Some people who played stickball with Draper in the mid-1950s remember him as a skinny kid with whom they played baseball on Meadow Lane. He was born and raised on Hops Lane before going off to a private academy in Connecticut.
Few of his friends at the time suspected Draper of secretly working out in his room at home, and fewer ever thought this skinny kid would turn out to become the premier body builder in the 1960s, such a poster boy for the rapidly growing industry that he would win titles such as Mr. New Jersey, Mr. America, Mr. World and Mr. Universe, and the nickname "The Blond Bomber." Few would imagine him becoming one of the most recognized bodybuilders in the country, gracing the covers of scores of magazines with guest appearances on TV shows such as The Monkees and the Beverly Hillbillies or as an actor in movies.
"[Neighbor] Rick Vogel and I used to play stickball with him on Meadow Lane," recalled Mayor Dennis Elwell last week, reacting to the news that Draper was coming into the area on a book tour.
Draper is the author of two books, Your Body Revival and Brother Iron, Sister Steel. He is also a columnist for several publications,
Draper will appear at Barnes and Noble in Edgewater on Aug. 24 at 2 p.m. and at West Paterson Barnes and Noble on Aug. 25 at 2 p.m. to talk about his two books on bodybuilding.
Draper, who lived in Secaucus for about 21 years, started lifting weights when he was about 12. Although he once described Secaucus as a place full of "immigrant pig farmers and the place New York City dumped its trash," he sounded very nostalgic during a telephone interview last week.
"I've not been back in that area in over 15 years," he said. "I'm going to have go down and wander through the old neighborhoods and see how much it has changed. I'm told it has grown quite a bit since I left there."
Twelve pounds at birth
Draper was born in Secaucus in 1942, the youngest of three brothers. He weighted 12 pounds at birth. His father, a former merchant marine, was lay preacher and salesman. Draper remembers running along the banks of the Hackensack River and climbing trees. He lived on Hops Lane for about 16 years, then resided near Marra's Drug Store for a short time after he graduated from prep school.
Despite the fact that Draper did not really want to go to school, he started school early at 4 and graduated early at 16. He often played basketball and baseball in the neighborhood. He said he had a hard time batting, and eventually traded a baseball bat for barbells. He had simple goals then: survival. He wanted to build big and strong arms and get tough. This motivated him to buy his first set of barbells and set his mind on training.
Weights fascinated him, he said. The sound of them clanking, the feel of their heaviness, even the push and pull. He felt very secretive about the act, a private venture he could do alone. He was working as a delivery boy for a grocery store in Hoboken, when Hoboken was a tough place.
No one else he knew lifted weights at the time. So he had no one to tell him what to do, or when or how. He lifted weights right through high school. Oddly enough, he hid his muscular build during those days, revealing himself only in the gym. He didn't see himself as becoming Mr. America, and didn't see such men as his heroes. He didn't even read a bodybuilding magazine until he was 20.
But several local kids did inspire him, including Anthony Napierski and Tony Petrowski.
"They had gnarly arms and demanded a lot of respect," he said.
The road to success
Draper worked out in his home for years until he began to attend the WMCA in Elizabeth, where he met Joe Dinetta, Mr. New Jersey at the time. He trained with Dinetta for a summer.
He briefly attended Weehawken High School, since Secaucus lacked its own high school at the time. He said the school had baseball, football, basketball and wrestling, but no weights. The prep school he attended in Avon, Connecticut in 1958 lacked weights as well. But the school allowed him to bring his own, which he kept under his bed. His first job working for a gym was as the weekend manager at Vic Tanny, on Journal Square in Jersey City in 1961. They just hired him, handed him a key, and told him he was manager. He trained at Tanny until it closed
He then got a job at Square D for three years, one of the larger employers in Secaucus at the time.
"I worked as a welder and in the shipping department," he recalled, noting that his career change came during a summer vacation. "I went up to the offices of Weider Barbell Company in Union City to buy more weights."
The owner of the local Weider asked him to work during his vacation, and he took up a job as a shipping clerk. And in a moment destined to become myth, the boss walked out during a break and found Draper and others doing dumbbell exercises in the corner of the small warehouse. Draper's blond hair and innocent-looking face struck something in the boss. Draper seemed to symbolize the boy next door, and the boss believed he would make a good symbol for the company. It was here he got the nickname "the Blond Bomber."
"A month later I was on the cover of Mr. America magazine," Draper said.
When the company traveled to the West Coast, so did Draper, where he soon found himself in the middle of what has since been called "the golden age of bodybuilding." He carried away with him the title of Mr. New Jersey.
During those years, he made several film and TV appearances, included a big budget picture with Sharon Tate in 1967, Don't Make Waves. He appeared in a dark comedy called Lord Love a Duck, and also made appearances on the Beverly Hillbillies and The Monkees TV series.
Between 1960 and 1970, he became Mr. New Jersey, David the Gladiator, Mr. America, Mr. Universe and Mr. World.
Dropping out of the rat race
After winning Mr. World in New York City in 1970, however, he sensed a shifting of fears in bodybuilding and stepped out of competition. He lost interest in competing, but not training.
"I didn't like the direction body building competition was going," he said.
Although he never stopped exercising, he soon found other things to occupy his time. He began to make oversized furniture and eventually settled in the redwood region of northern California.
"I always like developing my muscle for function as well as appearance," he said.
In 1983, after some period of alcohol and drug use, his heart stopped. He was treated for acute congestive heart failure from which he did not expect to survive. He did, although recovery took nearly two years.
Draper never stopped pumping iron. He believes the exercise and his disciplined approach helped him recover. So did his strong faith in God. In 1984, Draper met with Arnold Schwarzenegger to ask him to write the prologue to a book which he didn't get around to writing until 15 years later.
The industry he had abandoned in 1970 had become a gold rush, and he only tentatively re-entered it in 1989 when he got involved with newly opened World Gym in Santa Cruz, Calif.
Now at 60, he is still in full form, as he tours the country promoting two books he has written. He also operates two World Gyms in Santa Cruz, California.
On the book tour
Draper is touring America on what he called a fitness seminar. He said this involves his introducing people to his two books, then answering questions they might have.
The books themselves cover a variety of subjects, some of his own history, advice for young people thinking of bulking up. Actually, the two books address the needs of differing people.
"The first book deals with me, my past and laying out expert advice to young and intermediate body builders," he said. "The second book is for people who are not in condition and ought to be. It is to help overweight, out-of-shape people take responsibility for themselves, to stir them up and get them to exercise."
Both books offer practical advice about exercise and development as well as necessary nutrition.
"The only way to better shape is through exercise and nutrition. There are no secret short cuts, and it does not happen easily," he said. "But you can learn to enjoy exercise, and you can learn to make it part of your daily routine."
At the height of his career, he weighed 235 pounds, and had already been named Mr. America when steroids came into fashion. While he did steroids, he did them only under the supervision of doctors, and found that they tended to work against natural development. He is against their use by young inexperienced bodybuilders. He believes in frequent, high protein meals throughout the day.
Draper said getting into shape required a change of lifestyle, making positive changes while avoiding those things that will not help you.
"My books are about what to do and how to stick to the routine," he said.