The "Original 8," the founders of the Sportsmen of Stanislaus Club, might look askance over what's happened 50 years later to its beloved club.
Pioneers like Tom Mellis and Tom Moore would ask, "Why have we bought treadmills and weights?" Or, "Who invited the women?" Or, "Doesn't anyone smoke anymore?"
For the record, Henry Zipser, the final survivor of the Original 8, died four months ago. And, to be correct, many of his friends came to terms years ago with all the changes.
That said, the SOS Club of 2008 barely resembles the SOS of 1958. Its purpose, goals and policies have undergone an almost total facelift -- much like the times -- a mandatory repackaging to assure its survival.
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Today, Modesto's first social/fitness club spirals forward, its recovery in motion after a financial crisis nearly doomed the Sunset Avenue facility two years ago. Thankfully for the thousands of Modestans who've toned their physiques and lightened their moods there over the years, the SOS remains a pillar of Modesto sports and recreation and an example of the city's can-do attitude.
"I think they (the founders) would be OK with it," past-president Bob Taylor assessed. "It definitely would be different for them. They were pioneers themselves, so they wouldn't be against the changes, but you have to know that some of them would be shocked at what it was and what it is now, but it had to be done."
At the end of 2005, the SOS struggled to keep open its doors. Membership had dwindled to less than 1,000. The club was perceived as an oversized dinosaur, too large for its good and easy pickings for the wave of smaller state-of-the-art health centers.
Worse, it was in debt. The SOS had not fully recovered from a $2 million loan it secured for capital improvements during the late 1980s. The upgrades didn't produce the desired results because no one foresaw the beginning of the coast-to-coast health-club movement.
When the SOS opened, it was a regional path-finder, something new and exciting. But a few years ago, it was yesterday in a world geared for tomorrow.
"We could have managed to stay open another year," said David Massa, SOS general manager and CEO the last five years. "After that, I don't know."
Bold action was required. Then again, bold action was responsible for the club's start. At first, the eight local movers and shakers each dropped $10 into the treasury, then promised to bring a friend to the next meeting. The 16 repeated the pyramid at the next meeting and, by October of 1957, 132 names were enrolled.
Their original aim was to replenish the financially-troubled California Relays, the world-class track and field meet. Instead, they shot toward an even more ambitious target -- the formation of a men's athletic club.
Nearly a half-century later with its future in jeopardy, the SOS again acted with urgency. The first move was to sell the 3.7-acre softball field north of the clubhouse, a painful decision, but one that poured $1.6 million into its coffers.
"That allowed us to pay off the debt," Massa said. "It's what saved the club."
Officials also implemented fresh ideas to hike its membership:
A successful owner-membership concept. Three investment levels were offered -- $2,500, $5,000 or $10,000 -- where members could become owners.
Special membership plans featuring reduced rates for Monday-through-Friday-only access.
More aggressive marketing and advertising, necessary facts of life to keep pace with the competition.
The plan worked. Membership has jumped to 1,203 and Massa says the club is debt-free. Its rehab is echoed by the upswing in recent years of the Outstanding Athlete Awards Banquet, the SOS's annual salute to Stanislaus County's top athletes and sports contributors. Five years ago, the dinner had lost momentum and nearly was scrapped. Only the stubborn pluck of a few proponents separated the OAA event from its demise.
The dinner has been revitalized in recent years thanks to renewed commitment from the club along with appearances by guest speakers Pat Hill of Fresno State, Jeff Tedford of Cal and Jim Harbaugh of Stanford. Large crowds have returned to the OAA the last three years.
"It's the only event of its kind in the area. It distinguishes us from the other athletic clubs. It was important for us to keep it alive," Massa said. "We're non-profit and that gives us the opportunity to do these things."
The founders envisioned the SOS as a men's enclave that prioritized social fellowship over physical self-help. For its first three decades, it was the quintessential old-boys' club that favored two-hour lunches and martinis served by attractive waitresses. Membership cards unlocked its front doors and guests were admitted only when they were accompanied by SOS patrons.
Athletic facilities were enhanced over the years, but the daily tempo stayed the same -- a trip to the basketball court, swimming pool or workout room, followed by a chat and a few drinks in the bar.
"A statue of a naked mermaid was built at the bottom of the swimming pool. The handball guys would finish our workout with a dive to the bottom of the pool, where we would kiss the mermaid," Taylor recalled. "The mermaid we think has been broken up into many parts and that many of the older members have kept those parts."
The SOS's macho image extended to the sports banquet circuit, where -- to the surprise of larger cities -- it attracted the A-list of sports stars. To this day, black-and-white photos of Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Muhammad Ali, Billy Martin, Don Shula, Yogi Berra, Vida Blue, John Elway and countless others grace the SOS hallways. They drew sellout crowds and spiced Modesto's reputation as a little city with a big passion for sports.
Predictably, the era ran its course. Appearance fees for the major stars grew too steep. The SOS men's-only mandate also was challenged by a society transformed by the feminist movement, Title IX and the advancement of women in the business sector.
In May of 1979, Billie Jean King confided to a member she never would have appeared at the SOS if she knew women were barred as members. Change was on the way, and the ceiling finally was broken in 1987.
"The reason we did it was because we would have lost our liquor license. You just couldn't discriminate anymore," said Ken Diehl, a member since 1963. "The old days were great. Anyone could say anything. I remember John Brodie getting so gassed he nearly fell off the rostrum."
The SOS now appeals to all of society -- women, families, anyone with a yearn for sports and old-fashioned fun.
"It's nice having younger members and a family club," concedes Diehl, who admitted he's reached his 80s. "I played volleyball, basketball and softball for years. Now I ride the bike for a half-hour, do some upper-body work, have a steam, take a shower and then I go upstairs for my reward -- a beer and the camaraderie.
"My wife died three years ago. I don't know what I would have done without the SOS."
No other city club boasts such a wide range of activities. None can dip into such a rich history. None can say, "We've been here from 50 years and we're not going away."
"We still have our financial challenges. We were struggling," SOS vice president Doug Lemcke said. "I'm confident now of our direction. We're unique and special. We're coming back."
Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2302