

At Mercer, Jan took square dancing as her physical education class. “I wasn’t thinking of myself as an athlete then,” she laughs.

But being married to the world’s foremost expert in weightlifting can alter how you see your own athletic prowess. Terry brimmed with knowledge of strongmen (and women) throughout history, and was the rare, if only, scholar in the field. It was a knowledge borne from a sharp memory and a ravenous desire to collect as much material related to strength as possible, especially since few others were doing it. He was the kind of expert whose doctoral dissertation on progressive resistance training came complete with a 300-page, annotated bibliography.

“After we married, I would sort of tag along with him to the gym,” she says, “but I was never interested in the kind of cosmetic work women were encouraged to do at the time.” Then, on a visit to Austin, she met a woman who competed in men’s lifting classes. That changed everything. Hearing Terry describe to her the history of sideshow strongwomen, culled from his encyclopedic knowledge, ignited something in Jan. They believed that, with training, she could clinch a Guinness world record for the highest two-handed lift by a woman. Just a few years later, she did exactly that, raising 394.5 pounds.

Growing up, Jan had few examples of female athletes. But by the late 1970s — with Billie Jean King, with Title IX — the scene was set for change. “I began to realize how important it was for women to try hard, to do these things,” she says.

Together, with much cajoling of male-centered gym owners, Jan and Todd worked to formalize women’s powerlifting, while at the same time continuing to study the history of strength-training. By the time they came to the Forty Acres in the 1980s, they had in tow 385 boxes of sporting memorabilia and research. After another two decades of digging into barns and old homes in search of rare collections, they had amassed more than 3,000 boxes of records and items related to physical culture — all waiting to be revealed to the world.

From left: “Gunboat Smith” painting of a boxer, attributed to George Luks; “The Gymnast” sculpture by Richard McDonald; weightlifting Bob Peoples’ stone-loading wooden barbell, circa the late 1930s-early 1940s.
The “Wall of Icons” in the Stark Center main lobby, featuring Katie Sandwina, Joe Weider, Jack LaLanne, and David Webster, among others.

H.J. Lutcher Stark, whose last name fittingly translates from German as “strong,” was born in 1887 with a sylvan spoon in his mouth, as the only son and scion of a vast fortune made from East Texas timber. He loved sports, and football in particular, eventually enrolling in UT and becoming manager of the football team before graduating. His first donation to his alma mater was a set of blankets for the team, emblazoned with a nickname that would soon become official: Longhorns.

That same year, 1913, Stark, BA 1910, decided to take up weight training with a Philadelphia-based expert named Alan Calvert. The era was still defined by the belief that over-building muscle would leave one musclebound, too tight from musculature to be truly physically fit. But Stark returned to Texas with 40 of his 200 pounds melted from his 5-foot-7-inch frame and a mind full of the potential of weight training, a notion now practiced by strength coaches in locker rooms around the world.

Stark, somewhat nebbish-looking in pince-nez spectacles but square-headed, was friends with L. Theo Bellmont, then-secretary of the Houston YMCA. They bonded over their love of lifting iron, and Stark convinced the UT Board of Regents, which he would later serve on for 24 years, replacing his father, William Henry Stark, to hire Bellmont as the university’s first athletics director. In turn, Bellmont hired Roy McLean, a wrestler and weightlifter, as his secretary. Eventually, “Mac” was taken on as a coach, and at UT, he taught the first organized, university-level heavy weight-training classes ever taught in the U.S. By the 1950s McLean had taken a shine to Terry, then a master’s student, sharing with him what would become the Todd-McLean Collection, the basis of the modern Stark Center collection. Today, the Todd-McLean Library holds rare pamphlets, letters, and photos, including the remarkable archive of Ottley Coulter, a circus performer and strongman whose family, over the years of box-gathering, became close with the Todds.

Together, Bellmont, Stark, McLean, and finally the Todds set the standard for athletic achievement, and the theories of sport and education that went with it, for future generations of Longhorns. With a repository of rare knowledge, they set about the herculean task of giving it all a place to live and grow. That legacy would reach its zenith when the Stark Center moved its collections from the Anna Hiss Gymnasium (previously, the collection was housed in Gregory Gym, before a renovation in the mid 1990s) and found its permanent home — appropriately alongside Bellmont Hall — in DKR-Texas Memorial Stadium in 2009.

Following Texas football’s national title, in 2006, the university was making an investment in expanding the stadium, and then-Athletic Director DeLoss Dodds and UT administration agreed that the 800,000 square-foot addition to the north end zone area seemed just the fit for the already well-regarded Todd-McLean Collection. Now Terry and Jan had to raise $3.5 million to help make the proposed 27,500-square-foot facility a reality. Donors like bodybuilding empresarios Joe and Betty Weider helped the Center get its footing. The Todds also got major support from the Nelda C. and H.J. Lutcher Stark Foundation, started by the bespectacled regent who helped hire Bellmont, and who lifted weights with both Texas’ first athletics director and McLean.

From left: Magazine covers, including the February 1957 issue of “Muscle Builder,” featuring Betty Weider, who appeared on more than 300 covers; original strongman and strongwoman show posters, including Katie Sandwina and French strongman Apollon (center).

The 1977 SI article brought the Todds a measure of fame outside the small world of their new sport. In 1978, Jan went on the Tonight Show, ostensibly to teach Johnny Carson how to deadlift a barbell loaded with 415 pounds. She instructs him in the technique, Johnny lowers himself, grabs the bar, and pulls. He cannot move an inch, and begins immediately howling with laughter at the difficulty, the seeming impossibility. Eventually, he invites the evening’s other guests, Carl Reiner and Jack Klugman, over from the couch. Together, they are able to lift the weight, which Jan managed on her own in one try.

Terry and Jan moved to Terry’s hometown in 1983. They both joined the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education in the College of Education, eventually taking up and operating a 300-acre Central Texas cattle ranch complete with a menagerie of livestock, including five peacocks, a Percheron draft horse, 50 head of cattle, two Sicilian donkeys, three English Mastiff dogs, an emu, and three Maine Coon cats. By then, Terry had been building on McLean’s collection of manuscripts and ephemera, written his own books and articles, and edited sports magazines. In 1979, he helped establish the National Strength Research Center at Auburn University, and in 1990 created Iron Game History: The Journal of Physical Culture, an academic journal. Despite this, the Todds were well aware of the dearth of academic resources on the subject of strength-based sports, and continued the quest to gather as many handbills, posters, photos, and various collectibles as they could find, then work to give them a place that would preserve and share them.

“We had many collecting adventures,” Jan says, but eventually, things were ballooning to near-unmanageable size. “It was sort of like buying the albatross to hang around your neck.” They realized the best solution was to create a permanent research center for the subject.

“I still say ‘we’ all the time,” Jan says about Terry and the Center’s work. “We’re so proud of it, and the people who helped.”

The Stark Center’s Teresa Lozano Long Art Gallery, featuring original works of art and two sculptures on loan from the Blanton Museum of Art.
Barbells, dumbbells, and other pieces of strength training equipment in storage.

The Farnese Hercules reproduction that rests in the Stark Center lobby is a fitting mascot. Like the stony giant who stands watch at its door, the revelation of the Stark Center to the world was the kind of unexpected achievement that comes from lifetimes of immense effort. Call it a heavy lift, a series of events and of people who came together to protect a rare cache of human culture.

Inside, striking photos abound of many eras of bodybuilders and strongmen, from Ottley Coulter to Lou Ferrigno and, of course, Arnold. In the lobby, the tired Hercules is almost done with his labors, clutching the apples he took from the nymphs known as the Hesperides, the 11th of his 12 labors. In one version of the tale, Hercules convinces Atlas, the Titan who holds the world literally on his shoulders, to go into the orchard and take the apples while Hercules holds up the world for him. When Atlas returns, he tries to leave his post, offering to take the apples back himself. But Hercules, both cunning and strong, asks Atlas to take up the world again, just for a moment, so Hercules can adjust his cloak. When Atlas is burdened once more, the hero escapes with his reward.

It’s highly fitting then that this vision of Hercules, the strong man, has just returned from a heroic work combining the strength of mind and body, cunning and power. The door he guards is one behind which both kinds of strength are, together, valued. Reflecting on it all, Jan notes that the process of piecing together the Center was not unlike the labors of Hercules — at least his famous fifth labor.

“There were very many times,” she says, “when it felt like I was cleaning out the stables.”

Photographs by Nick Cabrera

A previous version of this article stated that H.J. Lutcher Stark’s father was named Lutcher Stark. His name was William Henry Stark.

A misreading of a joke from Terry Todd in the Sports Illustrated article about Jan’s grandfathers being circus geeks has been corrected. One worked in steel and the other as a carpenter.

The Stark Center did move from Gregory Gym to DKR-Texas Memorial Stadium, but first briefly moved to Anna Hiss Gym. The Alcalde regrets the errors.

The Alcalde

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All things University of Texas—sports, feature stories, alumni news, and more—from the magazine of the Texas Exes. Find more at alcalde.texasexes.org.

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