Whenever I walk into Toms River Fitness, I breathe a sigh of relief because I know I am here to
work out but more importantly, I know I have a place that doesn’t pass judgement and
everyone is here for their own specific purpose. There are few external places where people
can feel at home and still gather communally. What does it take to create such a safe and
comfortable environment? It has to be the people who work to protect such a welcoming
atmosphere and the people who frequent it and leave their positive energy.
It’s hard to believe a local business has done this for the last 41 years and continues to work
hard at preserving it. Toms River Fitness has meant many things to many people. Whether it’s
the pure joy of escape, the importance of exercise, the new knowledge of healthy living
strategies or the comradery and friendships grown over the years, all drawing us to this place
for self-preservation. Research tells us that exercise, especially group exercise has so many
more benefits than just the physical outcomes. It helps us cope with stress and anxiety; it
lessens depression and it creates an overall psychological well-being. But most of you know this
already because you experience it here.
What some of you may not know are the individuals who come here each day just like yourself.
I am always so taken by the array of people who grace this place. It usually starts from an act of
kindness. Helping someone setup a spin bike…handing someone a towel… holding doors…
saving lap lanes…and then a “Good morning!” turns into a genuine “How are you feeling
today?” And so it begins…we learn about each other when that person wants to share a
snippet of their story. If you’re lucky, they will tell you a bit more.
I’m inquisitive by nature, so I will ask questions, mainly because I am fascinated by so many of
these kind souls. I had this crazy idea that maybe some might like to share their stories with
more of us. Not to brag or philosophize but to tell us who they are and learn their story. Some
of them have experiences that are noteworthy and brave, heart breaking and sad. There are so
many surprises. I think you will experience some of the joys and hardships these people lived
through with such grace and determination. You will see another definition of true strength.
Hopefully, these stories will affect and move us to recognize our similarities and likenesses.
Maya Angelou said, “The human heart is the link that joins us together, it tells us that we are all
more alike than we are unalike.” Maybe you will want to participate in sharing your story.
This corner has been created to find out more about each of us. We were drawn here for a
common good. And these stories are the celebration of this goodness.
Hope you enjoy!
Again, happenstance takes place while in theTR Fitness Spin Room. As I unclip my shoes from my bike, a young woman to my right is doing the same. I comment on how much I love Jill’s 8:30 spin class and she responds, “This class, no this room… has saved my life!” Okay, now I am totally taken back by such a statement and of course I had to ask to explain herself. This is how I met the lovely, tough cookie named Jacque Balester! When I asked her if she would share her story, there was no hesitancy in her voice. She wanted to affirm her standing here, at the gym, and tell the rest of us how she overcame her fears of exercise, pure and simple. WelI, not simple but definitely determined. The beauty of Jacque’s story is her raw honesty and courage to make changes for health’s sake while becoming one of the social butterflies at TR Fitness. People are drawn to her and the reasons are so evident in her revelation. So let me introduce you to Jacque Ballester..
Jacque moved to Toms River in 2016 after spending most of her life in North Arlington. Married to Alan, and mother to Max, they bought a house and headed down the Parkway to make a new start. During her pregnancy, Jacque gained 100 pounds but by nursing and watching her diet she lost all of it while never working out. This was not unusual for her. She never had a weight issue. When she was a teenager, she was an exceptional high school softball player and as the Captain of her team,she ran the practices. No she didn’t run, she made her teammates do it! But because she was so good in the field, the coaches never hassled her. She continued her softball career at Rutgers University and pulled the same stunt. As the Captain of her college team, running was not in her repertoire. But she continued to prove herself on the field and got away without doing the routine sprints. Thin, athletic looking…yes, runner…no. She hated it. She looked like an athlete but Jacque tells a different story. “I know I looked fit but in truth I wasn’t. I never did cardio, I even smoked as a teenager, but no one hassled me because I was a good player.” Soon, Jaque gave up her softball career and began her full time professional job and never looked back.
When Jaque and Alan moved to Toms River, Jacque’s main priority was raising Max. She gave up her full time job with a private company which programmed election machinery to work part time, so she could dedicate all her time and effort to Max. As a police officer, Alan commuted to work and would be away for a few days to complete his shift. During this time, Jacque started binge eating and began gaining the weight she lost after Max’s birth. She put on the 100 pounds but didn’t have the drive she once had to lose the weight. She even drifted from her friends from up north because she was feeling depressed about the way she looked and felt. At this time, she lost a piece of herself, the piece that needed to be put back in place to hold herself accountable for her own well being.
But this spiral didn’t last long. In June, a friend told Jacque about a weight loss challenge program. It was designed as a 10-week body transformation system to make fast and lasting changes to your appearance and overall well-being. It had nutritional counseling, fitness classes and motivational techniques. Jacque took the trial class and won a free membership to continue but she was searching for a place that gave her lots of options, and this was not a fit for her. She gave a million reasons not to join because she wasn’t ready to commit. Just a comment here… to be fair to Jacque… How many times do we feel this way about obstacles in our lives, when we might be unwilling to move forward because we are afraid to fail again? Now, when Jacque meets girls who are looking for a gym to join, she tells them not to wait until Monday but choose the day you say to yourself, “I don’t want to live like this anymore, today is the day I will make the change.”
By conversing with Jacque, she admitted she was the one who needed to make the changes necessary for her own well being and she was smart to act. She saw the effects on the people she loved and those that loved her. Her doctor also made her realize that she was beginning to do some major damage. When he diagnosed her diabetes, high blood pressure, heart palpitations, sleep apnea, vision loss and foot sensation loss, Jaque got scared. He wanted to start her on insulin because her HA1C was a 14 and once he mentioned the word insulin, reality set in. She asked him to give her a month to see if she could make enough changes to reverse this course and luckily, she did. She cut out soda because she was addicted to it, some carbs, nothing drastic because she said, “I’m not a rabbit!” Again, she lost some weight without exercise.
Finally, Jacque knew another facet needed to be tapped so she reached out on a TRmom Facebook page and asked about free passes to a gym. Sure enough, one member of TR Fitness said she had a free pass and offered it to Jacque. The rest is history! In the beginning, she hid on the women’s side but little by little she broadened her scope. The offer of 5 free spins made her venture into the spin room and here is where she found her comfort zone. It wasn’t easy at first, especially the standing out at positions 2 and 3 but that only lasted a short time. The girl who hid in the back by the lockers was soon front and center by the instructor. The true beauty of fruition came on January 14th 2020, when Jacque was weaned off all her medications. A transformation for a real athlete now! Nevertheless, Jacque talks about the encouragement and moral support of TR Fitness. “This place is a huge part of my happiness now. My friends here are the friends I’ve longed for my entire life. They are real and we connect every single day.”
As for Max, he is one of the main reasons Jacque feels so good about being here. “Max loves it. There is peace of mind when I work out because he’s happy and the staff adores him. Even though he’s in kindergarten now, he still comes for Kid’s Club.” Whenever he needs help with something he comes to me because he says, “ Mommy is so strong!” Now Jacque’s husband, Alan has joined the ranks as a member and is loving his workouts near his wife and son.
And Jacque is still Jacque… but fit and becoming the elite athlete she has admired within. Surprisingly, she has added running to her repertoire and loving every minute! Again, it didn’t happen overnight, but what does? The walk run format soon became the sprint for 2 miles. “For 20 years I’ve told myself I couldn’t do it, now I can!”
Jacque prides herself on reaching out to new members who might be a bit intimidated by the complex machinery, talented athletes and overwhelming class choices. She remembers how she felt. By putting herself in their shoes, she asks them to work out with her. Or meet on Friday nights when Max is in Kids Club and they can bring their children, too. It becomes a family outing with no guilt. She fills them in on the talented trainers available or try a class. All you might need is a workout buddy for the motivation to come and make this a habit for life. Jacque knows because she’s been there and now doing this. And if you’re lucky, you might see her wiggle over and ask you to join her!
Again, I feel like I have been given such godsends from all of the people I meet and interview at TRF. It is so fitting that I meet Carol Stauffer during this month of blessed thanks. Here is a woman who has experienced so many facets of life that I hope I can paint a picture worthy of her. In 2003, Carol entered the doors of TRF with the intention of buying a gift membership for her son. When she began to talk to the girls at the front desk, she told them that she loved to dance and they suggested she try a few of the classes for free. As a trained dancer, Carol needed to find a place to dance at an adult age. She knew what she was looking for, a connection of body, mind and spirit, and sure enough she found it here.
When she took Julie’s dance choreography class, she knew she had found a place to practice one of her many passions. She began to immerse herself in dance classes, followed by yoga and step. After 16 years, her love of dance continues and she is most grateful for the warm, family atmosphere created by Shelley and Ray. Truly a gift!
Let me tell you about Carol. She is a Pennsylvania girl who grew up in Lancaster. She attended West Chester University and majored in elementary education with a minor in art and dance. While taking a PE class, the dancer instructor, who was head of the Theater Dance Department, saw Carol’s potential and literally, pulled her into rehearsals for an upcoming modern dance performance. Carol credits this talented teacher for nurturing her love of dance. For the following four years, Carol was a member of University’s Theater Dance Company affording her the opportunity to travel with them and setting her sights on a new career path.
She continued dancing after graduating in 1973, at the Connecticut College Dance Festival where she learned about dance therapy. Here she found something that truly resonated with her so she applied to Hunter College’s Masters Program for Dance Therapy. After graduating, she returned to Lancaster for a few years, working at a psychiatric treatment center, and choreographing for children’s shows. But New York City was calling, so she headed back and worked as a Senior Dance/Recreation Therapist for developmentally disabled adults in Queens. Here, Carol worked for eight years with deinstitutionalized adults who became an integral part of her life.
In 1981, Carol married Ken Stauffer, also from Lancaster, and settled in Jackson Heights until 1986 when they moved to Toms River. She took a job as the activity director of a long term care facility in Whiting, until the birth of her son, Kyle. A year later, Carol returned to work as the Activity Director in a long term health facility in Brick. During this time she emphasized intergenerational programs by including children from her son’s preschool class with activities for the “Grandmas and Grandpas.” Here she was able to create meaningful experiences which spanned generations.
In 1992, the Stauffer’s had an amazing opportunity to move to England, where her husband, Ken, who worked for Bells Labs, was offered a position there for three years. The small village of Welford on Avon embraced the Stauffer’s, making friendships that have lasted over time, and where young Kyle adopted his thick English accent. When they returned to Toms River in 1995, Kyle’s school chums were fascinated by his accent. Carol talks about this special time with such fondness because it offered them experiences to travel and engage in the richness of cultures where you can only know from living abroad for a time.
In 1996, when they returned to Toms River, Carol stayed at home and raised Kyle while coaching soccer and immersing herself in the day to day activities of a young family. She worked At Citta Elementary School for five years as an Excel Math teacher until she received a brochure in the mail from a local massage school. The courses of body, mind and spirit spoke to her. Here she stepped on a new path. She became a certified massage therapist in 2003. Today, she has her clients visit her for their massage therapy sessions and Carol could not be happier.
As a young girl, Carol’s father remembered her running round with an old brownie camera taking pictures of sunsets. Nature has always been a source of solace and inspiration for Carol. For years, she took photos and put them in an ever growing stack of albums. In 2005, she felt literally pushed to get her photos out of her albums and in the public arena. She decided to gamble and take a booth at the Chili Cook-off where she offered chair massages and displayed her photography to sell. Stepping back and looking at her creations, she thought, “I can do this.” And sure enough, “Collage and Massage” was born. Her inspirational cards are filled with the wonder around us where she is able to capture it through her lens. Since then, she has separated her two talents and has marketed her photography under the logo, “In Spirit Photography.” I am just amazed at this woman’s artistry and ingenuity and her ability to fulfill all of her creative needs while sharing them with the rest of the world.
In August 2012, the Stauffer’s returned to England to revisit but also to bring along Kyle’s girlfriend, now wife, Megan, to catch a glimpse of his earlier years. There intended Christmas photo posed them on a canal boat but circumstances called for something unexpected. Super Storm Sandy hit, and Carol’s home was flooded to the kitchen countertops! They had to relocate until building repairs were made. So the photo morphed into the family of four and their dog, in front of the fireplace, in a gutted house wearing, “Restore the Shore” shirts. Carol never hesitated to document the devastation and as luck would have it, she had many photos of the Seaside Boardwalk before the storm, a replica of a time when calmness prevailed. As a reminder of the past, Carol’s photographs have become special mementos for folks who spent their youth at the beach and miss the way it was before Sandy. “People tell me their stories.” Her eyes recognize the beauty of nature and capture an emotional message. I can understand why because Carol is a good listener and her photo cards add comfort and support.
Today, she continues to show her work locally in Ocean County and other places throughout the state. She is a member of the Toms River Artist Community, whose mission is to support local artists of all ages. She resonates goodness and kindness in all her expressive ways. Her photos, speak to your soul and she believes the message is, “We are not alone, the natural world is God’s gift to us, a living canvas of beauty, harmony and much wisdom.” I feel lucky to have met her, and experience this woman’s aura.
Thank-you Carol, for sharing your story.
You can follow Carol on her Facebook page Carol Stauffer or her website www.in-spiritphotography.com
I very rarely go over to the large weight room area, where many of the serious athletes work out. When I watch these people push themselves through their routines, I am awestruck by their physical abilities. No matter the age or ability, they are there religiously. One such gentleman is Bob Tormollan. Five to six days a week, you can see Bob working out there with his regular buddies. Bob is an avid athlete who has the battle scars to prove it. He has had nine knee surgeries, back surgery and hip, shoulder replacements, and knows if he didn’t work out he would really be in trouble. With this being said, Bob recognizes that TR Fitness is the best place for him, whether it was rehabbing these surgeries or doing his regimented work outs and of course, being with his friends. What started out as social conversations became formulas of friendships that have lasted years. Seems to be the pattern at this place!
Bob knows the importance of a healthy lifestyle because he has lived it. As a young man he attended Trenton State College and graduated with a degree in Physical Education. He taught in Lawrence Township until 1978. At that time, he was commuting from Ocean Beach and his wife, Ceil was home with their two oldest children, Dana and Gavin with a third on the way. He knew he needed a bigger home for his growing family so Toms River was the likely choice. He taught at St. Joe’s and coached football, wrestling, track and baseball. In the summer, he lifeguarded in Lavallette. As his family grew, he continued his career as an Athletic Director at Admiral Farragut and also coached three sports. He even worked for Ray and Shelley at racquetball as the Nautilus instructor. Then, he headed to Wall Township where he finished his teaching career after spending twenty years there. Bob spoke with a devoted enthusiasm about the young boys and girls he taught and coached throughout his years. He spoke about many of these athletes with pride because of their unique qualities of hard work and passion for their sport. He felt privileged to be a part of their athletic development and he often sees them in the community today.
In his college days, Bob was Captain of the Trenton State Swim Team. Here he met a beautiful, young, freshman swimmer, named Ceil, who later became his wife. While Bob was teaching at Lawrence Township, Ceil taught at Ewing Township. Then their family began to grow and until they were school age, Ceil stayed home with the five little ones. Afterwards, she started her own business as a nursery school certified physical education teacher. Bob spoke with such respect and admiration for his wife of fifty years. To mark such a special anniversary, they were whisked away in a limo headed to Asbury Park to celebrate with their children and spouses. Bob just smiled and said it was such an unbelievable time. When I asked Ceil what their marital recipe was she responded, “We take it one day at a time… we are blessed and lucky. Our children know where we are when they need us and we’re there.” They joked when they referenced the show, Everybody Loves Raymond. Their house was the opposite of Ray’s Romano’s house because their door is always open to their children who live in such close proximity to them. Dana lives next door, Adam lives down the street, Casey and Gavin reside in Toms River neighborhoods, and Bailey living the furthest in Manahawkin. How lucky are they!
Closeness has afforded them the opportunity to help their children with some of the life’s struggles. Recently, two obstacles were the cancer diagnoses of their daughter in law, Kelly and then their son, Gavin. This married couple has taken on both cancer battles with might and muscle; first, Kelly, who is now cancer free, and recently, Gavin who has been diagnosed with NonHodgen’s Lymphoma, a treatable but incurable type of cancer. All the Tormollan’s have been a stronghold of support and love for each other. This past spring, Adam and his wife, Lori, organized a fundraiser for Gavin where over 500 people came to support him. All his brothers and sisters rallied for this occasion to help make this such a huge success. Again, Bob speaks about his children’s familial closeness and the love they have for each other. Their unity extends into their community and it is evident that they have learned this from their parents.
Speaking of communities, Bob is a Toms River guy who is very much part of his community. He says his neighborhood is a throwback to the old days where all the neighbors come out to celebrate the holidays or special events together. They need very little excuse to meet in someone’s back yard and have an old fashioned horse shoe toss. Last year, the Asbury Park Press wrote a story, specifically about one such neighbor, named Barbara Carlino, who celebrated her 100 birthday on New Year’s Day. This tight knit neighborhood honored her with a big bash. Bob was quoted in the article expressing how much Barbara means to all of them. Truly, a special place to live! A sense of community is key to living a fulfilling life. And Bob’s neighborhood is living proof.
Since Bob has been retired, I asked him if he and Ceil have been traveling. His response was he didn’t like to travel. As a young boy, they travelled a bit, because his father was in the Army. He lived in Okinawa, for a few months, but his father continued his military duty abroad, while he, his mom and his siblings, settled in to live with his grandparents on a 33 acre farm in Middlesex County. He loved the openness of the outdoors. His grandparents also had a summer home in North Lavallette and there he continued to relish the ocean through the spring until late fall. One of his son’s, Casey seems to take after his father in this respect. Enjoying the outdoors, Casey began his pool construction and renovation business and has won numerous awards for his design and building. When he speaks about Ceil and his children, their spouses and of course his grandchildren (6 boys), he speaks with a sincerity and honesty, not boastful just proud. His sense of home and the family are the most important to him.
It surprises me how he fits in his daily workouts with all his family and friends, but he called TR Fitness his home away from home. He said, “It’s hard for people to understand this place if they have never experienced it. The atmosphere, the people, the staff, and of course, Ray and Shelley, Jill and Kevin all contribute to such a welcoming environment.” You want to be here, and when you’re not- people notice.” I could see this as we spoke. The number of people coming over to Bob was evidence to his place in this special community.
Whenever Shelly gives me a name to interview, I am so blown away by the people who walk amongst us at TR Fitness. With all their diverse talents and wise perceptions of the world, I find there are some common denominators in all their personalities. Positivity is the utmost characteristic that stands out, but it’s coupled with courage and hope. Courage to attempt to do whatever it is they deem important, knowing that if they did not try, they would not be satisfied in themselves; their willingness to dig deep and try the unfamiliar. Hope? They see hope in all. In themselves and in us to be something better today than we were yesterday. Hope gives them the strength and confidence. Beth Patterson, otherwise known as Bubs or Bubbie, is another one of those true spirited souls who consistently finds new ways to be mindful of her place in the world. Let me give you a glimpse of this lovely lady.
Beth, originally from the Oranges, began her career in interior design when she started working for Transart Industries or TransDesigns, a company that flourished in the late 1970’s through the 1980’s, as a multi-level art and accessories organization. This job taught her the basics and gave her the courage to venture out and establish her own independent interior design company. It was gutsy and scary at the same time, but Beth was raised in a home where renovations were ongoing. Work brought her into the homes of some of the loveliest people. She developed friendly relationships with her clients, by learning to regard their ideas and how they imagined their homes could be. Some clients flew her to their new homes in Georgia and Ohio. Many times she would be invited to clients’ parties where she met some of the rich and famous, but Beth saw them as regular people. They respected her talents and appreciated her hard work and artistic invention. Her business continued for over twenty years. When I asked her about the joy this path brought her she said, “I always tried to leave something better than I found it.” She said one of the funny things about scheduling her clients was that she had to “work around their gym schedule.” At the time she thought this was an odd request, but now that she is a frequent flier at TR Fitness, she wholeheartedly understands how important gym time is.
Speaking of gym time, Beth began her membership with the Brick Fitness Center in 2001. When that facility closed, Shelley invited those members to join the Toms River location. Taking this opportunity, she has never looked back. She has tried new classes, like TRX and Dance Aerobics in addition to her old standby, Zumba. Here she has been reunited with the old Zumba tribe from Brick, recently tearing up the dance floor at Deenna’s wedding- one big happy family!
Beth might be called a creative nature spirit for many reasons. She lived on a farm in Colts Neck from 1990 through 1998. After an open house visit to a dilapidated Victorian farmhouse, Beth and her husband decided to take on this massive project where they restored the farmhouse to its original historic condition. Naming it First Glance Farm, it became a wonderful gathering place for friends and family. Children loved to visit, not only for the Gingerbread house parties, but also to see the fainting goats and pot belly pigs.
When it came time to “move their tent” off they headed to explore Williamsburg, Virginia for a few years. Soon, New Jersey called her to return and once again renovated their home, and happily, Beth reunited with her gym ladies. All this time, Beth continued her artist endeavors but a terrible fall from her attic opening to the garage’s concrete floor, left her with broken ribs and a fractured pelvis. Luckily, she was able to buttscoot into the house and wait for help. Beth knew she would have been worse off if she was not in shape from working out routinely. And so, within a month she was back at the gym,albeit with a walker.
Beth lives in Brick with her husband, Pete. They have two married daughter; Bridgitte who lives in Maryland, and Kelly who lives in Shrewsbury, New Jersey. She stays connected with her grandchildren, especially her grandson, Brody by volunteering at the Allaire Community Farm . When Beth starts talking about this place her whole face lights up! She began her service there in 2019 looking for something special to do with Brody. This farm is a “ sanctuary where passionate people make an impact on their community by creating an encouraging environment that fosters healing and hope.” Here, JoAnn and Sean Burney, founders of the farm, utilize their rescue animals and create a working farm environment through educational programs that focus on animal therapy, equine therapy and organic gardening, besides teaching farming skills. Community members from all walks of life can learn how a farm functions by “nurturing with nature.” Beth started her journey there in the petting barn and now she and Brody introduce the visitors to all the new baby animals. They love it there because it really serves so many walks of life. Beth is always thinking of new ways to help this farm. Recently, she has been designing little miniature gardens from roasting pans filled with herbs. This endeavor has helped raise needed funds for the farms.
When I called the farm and spoke to Alison, the sole employee, she could not say enough about Beth’s positive qualities. First and foremost, she told me what a big help she is and knows where to jump in with such willingness. When I asked if Beth’s own farming experiences helped her, she commented that Beth is a wonderful person no matter where she is or what she does. Never a negative comment- always positive and has such a connection with the visitors. Alison went on to say that Beth is very family based and wished she was part of her family. As much as Beth and Brody get from volunteering, Allaire Community Farm reaps all the best of Beth!
As I entered the gym this morning, I saw a watercolor painting sitting on the sign in desk. And sure enough, I look down at the signature and its Beth Patterson. She never ceases to amaze! Another passion is her art. She began watercolor lessons four years ago. Coincidently, it was at Brick Fitness where she found Rose Reilly Leonard’s card posted on the notice board. When the opportunity presented itself, she jumped at the chance to learn from Rose and never regretted that decision.
Like I mentioned in the opening of this piece, by being in her company, you can feel Beth’s positivity. “Life lets you know what you need to do sometimes, you just have to be present and pay attention.” She ended with this story from her 50th High School Reunion when a classmate, who she barely knew, came up to her and said, “You were always so kind to me.” She recalled that it was not an effort, just a natural act. But as she reflected, she said, “You never know how you impact someone’s life… pay attention to the signs.” Thanks, Beth for being a sign to all of us here at TR Fitness.
If you have had the pleasure of meeting George Paleoxaris at the gym, you would come away
from the experience with a sweet smile on your face. George is a man who has dealt with
adversity, but with composure and strength, coupled with a very devoted woman he married
some forty years ago, he has developed into a TR Fitness Hero.
I don’t think George had plans of leaving his beloved Greece if it wasn’t for playing tour guide to
a group of New Jersey teachers in the spring of 1977. Lo and behold, this is when he met
Anne, one of those teachers who he escorted to the top of Mount Lycabettus. The days were
spent together: learning the napkin dance, feasting on fruit, honey and wine, and visiting all the
Athenian sites. All this while falling in love.
When Anne made a return visit to Athens in August of that year to meet George’s family, it
sealed the deal for this couple. Anne told George that he would have to come to the United
States to live. Plans were made but it was an arduous task. At first, the Greek government
would not allow George to leave without a sponsor. So Anne procured all the necessary
documents and in June of 1978, George was given a passport with a deadline of three months
to marry Anne. Again, Anne made all the arrangements. Finally, when George arrived and
moved in with his brother, Nick, who lived in Astoria, he had second thoughts because he was
robbed. He told Anne he didn’t know if he could marry her because of the robbery; all his
trepidations set in. Life here was so unlike his life in Greece, but Anne allayed his fears and
continued making the wedding preparations at St. Justin’s Church in Toms River. But again, it
wasn’t smooth sailing. The priest who was to marry them was in a terrible accident. But they
prevailed and were married on September 16, 1978. A year after their marriage in the States,
they headed back to Greece to be married in the Greek Orthodox Church. Here, they were able
to celebrate with George’s family in the traditional Greek way.
George settled back in New Jersey and had a job as a waiter in a Greek restaurant at the Citi
Corp Building in New York City. Soon after that, he landed a position at the Waldorf Astoria as a
waiter in the ballroom. When I asked him if he enjoyed his work, his face lit up and began to
spout off all the presidents, celebrities and criminals he met while working. The parties that
were held there would have been prime time reality show material if it existed back then.
George loved his job and stayed for almost twenty years. Sometimes, his daughter, Christin
would visit him after work because she was studying communications at NYU.
In August of 2002, while preparing for Christin’s graduation party, tragedy struck. George
slipped and fell and hit his head. He was rushed to the hospital and a brain scan revealed a
brain stem tumor. . MRIs were given every three months to monitor the tumor. The doctors
could not operate. Dr. Hartwell, a physician at Community Medical Center, recommended Dr.
Jeffrey Bruce, a neurosurgeon at Columbian Presbyterian Hospital to review George’s case.
Anne also took George to two other neurosurgeons but decided on Dr. Bruce. On July 7, 2003,
Dr. Bruce decided it was time to operate. The operation took 16 hours to remove the tumor.
After the surgery, George was paralyzed on his left side with damage to his eye. Anne was
there every day for seven weeks nurturing him back to health. Anne knew she had to go back to
her teaching position so she brought him home and took care of him. She carried him up the
stairs every night. Her eyes give way to memories as she tells how she transported him
because he refused to sleep without her. When you think of “married love” you can see how
these two people epitomize those vows “for better or worse.” All of her actions made it possible
for George to live with the dignity and respect he deserved. And you can see his trust and
adoration for her.
George had outpatient care at Toms River Community Hospital Physical Therapy where he
learned to walk again, using crutches. In May of 2004, he joined Toms River Fitness. Anne
would bring him at night so she could have him exercise in the pool. Soon, he was there two
hours a day working on the machines to build his strength. Again, when the spirited will is
strong, the rest of it follows.
Family is one of the most important parts of their Anne and George’s lives. Their daughter,
Christin, a teacher, her husband Tom King, a Seaside Park Police officer and their two children,
Evan, eight years old and Liam, six years old, live nearby. They love celebrating Greek holidays
with their family.
Now, George travels with his retired bride. They went to Greece this past summer and took the
family to their apartment in Piraeus. He still has family there so it keeps him linked to his
birthplace. More travel plans are in the works when George is not cooking or gardening or
coming to the gym. He specializes in Greek dishes and taught Anne many of them but she says
he is the better cook! He has a talent for sewing which he learned from his father who was a
tailor in Greece. Anne started to talk about the all the Greek parables and remedies he shares
from his mother and father, passing down traditions and customs from his beloved Greece.
George is an exemplar for all of us who second guess ourselves. Shelley calls him, “Her hero
because he tries so hard and never gives up. He always has a smile on his face – a true
gentleman.” She’s right because his kind demeanor is outwardly present. You can feel it. And
when he speaks about the gym he sees all the people among us who are positive and willing to
lend a hand. He knows it’s one of the best places to be.
If you ever decided to come to the gym in the early hours, I mean 4:30 am, you would know Donna Merceron. She is the face of the early morning crew and has been since the gym’s inception. Everyone in the morning knows and loves Donna, and Donna makes it a point to know you. Let me begin with her story …. Many years ago, Donna and a girlfriend received two weeks free trial to work out at the New Woman Gym. Up until this point, Donna never worked out before and she really enjoyed using the weight machines. She decided to stay with the gym but her girlfriend did not. That never stopped her in this new routine which started over 30 years ago. When that gym closed, Donna remembers Shelley telling her and 15 other members that if they joined the their gym they would add an aerobic room to replace one of the racquet ball courts. Eventually, a spin class was added. Needless to say, this started Donna’s fitness path and she never looked back.
At the time Donna was in her twenties, single, her maiden name was Sharkey, and she worked as the office manager for the State Department of Labor. Originally from Newark then Belleville, she moved to Toms River in 1974. Afterwards, she settled in Forked River then Lanoka Harbor, where she now resides with her husband, Jeff and her son Devin, 24 when he’s home from Rowan University. I cannot help but wonder where all this time has gone in our friendship because Donna was one of my first friends
at TR Fitness and we have weathered life together for 30 years. I remember her pregnancy, the death of her parents, her shoulder and back surgeries, her retirement party, all memories from an early morning habit that became a lifelong bond.
I have known Donna Merceron the longest of all my friends at TR Fitness. I knew I wanted to tell her story, but felt I should wait because I didn’t want to just pick my friends. So when I approached Shelley about suggestions, the first name she recommended to me was Donna, asking me if knew her.
Needless to say, this assignment was pure destiny! I was so taken with it because you rarely see Donna later than 8 am and I didn’t know about her relationship with Shelley and their mutual admiration, but I certainly understand it. Donna is the type of person who makes it a point to ask someone a question and actually listen to what they say. When I asked her what was it that draws people to her, she responded, “I talk, then I ask questions and I kind of make people talk to me. I never pressure anyone. I’m nonjudgmental and I don’t try to give my opinion, I pick up on something or someone they mention and I just listen.” She forgot to mention that she has an uncanny memory and writes down birthdays in her calendar book. In fact, one year she gave me a book with our friend’s birthdays so I would remember. So Donna!
One of Donna’s toughest struggles was her back surgery almost two years ago. The surgery lasted eleven hours. Donna stayed in the hospital for 5.5 days. When the doctor released her, he allowed her to go home instead of sending her to rehabilitation. The doctor knew what an extraordinary patient she was and he knew she would follow his marked instructions. He still refers to her as his Poster Child for Recovery. She knew she had to get back to where she was health wise, and would not accept
defeat. But when Donna does reflect about this time, she speaks about it with such a silent sincerity. “It was my gym friends that visited and took walks with me when I was able. Candy came every week and brought dinner and dessert (gluten free for my son). Gary drove me to visit the morning crew when I couldn’t drive. They were the ones that helped me recover. They were the ones that helped me recover. I knew my friends were waiting for me and I had to get back to them.” She repeats the famous Beatle line; “I get by with a little help from my friends.” And sure enough she did. She credits them, but I also know it was
Donna’s resiliency and determination that helped in her recovery. Today, for Donna to walk five or six miles on a beautiful day is a cinch. She has a positive attitude that’s truly contagious. Donna knows her stuff. Whenever I take a class I will stand behind her because she knows what she’s doing and I try hopelessly to imitate her. People are drawn to her because they know
she is kind. Her friends at TR Fitness range from ages 30 to 85, with no age barrier. She’s a hugger and it’s so natural to her. She continues to welcome the crazy 5:00 am crew each day and when she sees a new January member she encourages them and tells them to stick to it because it is all worth the effort. I asked Donna what her husband, Jeff and her son, Devin think about her routine each morning? She laughs and says, “This is my world and they don’t interfere.” She heard her husband say to her son one day, “Aren’t you glad Mom’s not frumpy?” She laughed when she heard that. I said it was so true. So if you ever find yourself unable to go back to sleep and decide to get an early jump start on the day, (like 4:30 or 5:00 a.m.) just know a friendly, kind, petite woman will smile and ask you your name. That will be Donna.
COUCH CREW MEMBER
This story is being told by a group of devoted truehearted members of TR Fitness as they remember their very good friend and compatriot, Lou Taranto. I hope I can honor Lou, with his story, but also honor this group of friends because they were willing to share their insights and help me paint a picture of this gentleman, who was admired by so many. As I sit among this select group, they begin to tell their tales of their travelling escapades, birthday breakfasts and coffee discussions humbling themselves while honoring their friend. Marisa Curran, Dan Libonati, Chester Coddington and Ed Gandolfi all share one major thing in common, their love for this very special man.
At their morning meetings, they would take their places on the couch or around the table near the coffee counter at TR Fitness, staggering times of workouts before or after their coffee. Lou would always work out before he met with the gang. His competitive nature made this a daily routine, even when he had chemo treatments because he didn’t want to give in to it. When someone was complaining about an ache or pain, he would tell them to deal with it! To Lou, weakness was not acceptable. He always believed in giving it his best.
Sometimes, others skipped the workouts, but never the daily rituals or a chance to kibitz with each other. Their camaraderie was inspiring but oh, so funny. They liked to banter and kid each other where it became contagious. Sometimes they did it for show. Eddie Gandolfi tells how they would go back and forth busting on each other in the locker room. Lou had to have locker #25 so Eddie took #27. Lou would make fun of Eddie, but Eddie gave it right back, all in good fun and used it to entertain the locker room audience. This jocularity kept them all in check. Sports was a big topic at the coffee sessions. Lou and Chester were big Yankee fans, while Eddie cheered for the Mets. So that was another ribbing session. Never mean or nasty, always amusing, in good fun with challenging wit at the forefront.
This gathering started lightheartedly, as they told funny stories about their antics inside and outside the gym. Birthday breakfast celebrations at the Bandwagon or the celebrant’s choice were ongoing throughout the year. The group planned days trips within the tri- state area, places like: the Yogi Berra Museum, Philadelphia’s Sugar Hill, a Yankee Game, even Ruts Hut for hot dogs! ( It was unanimous, they all thought the hot dogs were terrible!) They took numerous trips to Las Vegas where Lou would meet up with his son Glen, who lived in California and have a chance to spend time with him. Then, there were the weekly jaunts to Atlantic City. Sometimes they even took a limo to AC with Dan Libonati at the helm. Lou liked the slots. Some of the other guys liked to play cards, but they would meet up after gambling and have a dinner to cap off their day. During the holidays, the gentlemen would bring their better halves and share in a holiday dinner. They enjoyed each other’s company and as they spoke the loss of Lou became more evident.
Marisa, the lone lady in the group, said that Lou was her best male friend who she looked up to. “Lou cared about all of us. He would call to check on us if we weren’t at the gym for a few days.” When I asked if he was tech savvy, Marisa laughed the loudest. Lou would ask her to help him delete texts from his flip phone. When his son bought him a new phone, (after Lou decided to go to AC by himself,without telling anyone) and caused a bit of panic, Marisa was the one who taught him how to use it.
After serving in the Marine Corps, Lou joined the State Troopers in 1958. He worked his way up the ladder from patrolman, to detective, to major and then to lieutenant colonel and instituted many of the divisions within the department that exist today. He received many accolades for his service. There were some stories that Lou shared with Bob Barnes from his early days on the job. Once, Lou got shot in the line of duty, along with two other officers. When they were called down to headquarters, they thought it might be for a commendation but in actuality it was a stern warning, “Don’t let this happen again or you might be fired!” Not needing to be told twice, Lou continued his police career and for all his years of outstanding service was awarded one of the highest honors bestowed upon a State Trooper.
Yet, beneath his proud exterior existed one of the kindest guys you could ever meet. Bob Barnes tells another story about Lou when Bob was just starting out as a rookie trooper. Rookies had to bare the brunt of the more seasoned officers, where they ignored you or wanted you to figure it out on your own. But Lou was different. He would help you and teach you to do things better or easier, and he did for anyone on the job. Even when the schedule was 84 hours a week, Lou lived for the job. Chester Coddington told a story when they took a field trip to the State Troopers Museum and Lou was showing the guys around, Chester asked the on duty officer if he knew who Lou was. When Chester told him, the young officer came to attention. But Lou felt a bit awkward over it. That’s the kind of guy he was. As the first Lieutenant Colonel in the history of the New Jersey State Troopers, Lou loved his job and excelled in it. Retirement didn’t sit well with him, so he took on a police related position as Public Safety Director in numerous New Jersey towns after his 31 years on the State Police. Still, his passion for his profession was handed down to his son, Lou, a retired State trooper and his grandson, Lou, a Toms River police officer. Both named after a man they were so very proud of.
Lou he had an uncanny memory, read voraciously, mostly military biographies and histories, and was extremely smart. Dan told stories where Lou could remember dates, cases, specific details regardless of the time span. Dan tried to convince him to write a book. But Lou was actually helping another trooper who was writing a book, supplying details and data that Lou had no problem recollecting. Dan said during their lunches or summer weekend get togethers he would tell stories with such vivid descriptions his listeners were captivated by them; he told it with wit and wisdom that gripped one’s attention .
In fact, Dan knew Lou many years ago growing up in Howell where Lou was stationed at the barracks. There was a place called Pete’s Diner that had a pinball machine where all the kids in the neighborhood would go and hang out. Lou’s job was to chase these kids, including Dan, away from the diner because it was bothering the customers. Now, years later, Lou and Dan became best buds from meeting in the gym. Then they realized they lived a few blocks from each other in Holiday City. The longer we live the smaller our world gets.
Lou had a few quirks. He was a change man. Empty cigar boxes filled with coins. When the group was explaining, I said a coin collector? They started to laugh! No just change. One day, Lou had Dan take him to the bank to cash in some of his change. “He comes out with a heavy canvas bag ready to head to the TD Bank coin machine. Sure enough he had $700 worth of change!” The guys knew how he was always looking down for change that one of the kidders, Domenic, decided to walk ahead and leave a trail of coins. Unbeknownst to Lou, he found the discarded coins and told the guys how lucky he was that day! They all just laughed!
Lou was also meticulous in his appearance and fastidious with his car. He drove a Chrysler 300 and when one of the guys saw a similar car in the parking lot, they knew it couldn’t Lou’s because it wasn’t pristine enough. Lou liked his cigars and would smoke out in his man cave garage while puffing a De Nobili. Dan remembers riding his bike over to see him watching television with cigar in hand. When Lou passed, Dan asked Lou’s wife, Elizabeth, if he could have something to remember him by. She gave Dan Lou’s pen knife, which he always carried, and a cashed check made out to Dan signed by Lou from one of their many trips. “He was my best friend and I looked up to him.”
Their care and concern for each other is enviable. Here such affable and good natured people express their genuine sincerity for Lou with candor and ease and of course, sprinkled humor. They were honored to be his friend. Lou belonged to many groups (Retired Troopers, American Legion), but they felt privileged to be the ones he wanted to be with, making it all the more sweet. But to be honest, Lou was the lucky one to have these compadres as his everyday, without a doubt, wonderful people in his life. This type of friendship is something so treasurable, it’s hard to classify because it was such an active element in their lives. There friendship was easy and natural, making it harder to live without. His spot on the couch stays empty but these people will hold their memories of Lou Taranto close to their hearts.
Chester’s wife, Sue told me how hard Lou’d death has been on her husband. When I asked the group if they wanted to say anything for the good of the order, Chester added, “I knew him the longest, over 35 years, and he was my best friend. I really miss him.”
For me, it’s wrought with emotions. I didn’t know Lou but I feel like I did after this conversation. Their kind words and willingness to share their stories symbolize another reason for coming to our gym. We can only hope to have such friendships in life and treasure them because they feel so rare.
Ray and Shelley Lynnworth
Who would have thought two young Brooklynites would have changed the health and fitness
community of Toms River, New Jersey some forty years ago. Call it fate, smarts, vision or courage their
story is one of love, chance, hopes and dreams. I’m talking about Ray and Shelley Lynnworth,
proprietors of TR Fitness and Aquatics. Their story is one that exemplifies hard work and passion
coupled with perseverance and resiliency. They have loved their job from the get go. I’d like to tell you
about how it all began at a Halloween party almost 60 years ago.
Ray grew up in Brooklyn and went to Brooklyn Tech High School. Shelley Solomon returned to Brooklyn
after spending her elementary school years in Toms River, where she would sell lilacs from her family’s
chicken farm. She returned to her birthplace; her father had passed away and her mother and brother
decided to open up a donut business in the city. Shelley was extremely shy. She remembers a time
when she called the Toms River Community Movie Theater to check on viewing times and she became
so flustered she couldn’t get words out.
But, fate was destined for these youngsters. Meeting at a Halloween party, Ray asked Shelley if she
would go to another party; he needed a date to attend. Shelley didn’t know this at the time, but later
found out his ulterior motive. After these dates, she was invited to Ray’s home to meet his family.
Shelley was so taken by Ray’s father’s creative gadgets, (an electric hand dryer), she thought he was
wealthy. When returning home, she exclaimed, “Mom, he’s really rich!’’ Little did she know that on her
second visit, when she made it into the living room, she saw beach chairs as furniture, and then she
realized her faux pas. But that didn’t stop the relationship from blooming. Each headed off to college.
Ray attended NYU for electrical engineering; Shelley attended Brooklyn College for teaching. Ray’s
mother saw their relationship maturing and also objected to Ray’s slacking off in studying. She thought it
would be best for them to get married so they could focus on themselves and their educations.
Sometimes mothers know best! So they were married on September 7, 1963.
After graduation, Shelly taught in Rockaway, New Jersey, while Ray worked as an electrical engineer at
the Singer Company. They moved to Parsippany, New Jersey. During visits to Shelley’s sister’s family in
Toms River, they both liked the family life style they saw. Shelley was pregnant with Jill when they made
the move to Toms River. Ray worked at his brother-in-law’s business, Good Friend Electric. Then Randy
was born two years later.
As they entered their thirties, both were looking for something to call their own. They were active in the
TR community, specifically the YMCA. Ray was a successful gymnast in high school so he took these skills
to the YMCA, where he and Shelly became well known in the gymnastic programs showcasing gymnastic
exhibitions in Ocean County. In fact, Ray was the Vice President at the YMCA.
Never afraid to enter into an unknown arena, Ray and Shelley researched and studied different
businesses. After playing racquetball at Kangaroo Courts in Brick, Ray thought this might be the
business venture for him and Shelly. The sport was fun and physical and had new possibilities. Ray’s dad
and brother were avid handball players so he knew the fascination and fast pace with this type of sport.
It was December 1978 when they opened their doors to
Toms River. Members became friends and friends became second family. So many waking hours were
spent at the front desk or at Ray’s desk. Shelly remembers Ray complaining that she needed to make
the kids’ lunches somewhere else because she kept getting mustard on his important paperwork! It was
their energy and effort that created an atmosphere where people wanted to come thru their doors.
Each day brought new challenges for them but they were ever so grateful for this chance.
After twenty years, two children, two desks and two cars, Ray said the last two make for a happy
marriage, in 1982, life threw them a devastating curve ball. Randy, age 14 was diagnosed with a brain
tumor. He was taken to Sloan Kettering where surgery removed the tumor but put Randy in a coma.
Both remember those three months not knowing or thinking about the business. “That’s when you
know you have good people helping you when you need it most.” When they brought Randy home,
after surgery in a coma, he was unable to speak or move much. Then one day when Shelly was lying
next to him, she heard him say, “I’m hungry.” She was awe struck. Frantic to tell someone she started
screaming, “Where’s Jill? I have to tell Jill…” Randy said, “She’s over Laura’s …shocked, Shelly realized he
heard his sister tell his mom before she left. Randy’s disabilities kept him in a wheelchair but they didn’t
hold him down. He was a thinker… He had dreams of opening a video store…he kept involved with his
buds at school… and at their small camp… and he attended school for the next four years until the
cancer came back. Randy passed in April 1986. He was 18 years old.
“No matter what you might expect it to be, it will come out differently, it’s not what you think.” Ray
uttered these words while Shelly nodded in agreement. It took both of them time to function and gain
their footing again, but you are never the same after the death of a child. Randy lives on in their hearts
and through Team Randy. This endeavor started when Ray and Shelly hired a young strapping fellow to
do activities with Randy and his teenage friends. At first, they thought it might be for wheelchair bound
kids, but Randy wanted it for all kids. Team Randy became a New Jersey nonprofit corporation and
serves the community to this day as a travel summer camp for challenged teens.
Something was happening to the racquetball craze. Although Nielson ratings counted 12 million
participants in 1982 the number of participants in 1984 declined by 2.6 million and continued to
descend. Ray and Shelly knew they had to be creative, so they started introducing aerobic classes, spin
instruction, Nautilus and Wally ball and basketball in the courts. But by 1997, they knew they had to
change the venue to survive in a tough competitive industry. At that time Mandy’s Clothing Store
became available. Here they were putting it all on the line, again. Smart and gutsy, resourceful Ray
found a way to pull this gamble off. “If it weren’t for American Express checks… I used those checks until
we opened in January. Because we were so well received, I knew we could pay the employees and make
all of this work.” Work never scared them. “I guess I always knew we could always work. We started at
eighteen so it was nothing new to us.”
Sadly, Shelley remembers a racquetball member telling her, “I hope you fail.” That devastating
comment made her realize just what people felt when they closed the doors to the old building. But
they needed to make a living and sure enough, Toms River Fitness came into play. Their willingness to
attempt enterprises with such insight goes beyond many of us. The club now has over 100 classes, over
100 employees, 2 beautiful pools, saunas, and most importantly all the members all under the same
roof. Creative and innovative thinking has kept it all alive. Knowing the trends in the health and fitness
fields have made them one of the premiere exercise spots for all of us.
Curious about their hiring techniques, I asked them what they look for in when hiring staff. Shelley says
kindness. She tells me she hired Cathy Morris because she had the best smile. Cathy is one of the club’s
longest employees. Ray mentions Sue Minnitti, office worker, massage therapist and spin instructor.
“When she was a teenager, her dad was our milkman and asked if I could give her a job.” How many
years ago was that? Sue still has one of the best smiles when she greets us at the front desk. When I
mention Jill, Ray beams; Shelly smiles. He talks about her sitting next to him shoulder to shoulder in the
office. Their mutual love and respect are apparent.
What are the key ingredients here? “Make people feel welcomed… show kindness… be able to listen…
exhibit an openness and have a grateful attitude… be nonjudgmental… interact with those who might be
alone.” Shelly specifically shows concerns when she speaks about many of the seniors who are club
members and dear friends. “The friendships here at “Fitness” are the best. When one of our ladies is
not here for a few days, a friend or I will check on her. We are a community who gets healthy together
and are there for each other.” Just take a look at the coffee area. Each hour shows the friendships and
great conversations that take place. You can always see Shelley listening in at the tables and adding her
words of kindness flavored with a bit of wisdom. A natural progression takes place here.
So their story continues every time one of them walks through the door. Many of you know them
dearly and some recognize them as acquaintances, but whatever the relation you have with these two,
you will find them genuine to the core. I asked them what might surprise us about them, here’s what
they said, …One drinks the other doesn’t, one windsurfs and makes a fabulous pizza! The other is a
master soup chef and gardener. Both are independent thinkers… but one thing that brings them their
greatest joy is the love for their grandson, Brian!