The small boy at right supporting the full weight of his handstanding gymnastics teacher was 3 years old in 1958 when President Eisenhower, in an effort to focus attention on the most serious shortcoming of young Americans, proclaimed the nation's first Youth Fitness Week. This week, as fitness is again singled out for national attention from May 6 to 12, it continues to be debated, often hotly, on all levels, from the President's Council on Youth Fitness in Washington down to the local PTA. Few people, however, feel more strongly about it than a Hungarian refugee physical-education teacher who, after years of wandering, turned up in Utah not long ago. For the surprising and encouraging story of what he did about fitness in one small town, read on.
Frank Eugene Sandy is the unofficial, unpaid, self-appointed Pied Piper of Physical Fitness for Heber City, a green and pastoral town in Utah's rugged Wasatch Mountains, 50 miles southeast of Salt Lake City. Since he arrived about a year ago a good part of the population, especially in the 7-to-12 age group, has been going in for calisthenics, working up to German handstands, Swedish handstands, flip-ups and handsprings, and the number is constantly increasing. It's a familiar scene in the schools of Heber City these days to see 12-year-old Susan Anderson walking on her hands, 10-year-old Kent Young pin-wheeling into handsprings or 7-year-old James Brent Wright, also known as Superman, lying on his back as Mr. Sandy balances himself on the boy's hands and knees (left).
When he started, Sandy had two old mats in the combination gymnasium-auditorium of Central School, and nothing more. He persuaded some aspiring boy tumblers to put together a crude set of low parallel bars for handstands. To this day, that is all the equipment there is. But from this makeshift beginning the original 20 students have gone on to perform in nearby schools two or three times a week; they appear on television, and they constitute one of the most impressive examples of the value of physical-fitness training that can readily be encountered.
The enjoyment the Sandy-trained kids from Central School derive from their new-won skills is infectious. North School, the only other elementary school in Heber City, watched them and wanted a fitness program, too. In the village of Midway, 112 of the total enrollment of 140 were ready to sign up, along with 35 preschool-age children whose mothers thought they could tumble. Participants in the Sandy program score 120% to 150%, in the White House test of physical fitness, far above the high mark of 100% that indicates good physical condition. When strangers see Sandy-trained kids doing handstands on a chair set up on a tabletop, they are awed. "It shouldn't be unusual, but it is," says Frank Sandy. "Any child could do it. But no one shows him how."
Until he began expounding gymnastics, fitness and educational theory in Heber City, Sandy was something of a mystery to the town. A short (5 feet 5 inches), light (130 pounds), 55-year-old �migr� from Hungary with close-cropped gray hair, he had appeared unannounced at the office of Ferron Van Wagoner, the superintendent of schools for Wasatch County, and asked for a job. He was working for his doctorate at the University of Utah, he said, and he had to pay his way. Van Wagoner had little to offer this belated physical-education graduate, but he did have a pilot physical-fitness program for the fifth and sixth grades at Central School, and some work with mentally retarded children. Sandy accepted the offer.
His real job, however, he made for himself. "Every time I picked up a newspaper," Sandy said, "I would learn how poor American kids were falling apart. It sounded as if it were all their fault, but I didn't think it was." He asked Principal Elvin Giles for permission to teach a class of tumblers after school.
Some impressive experience
Giles was skeptical, but Sandy had some impressive experience. In 1933 he worked for the Ministry of Education in Budapest, teaching tennis, swimming and tumbling. In all, 12 Sandy-trained Hungarian youngsters grew up to be Olympic contenders. Liberated from a concentration camp after the war, he taught school in England, Canada and the U.S., got his daughter out of Hungary, received his master's degree from the University of Kentucky, and went to Utah on a graduate fellowship.
Superintendent Van Wagoner and Principal Giles gave him his chance, and Heber City's impromptu and engaging venture into physical-fitness training was under way.
The success of his program is no surprise to Sandy. "A child is one who doesn't know," he says. "American children are used to 'instant fun'; they want to throw the basketball into the hoop immediately. You have to teach them that work comes first, fun later. It's the same if it's arithmetic, morals or gymnastics."