Book a tribute to heft as scholar, weight of friendship


It sat in his “boxes and boxes of stuff,” strewn among the stacks of papers that meant so much to him in life, yet it was still bound for the bin soon after his diagnoses with a debilitating illness. But thanks to the efforts of his friends and colleagues, Jim Woycke’s final work stands as a fitting tribute to a life well spent in thought.

Arriving in Canada from Michigan in 1971, Woycke earned an MA and MPhil from the University of Waterloo and a PhD in history from the University of Toronto. Starting in 1990, he began part-time in Western’s Department of History, teaching an array of courses. He lived for the scholarly life, teaching not only at the university, but for Continuing Studies, as well as hitting the road to teach in Sarnia, Windsor and St. Thomas.

He pieced together a career before the sheer volume of his teaching load made him a full-time instructor at Western.

“Jim always hung on – he was determined. Even in bits and pieces, he kept holding on,” explained Marjorie Ratcliffe, a Hispanic Studies professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures. “In another life, he would have been a monk. He would have had housing and food provided for him and he could have sat and wrote. But in this life, he had it in bits and pieces.”

“He was a born scholar,” said Rodney Millard, a History professor emeritus. “He was a great confidant. People opened up to him and he didn’t betray confidences. People trusted him. His whole life was the university and scholarship.”

Woycke wrote two scholarly books, Birth Control in Germany: 1871-1933 and Au Naturel: The History of Nudism in Canada, and edited another, James McGill of Montreal: Citizen of the Atlantic World. But it is the story of his third original work – Esprit de Corps: A History of North American Bodybuilding – that stands as a tribune not only to his heft as a scholar, but the weight of his friendships.

Years ago, Woycke met bodybuilder photographer Tony Lanza who spoke of his experiences in the early years of bodybuilding. Looking for more information, Woycke discovered that, apart from some biographies of individual bodybuilders, there was little material on the sport, and even less about Montreal brothers Ben and Joe Weider, considered the founders of modern bodybuilding.

Woycke researched the topic exhaustively in Canadian and American archives and libraries, and conducted several interviews with bodybuilders. In Montreal, he met with Ben Weider, who allowed him access to all their magazines dating from 1940. Woycke is also the only researcher in the field to have read French-language sources, uncovering the role of Adrien Gagnon – ‘francophone Quebec’s Ben Weider’ – in bodybuilding, especially his bitter rivalry with the Weiders.

During the research and writing process, however, life changed for Woycke.

Always a man of the mind, he was diagnosed with a rare neurological disease, cordial basal degeneration, a nasty disease that deteriorates and degenerates the brain like a combination of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

As his disease progressed, his work slowed – but never stopped. He finished his teaching at Western in 2006. Yet, when he moved into a one-bedroom apartment, his colleagues made sure the comforts of his home away from home followed. With the department’s blessing, they packed up the complete contents of Woycke’s Western office – desk and lamps and books included – and moved it into his Cherry Hill living room.

While cleaning out his friend’s office for the move, Millard discovered the manuscript destined to be Esprit de Corps. “I knew he was working on this book, but I didn’t know it was that far along. There were several versions of it – typed manuscripts with inserts, diskettes,” Millard said.

“There was even a version of WordPerfect 5,” Ratcliffe laughed.

In his home office, Woycke spent his days sorting material – but the more he sorted, the more confusing the material became. “We got to the point where we really weren’t sure what he wanted in it,” Ratcliffe said.

Taking their best guess, his colleagues assembled and printed up a copy of the book.

“It was not a finished draft. I don’t know what state it was in. For example, he used short forms in his footnotes, but he didn’t have a list of abbreviations,” Millard said.

Bodybuilding icon Joe Weider, striking a pose here during his competition days, is the subject of a new book, Esprit de Corps: A History of North American Bodybuilding, by the late History professor Jim Woycke. // Special to Western NewsBodybuilding icon Joe Weider, striking a pose here during his competition days, is the subject of a new book, Esprit de Corps: A History of North American Bodybuilding, by the late History professor Jim Woycke.

Sporting notes from Millard, along with those from scholars in The States, a draft of Esprit de Corps was completed in summer 2006.

Esprit de Corps is the first comprehensive history of bodybuilding in North America. Inspired by 19th Century strongmen Eugene Sandow and Louis Cyr, muscles-by-mail icon Charles Atlas, as well as the musclemen movies of Steve Reeves in the mid-20th Century, bodybuilding soon eclipsed weightlifting in popularity.

Known as ‘The Brothers of Iron,’ Joe and Ben Weider were central to this evolution.

Starting as a teenaged weightlifter working out of his parents’ Montreal home in 1940, Joe launched a publishing and business empire, creating Muscle & Fitness, Flex, Men’s Fitness and Shape; created physique contests, most notably the famed Mr. Olympia, Ms. Olympia and Master Olympia competitions; and eventually founded the world’s premier bodybuilding organization, the International Federation of Bodybuilders.

Ben ran Canadian operations, fending off Gagnon’s nationalist and racist attacks. Joe expanded the business into the United States encountering rival Bob Hoffman’s angry opposition, anti-Semitism, even allegations Joe promoted homosexuality. A bitter feud resulted.

Joe’s protégé, Arnold Schwarzenegger, revitalized the sport in the 1970s and beyond, making it respectable and acceptable. In 1998, the International Olympic Committee recognized the sport officially. Ben died in October 2008; Joe died in March 2013.

Esprit de Corps brings that previously unexplored story to the page. But first, it had to be resurrected and reconstructed.

To do just that, Millard commissioned former Western graduate student and sport historian Craig Greenham, now of the University of Windsor, to prepare the book for publication. “I was reluctant to go in and copyedit it myself. I was afraid it would then be my book, not Jim’s book. I am the son of an editor, you know” Millard said. “But Craig did his number on it.”

Once a draft was completed, Millard started to sell. But efforts to get it published fell flat. Publishers and literary agents were unmoved by the book despite the gap it filled in the history.

Woycke died on Sept. 24, 2010. He never saw his final book published.

But that did not deter his friends.

“Jim was our friend. This book was the one thing left hanging. It needed to be finished,” Ratcliffe said. “This is what Jim was working on. It is only appropriate that it be finished. It would be a tragedy if what he was working on at the end was just thrown in the bin. This is a story of friendship.”

With traditional published routes closed, Millard then considered Scholarship@Western.

Scholarship@Western is archives a variety of materials created or sponsored by Western researchers. The Western Libraries site – – aims to “facilitate knowledge sharing and broaden the international recognition of Western’s academic excellence by providing open access to Western’s intellectual output and professional achievements.” It also provides an avenue for the compliance of research funding agencies’ open-access policies.

Esprit de Corps now calls the site home.

“Original research like this is meant to be disseminated and shared. What we wanted to do was make this available to a wide readership,” Millard said. “That was, admittedly, a fallback position. But I have come to realize that it is going to have more readers through Scholarship@Western than it would have ever had in print.”

He continued, “The book is a great Canadian success story. It is just another entry into the history of North America – it cuts across social, economic, political, all that kind of stuff. And that’s the same with Jim. This is the product of a classically trained historian.”