By Tom Vartabedian
---- — HAVERHILL — They call themselves Rudy’s Tigers — a relentless, never-say-die coterie of fitness buffs who are putting old age to shame.
You’ll find them most any day at the Greater Haverhill YMCA working the treadmills and elliptical machines.
Talk to 90-year-old Ted DeRoche, the patriarch of them all, and he’ll be the first to admit that exercise is a way of life. Doing it with others — your best friends — makes it far more enjoyable.
Ted spent his working years at AT&T Technologies and his non-working years visiting a wife with Alzheimer’s for eight years. Only when he climbed mountains did he hand over the visitation rights to another member of his family. They came anyway so Ted could maintain a life of fitness.
The “professor”, as he’s known, is Dr. Gene Grillo, another AT&T product who spent 35 years teaching physiology and biochemistry at Boston University. He was a city councilor in Haverhill for 16 years. Few have loved this city more than him.
Then there’s Morris Piccolo. You may know him as the city’s realtor emeritus. Despite his 84 years, he’s still selling houses, bouncing up and down the streets with many a community interest, and dodging one physical impediment after another.
The “baby” at 76 is Bernie Clohisy, the self-anointed sergeant-at-arms keeping the group in order. He, too, is an AT&T retiree and has kept Haverhill Gazette readers informed over the years with his nostalgic snippets.
They are all protégés of Rudy Valenzi, a former fitness director at the YMCA, who started this group 45 years ago. At one time, they numbered 300. Now, there are four originals remaining. We were joined for lunch by another Tiger named Danny Piccolo, who hopped aboard two years later.
Being in such venerable company brought back some memories. After all, it was this fraternity that talked me into my first climb atop Mount Washington in 1984.
All are stellar products of the Haverhill High athletic scene, like their children after them. Now they have grandchildren setting their own trend. Few in the city were better at swimming than Martha Clohisy, or played better basketball than young Teddy DeRoche, or football like Paul Grillo.
“I owe him my life,” said DeRoche. “Rudy talked me into quitting cigarettes. He taught us to take care of ourselves and enjoy the beauty life had to offer. Sometimes, we take those privileges for granted.”
They talk of those who have gone before them like Del Bracci, Sid Lafey, Nordo Nissi, Spike Valenti, Al Burton, Les Brindis, Dick Bluestein, Frank Donahue, Wes Shaw, Elie LaBombarde and the inimitable Fred Battistini, who passed last year.
“A toast to all of them,” they said, raising their water glasses. “Let’s hear it for Fred and the others.”
At 88, Battistini swam in the Massachusetts Senior Games and brought back eight gold medals from Harvard University. He was a true Tiger and worked through his 90th year at Haverhill TV & Appliance.
Right up there as chief workout artist was Hy Der Bogosian, a long-time confectionary business owner. Drill sergeant was more like it.
“When he finished with you at a workout, you could have drowned in your own sweat,” said Piccolo, who succeeded him. “Hy was by the book — all business.”
And you could never forget Wesley Shaw. The funeral director made the “Y” his hiatus. He’d go through a workout without a strand of hair out of place.
“He could have done it with a suit and tie,” laughed Morris Piccolo. “He’d come out of it looking like Fred Astaire.”
As far as women go, few could match the endurance of Lucinda (Wentworth) Nolet. She was a sister to all, except when it came to a workout. First came the exercises, then the 2-mile walk to Bradford, before stopping at the coffee shop. They’d split a multigrain muffin to keep the calorie count in check.
I have in my possession the very first issue of “Tiger Tales,” dated May, 1968. Rudy’s memory is etched inside those pages.
One notice had him reaching out to all the “dropouts” of the fitness world, those who appeared drained by the activity.
He wrote, “The picture of good health requires a happy frame of mind. Get a workout in and it’ll make your day. Be the Tiger that you can be.”