8:52 PM EDT, April 6, 2013
If Jim Elsner doesn't show up at the gym by 7:15 a.m., the receptionist starts to get nervous.
"Because he's been here for so many years and we're all so attached to him, if he doesn't come for a day, we get worried," Maureen Byak, the receptionist at Fitness Squared in State House Square, said Thursday morning. "By afternoon, I'll call [his house]."
Six mornings a week, like clockwork, Elsner is in the pool, swimming a half-mile, or 36 laps. He gets up at 4:30 a.m., reads three newspapers, drives from his home in West Hartford to his son's coffee wagon in Hartford to get a cup of coffee and say hi, then hits the gym at 7:05. Unless he is sick, he never takes a day off.
OK, so it's a fairly unremarkable feat — a lot of people work out six days a week — and Elsner will be the first to tell you this.
Except that he will turn 94 years old on Thursday.
"Remember that snowstorm when you called me to say, 'Is the gym open?'" his friend Charles "Buddy" Buder, who works at Travelers, asked Jim Thursday morning after their workout. "Remember, the state was closing the highways? You wanted to know. You wanted poor Maureen to come to work. You said, 'I don't know why they're closed.'"
"He's such an inspiration to all of us," Buder added.
"Ehhh," Elsner said, embarrassed.
Jon Reik of West Hartford won his age group (60-64) at the ITU Age Group World Triathlon sprint championship last fall in New Zealand. He swims every morning at Fitness Squared at the same time as Elsner.
"For all the people in the club, he's an inspiration," Reik said. "There's nobody who doesn't revere him for the fact he comes in every day and gets his workout in."
So why does he do it?
"To stay alive," Elsner said simply.
He was born on April 11, 1919, on Prospect Street in Hartford. His father, Solomon, who died in 1962, was an influential man, a city judge and the personal attorney to G. Fox's president Beatrice Fox Auerbach. Solomon Elsner's name is carved into a block of granite on the patio of the Hartford Public Library, along with other Hartford luminaries such as Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Samuel Colt.
Growing up, Elsner remembered swimming as a freshman at New York Military Academy but never in a meet. When he transferred to the Roxbury School, now Cheshire Academy, he played football as a sophomore.
"I was on the football team," he said. "But I didn't do too well. I shouldn't be telling this, but I got caught smoking, and they kicked me off the team."
"I gave that up 50 years ago, though," he added.
Elsner was drafted in 1941 and was a fighter pilot in World War II. His three brothers all fought, too – his youngest brother was a medic who helped liberate one of the concentration camps.
"On both sides of our home [in their neighborhood], they lost a son," he said. "But all four of us got back."
When he returned home, he went to work at G. Fox, where he met his wife, Dorothy. She worked in what was known then as the foundation department.
"People were wondering why I was always going into the corset area," he said, laughing again. "We'll be married 63 years in October."
He started running in the 1960s and '70s to keep in shape but when his knees rebelled, he took up swimming. Before he retired, he was swimming three days a week. After his retirement from Bank of America 21 years ago, he upped his regimen to six days a week. He started going to Fitness Squared in State House Square six years ago.
"I try for a half-mile," he said. "I don't always make it. That's 36 lengths. Saturdays, when I have more time, I make it.
"I manage. I'm the slowest one in the pool."
It doesn't matter. He inspires everybody, whether he wants to, or means to, or not.
"Don't let him be too modest," Reik said Thursday, before walking out the door to work. "He's there every day, kicking our ass in the pool. Don't let him be modest."
Copyright © 2013, The Hartford Courant