NORMAN — Bob White, environmental engineer. Bob White, champion weightlifter. Bob White, weightlifting and strengthening trainer. At 80, he isn’t slowing down, keeping up his business, his personal training schedule and the training of young men and women.
It was just 17 years ago, recovering from cancer surgery, that he decided to go to a gym and build up his strength.
“On that first day, I found that I could lift five pounds,” he recalls. “But I met a guy named Shane Hamman. He liked me. I liked him.” White began to work with Hamman, an American Olympic weightlifter and powerlifter.
As his strength grew, so did his desire to have his own gym. “I built a facility to train me,” he says. It is an Olympic style weightlifting and strengthening center that utilizes every inch of the two-car garage. It is better equipped than any in the area. “You would have to drive 700 miles to get to a gym with some of this equipment,” he said.
He worked diligently on his own strengthening, “and people started to hear about it.” He invited some in to use his equipment, “and for the past 16 years, I have been training young people.”
White uses the word “training” casually, but he can’t hold in his pride over having developed many champions in not only weightlifting but in preparation for other Olympic and NCAA sports.
“I have a dozen lifters on full scholarship,” he said, naming such institutions at the Air Force Academy and Dartmouth. Others who started training with him as teenagers are playing football or are competing in lifting competition.
He takes on new students by referral, and the door is open to them late afternoon seven days a week.
“They come and change into their clothes and then start working,” White said.
There is no off-color language allowed, nothing but encouragement of each other. There also are no charges. His pay is in seeing the young people grow stronger.
By the time they come in the afternoon, White has completed his own training so he can give each young person personal attention. They encourage each other, and enjoy the honors others receive as documented on the walls and doors in the garage-turned-gym.
Many are a part of the Metro Weightlifting Club, “one of the top clubs in this part of the US,” White says. The photos of his athletes wearing gold medals attest to their successes in competition.
Riley Nolan, a student at Missouri Southern, is the seventh ranked weightlifter in the U.S., and worked out at the gym while home for the holidays. Amy DeLuca, who graduated from Norman North last year, works out to keep in shape for the next competition.
“My goal is the nationals,” she said while taking a break from working on her clean and jerk and snatch techniques.
Beau Blankenship, a Norman North graduate who started working with White as a ninth grader, now is a running back for the Ohio University Bobcats.
“He helped me get to where I am,” Blankenship said, citing the Olympic style training he received in White’s gym as instrumental in his developing strength.
White, who has won his share of medals as a senior weightlifter, is training for the Pan American Games and World Championship World Games in Torino, Italy, this summer.
He still works in the engineering firm he established in 1970 after a 20-year stint as OU’s chief engineer, a career marked by twice being named OU Employee of the Year. His personal business ventures have had the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.
In the 1970s and early 1980s he was a partner in a firm that built and owned major properties in the region, he says “once we had 90 percent of the hotel rooms in this region.” But that was before the Penn Square Bank failure in 1982, and with it, bankruptcy. “We were in the eye of the storm. We lost everything. “
With bankruptcy papers on the table, White still had his engineering firm and “the environmental world was taking off.” Now he is more involved in projects like helping landowners deal with gas spills than construction engineering. “I am a problem solver. I don’t design buildings anymore.”
Recognized by his fellow engineers, he serves on the State Board of Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors.
His wife, Bonnie, has been a partner since they met as high school students in Wichita, Kan. He attended OU on scholarship and they married in 1954. The Whites have also been active in Norman’s art community. He draws and paints, and has had exhibits in galleries from New York City to Dallas. She is an active quilter, when they aren’t spending time with six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
The Whites are active at McFarlin Methodist Church and are mentors to Jenifer Sims, a young mother and seminary student who sees White’s strengthening training center as a part of a special ministry. “They do it all selflessly,” Sims said, whether it is their church work or working with the young weightlifters.