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By the time Carol Aslakson joined the Goodyear Fitness Center, multiple sclerosis was taking over her body.

It stole the sight from her right eye, forced her to walk with a cane, made her grasp the railing with both hands to pull herself up stairs.

She wasn’t ready to surrender. Doctors recommended exercise, so she toured gyms but found none of them welcoming — they seemed to cater to much younger people.

Then she visited the 100-year-old schoolhouse at 62nd and Logan, just a few blocks from her home in Havelock. Aslakson struggled up the stairs to the front counter and found what would become her salvation first, and later her fellowship.

“I started exercising my butt off,” the 70-year-old said. “But it was a bugger to start with. It was very, very difficult.”

She kept at it. She’s still here six mornings a week, two to three hours at a time. She rarely needs her cane anymore. She stopped taking her medication three years ago.

“I’m motivated,” she said. “It’s keeping me out of a wheelchair.”

She found more than a place to work out. She found a family inside the building’s brick walls, a loyal and familiar group of men and women — some of them her age, some of them older, some of them battling back problems, Parkinson’s, cancer — who gather here daily.

They begin their mornings up in the weight room, or on the treadmills — “Bonanza” playing on one TV, “Matlock” on the other — or in aerobics classes on the shiny floor of the school’s old gymnasium.

And they end their mornings in a first-floor former classroom, sipping coffee, catching up and caring for each other.

They celebrate birthdays. They reach out if a regular misses a day. Aslakson has been to two funerals in the past month, both for family of fitness center members.

“That’s what we do,” she said. “We support one another.”

The center opened in 1982 primarily for Goodyear employees, and it attracts Goodyear retirees, but it’s bigger than that. Anyone is welcome, and is made to feel welcome.

“This is our home away from home,” said 76-year-old Robert Zook, who joined the center when it opened. He was pulling hose at the time, the hardest job at the plant.

Now he’s here seven days a week, two hours a day — keeping a strict schedule of weights, treadmill, cardio and crunches.

“We look forward to seeing each other. All the people who worked together, we’re like family. But all these people who didn’t work there, we’re so happy to meet them.”

The bad news spread over coffee in late April, spilling from table to table. The latest owner of the factory, ContiTech, was cutting its subsidy of the fitness center, a reduction so steep and so deep the 37-year-old gym will likely have to close.

“Oh, my goodness. Talk about some sad faces,” said Karla Hesse. She’s been here five days a week for a dozen years, trying to stay healthy, trying to stay out of a nursing home. “We’re still sad every morning. We keep praying for a miracle.”

'A real asset to the plant'

Stan Patzel isn’t that miracle.

But he is a former Goodyear plant manager who knows the history of the fitness center, and what it still means to its members.

The former long-distance cyclist started coming here when his knees weakened. He tries to stay in shape so he can still walk a few miles, enough to keep hunting, he said.

One of his predecessors, Dan Remigio, started the center nearly 40 years ago, the factory buying the entire block — two school buildings and a parking lot — and giving it to the Goodyear Employees Activities Association.

Remigio wanted to build a better relationship with his factory’s employees, Patzel said. But he was also ahead of his time in seeing the value of wellness, in keeping employees healthy.

Not only were his employees getting stronger, but an on-site physical therapist was putting worn-out workers back on the line. “It was a real asset to the plant,” Patzel said. “He did a lot of work on our hose-pullers. We got them back on the job pretty quick.”

The factory itself was healthier when Patzel ran it in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with 2,200 employees making $260 million in products every year. So it was easier for a plant manager to move more than $200,000 down the street annually to keep a gym viable.

Today, the factory staff is down to less than a quarter of what is once was, though ContiTech continued to commit almost as much money to the center as Goodyear did, Patzel said.

He and the others who benefited from the company’s contributions and the center’s discounted fees should have known change was coming, he said. They should have started looking sooner for a Plan B.

“The problem is, those of us that enjoyed the place all these years, we lived off the subsidy. And the golden goose can’t lay the big eggs anymore.”

Patzel didn’t want to disclose precise numbers, but said the company’s subsidy will soon shrink by about 75 percent — too large of a loss for the center to stay open on memberships alone.

Anthony DiGiacobbe, the company’s spokesman, didn’t confirm dollar amounts, either. But he did point out the factory had contributed more than $8.75 million to the center since it opened.

That should speak to the plant’s commitment to retirees and employees, he said in an email. But it ultimately had to do what was best for business.

“This decision is made to ensure that our focus remains on endeavors that contribute directly to our bottom line, and are used to enhance our business and remain solidly engaged in a very competitive industry.”

Patzel was troubled when he heard the news. But not all that surprised.

“They just can’t justify it,” he said. “I’ve been amazed they’ve done it as long as they have.”

Still, the former plant manager isn’t ready to accept the cut’s consequences. He likes to take action.

During the strike of 1976, when Patzel was the plant’s production manager, he put himself to work pulling hose, he said. When the strike ended, and he had a new appreciation for the hot, hard work those employees did, he gave the hose-pullers their own air-conditioned break room. The former bricklayer built the walls himself.

Now he and other members are trying to save the center.

“We either have to completely restructure the place or it’s going to close,” he said. “And I just can’t let it go without a fight.”

‘The desperation phase’

Randy Leuttel started working at the center in 1996, climbing his way up to manager. He has three full-time employees, 17 part-time workers and a dim prospect of the future.

Without ContiTech’s original subsidy, the center might make it until the end of July.

“We’re kind of in limbo,” he said. “Right now, if nothing changes, we’ll be closing.”

He knows all of the regulars, and why they come. It’s not just the exercise.

“It’s working out but not just working out,” he said. “It’s sharing the coffee. They get involved in each other’s lives.”

Like 89-year-old Mary Zink, who drives north three times a week from her home on Yankee Hill Road for her exercise class, taught by an 81-year-old.

“We’ve been friends for years and years and a good many of us are widows. At this point in our lives, it’s our social life.”

And like 50-year-old Brian Reed, who started lifting here in 1986, when he and other recent Northeast grads realized they didn’t have to work at Goodyear to join.

His weights have lightened over the years, but he’s still here five or six times a week. He wonders where the center’s members will go if it closes, what they will do.

“It’s kind of like family, it really is. A lot of the people, that’s the only place they’ve ever known.”

And that’s just one of the unknowns. The Northeast Family Center childcare center rents the neighboring building from the fitness center, relies on its boiler and seems tethered to the gym’s future. But Northeast’s plans are unclear, and its director could not be reached.

Another uncertainty? Whether Patzel and other members can save the fitness center.

Leuttel, the director, and his board of directors already tried to come up with a great, center-saving idea, he said, but didn’t think of anything viable.

“Stan and a few other members think they can come up with a huge brainchild,” he said. “His heart is definitely in the right place.”

Their plan is both simple and ambitious. First, cut labor costs by installing a key system — eliminating the need for employees to staff the front counter — and trying to find volunteers to help run the gym.

And then raise money — by increasing fees, finding new members, seeking business partnerships and sponsorships. Anything to rebalance the scales that will tip when the ContiTech money disappears.

But the clock is ticking on the Goodyear Fitness Center, Patzel said. Time to get busy.

“We’re in the desperation phase,” he said. “There’s no doubt about that.”

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7254 or psalter@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSPeterSalter.

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Peter Salter is a reporter.

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