Club Insider

Norm Cates, Jr.

75 Years and Still Kickin'!

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  • The Cates Family Through The Years
  • Norm Cates, Jr. and the Late Coach George Flood
  • The 50th Reunion of the 1967 N.C. State Wolfpack Football Team that Beat the University of Georgia Bulldogs in the 1967 Liberty Bowl
  • Norm Cates, Jr. at Moody Air Force Base in 1968
  • The Courtsouth Boys! L to R - Lyle Ray Irwin, Norm Cates, Rich Boggs and Fred Streck (Seated)
  • The Cates Family
  • Make It Fun!

One's life is the aggregate of the experiences, lessons and people met and affected along the way. And, a life well lived is one that fills each of these categories with a plethora of stories and shared experiences. The life of my Dad, Norm Cates, Jr., is one that has been well lived, and I am thankful it is one that continues on.

In honor of his 75th Birthday on January 17, 2021, this month's cover story will share his life to date with you. Now, 75 years in, his experiences, lessons and the people he has met and affected along the way can fill volumes, so I am going to do my best to share as much of it with you as I can in this limited space.

Sharing this milestone in my Dad's life is a top honor in my own life, so I thank you for the time you spend reading this story. Though it is long and thorough, I can promise you it is entertaining, informational and beneficial. So, once again, I invite you to grab two or three of your favorite beverages, sit in your favorite comfortable spot, and enjoy the following in-depth interview with Norm Cates, Jr.

An Interview With Norm Cates, Jr.

Club Insider (C.I.) - Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
Norm Cates (NC) - I was born in Minden, Louisiana. My Mom and Dad, Leota and Norm Cates, Sr., were visiting my Mom's parents in the small town of Springhill, Louisiana when I decided to arrive into this world. Because Springhill was a tiny town with a population of 5,600 and no hospital (but it was home of John David Crow, the 1957 Heisman Trophy Award Winner who played for Texas A&M), my Dad had to drive Mom 30 miles to the closest hospital, which was in Minden, and that's where I was blessed to enter this beautiful world.

I chuckle at the second part of the question: 'Where did I grow up?' That's kind of a long answer because my Dad was in the Air Force... So, hold onto your hats, folks! After being born in Louisiana, but having never lived there, by the time I was a Senior in high school, my family and I had lived in nine cities, including one in a foreign country... Japan.

Nine Cities

City #1 - After being born in Louisiana, I lived in Texarkana, Arkansas for three years. There, my Dad was a U.S. Air Force Recruiter.

City #2 - When I was three years old, we moved to Colorado, Springs, Colorado and lived there until I was six.

City #3 - At age six, we moved to Okinawa, Japan, and I went into the 1st grade. I have a very distinct memory from that time, even though it was 69 years ago, and it is in my mind as if it was yesterday!

On Okinawa, the home we lived in was a huge metal pipe cut in half. It was mounted to the ground with a concrete foundation, and it had doors installed in the front and the back. This dwelling was called a 'Quonset Hut.' We lived in this Quonset Hut for one year, and I also went to school in Quonset Huts after a 10-mile bus ride to the school. Well, a typhoon hit Okinawa with 140-mile per hour winds, and it lasted several hours from start to finish! The Quonset Hut we lived in had an oil burning stove/furnace for the heater, and this stove had a metal pipe smokestack sticking through the roof. On top of that pipe was a metal cone intended to keep the rain out, and it was attached with three wires. Well, the wind from the typhoon made short order of that metal cone! One of the three wires attaching the cone to the top of the smokestack broke loose, while the other two wires stayed attached. So, for several hours, while that storm was pummeling Okinawa, my Mom, Dad and Brother, the late Allen Gene (my other younger Brother, David, was not born yet), were terrorized by this metal cone making a huge clanging noise while pounding the roof of our Quonset Hut! Throughout the entire night, the incessant noise made us think our home might just blow away at any moment... with us in it!

Trust me when I say that, because of that experience at such a young age, I know what scared is. Heck, I've been piloting jet airplanes that were on fire. For sure, that was scary, but this event, for a six-year-year old, spending two or more hours not being sure if you're going to live or die is still one of the scariest things I can ever remember in my life. And, as I said, although that was 69 years ago, in my mind today, it was like it happened yesterday!

City #4 - After living in Okinawa for a year, our next stop was New Castle, Delaware. We lived there for three years where I went through the 2nd, 3rd and 4th grades.

City #5 - Fast forward three years, and the next stop for the Cates family was... drumroll... lovely Virginia Beach, Virginia! Like Okinawa, we only lived there one year while my Dad worked on jet engines on the aircraft carriers at the several U.S. Navy Ports in the Norfolk, Virginia area. I attended the 5th grade there, but my only real memory is that is where I started my first business... at age 11. Virginia Beach was a popular resort town located right on the Atlantic Ocean, so my first business was catching and selling live turtles. We lived one block away from a horseshoe-shaped lake where I would go with my net to catch a lot of turtles. They were about the size of two silver dollars, so they were not very big. Then, once I had 15 or 20 turtles in my bucket, I would ride my bike over to the beach and sell them to the local souvenir gift shops on Virginia Beach, which was only about a mile from our home. Following the sale, the souvenir shop owners would have 'Virginia Beach' painted on the back of the little turtles prior to resale. So, that's how, 67 years ago, I started my first busines.

City #6 - Next, my Dad was based at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, North Carolina. There, I enjoyed the 6th, 7th and 8th grades. The important event that happened in Goldsboro was that I started playing organized football in the 6th grade. Before that, I had played pickup tackle football games with other kids. We played without any pads or helmets at all, so that was probably a terrible idea (laughing), but what the hell, I'm still kicking and lived to talk about it. But, seriously, becoming a football player was the most important thing I've ever done in my life! (more on that later)

City #7 - Next stop... Tampa, Florida! And, as it turned out, we only lived there for TWO WEEKS! The Summer before my 9th grade school year, my Dad was transferred to MacDill Air Force in Tampa, Florida. We had just moved into a nice home my Dad had found for us. And, even though it was back in 1959, I can remember the following incident and the precise moment and conversation I had with my Dad. I was in our new home sitting on the living room floor unpacking the Encyclopedia of Britannica books my Dad had kindly purchased for my Brother, Allen, and me. Suddenly, Dad walked into the house, and he was not smiling or happy at all like he usually always was when he would come home. (My Dad was a very happy man, so to ever see him frown was quite unusual.) He was obviously disturbed about something, which at that moment, was unknown to my Mom, my Brother and me. Dad said to me, 'Chip (my nickname), you need to stop unpacking those books because I have been transferred to Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City, Florida!' So, our family started re-packing, and we immediately moved to Panama City, Florida, one of the most beautiful places on Earth! Never a DULL MOMENT for our family!

City #8 - 'Take 2' in the great State of Florida, Panama City here we come! Yahoo! So, here I was about to move to another new town, my 8th, and another new school, Jinks Junior High School, where I would have to meet and get to know another whole new group of people. I would also have to get to know new teachers, football coaches, etc. Since this was the Summer before my 9th grade of school, it was also time for me to go out for the 9th grade football team. This was where MY LIFE TRULY BEGAN because of two very lifechanging events that took place there:

1. I got a morning newspaper route delivering the Jacksonville Times Union Newspaper. Little did I know then, as a 14-year-old kid that, 40 years later, starting at age 54 in 1993, I would become a newspaper Owner and Publisher! My Dad bought me a Cruisair Motor Scooter to run my 5AM newspaper route. I pledged to repay him for that purchase, and I was determined to somehow do that!

2. Because of my early bird morning newspaper business income needing to increase, I went out and found another newspaper delivery job. This was an afternoon newspaper delivery route, which would more than double my income. Ironically, I had made the 9th grade football team as a starting linebacker and an offensive guard, so I discussed this decision with my Dad. After listening to me, he said, 'Well, Chip, this is your life, and you're going to live it. So, I'm going to leave the decision about quitting football so you can focus on your newspaper business up to you.' Foolishly, I now realize, I made the decision to pursue business instead of football!

The next day, I went to see my football coach and told him I was leaving football to make money. NOT SO FAST, MY FRIEND!!! Coach was very disturbed by that decision, and he flatly said to me he thought I was making a big mistake because he believed I had special talent as a football player. In his experienced view, I very possibly could be able to earn a full football scholarship that would pay for my entire college education, including all of my tuition, dorm room, food, books and other incidental things I needed. So, my coach immediately asked me for my home phone number and street address, because he wanted to call my Dad to set up a time to come and talk to all of us about this decision so he could explain the serious financial ramifications of the thousands and thousands of dollars I'd potentially be throwing away if I quit football.

Well, my Mom and Dad were what I can kindly describe as 'country folks' and not at all familiar with college football scholarships paying for everything a gifted high school football player would need to make it through college. Because they knew nothing about scholarships, I knew nothing about scholarships. Heck, I didn't even know what a scholarship was! So, this very good man, my 9th grade football coach at Jinks Junior High School, truly changed my life forever because being a football player, and the many disciplines (determination, hard work, leadership and plain and simple sheer guts) I gained from that experience, truly changed me as a person more than anything else I've ever done.

Without a single doubt in my mind, this was the #1 LIFE CHANGING EXPERIENCE IN MY LIFE! I truly believe what I've achieved in my life so far is because of this great 9th grade football coach. I want to tip my black hat to that fine human being and coach. So, this Panama City, Florida football experience has meant a lot to my life, and even though we only lived there for one year, it was a very important year for me personally. That year set me on a course of multiple other life achievements that I would proudly stack up with many other high achievers I've met in my nearly 75 years at this thing called life.

City #9 - Once again, we had to move... Our new home in Rome, New York was a four-block walk to Rome Free Academy High School (RFA). RFA was a big high school with 3,200 students and a very nice football stadium that could hold over 7,000 people, and in those days, we'd fill it! Plus, the RFA gym had a fantastic weightlifting facility, something I'd never seen before. That, too, changed my life! My family lived in Rome for three years until the end of my junior year, when again, in the Summer before my senior year of high school, my beloved Dad was transferred to the Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station on the coast of North Carolina. (more on that later)

When I arrived in Rome, New York in the Winter of 1961, I was in the 9th grade, and I immediately went to RFA and introduced myself to the Head Football Coach, the now late, forever-loved and one-and-only George Flood (See Photo on This Page). Ironically, Coach Flood was a former United States Marine Drill Sergeant! This great man believed in hard work and what he did as our high school coach clearly increased my pain tolerance level a great deal! That's because, when practice started in mid-August, the football team would practice three times a day for two weeks with one day off each week! Yes, that's correct... we had morning... afternoon... and early evening practices. They were called, 'three-a-days,' and they were brutal!

When I went to the first day of practice as a sophomore, like all other sophomores, I was assigned to the Junior Varsity (JV) Team. The JV Team I was assigned to started its practices separate from the Varsity but at the same time and in another area of the vast RFA Football Complex. With only two games left in the short eight-game football season mandated in Upstate Rome, New York because the snows near Canada would hit so early, Coach Flood set up a scrimmage game for the Varsity against the JV Team.

Because of my performance in that scrimmage with the Varsity, the stage was set for me to be a starter as a rising junior. During the next season, though I was only 5'11" and weighed 175 pounds, Coach Flood and the late Line Coach, Ed Weed, made me a starting offensive and defensive tackle! They told me they did that because they felt I had the ability to do both jobs, even though I weighed 55 pounds less than Tom Myslinski, who was a senior and the starting tackle on the other side of the line. He was 6'2" and weighed 230, and he went to Maryland on a full scholarship. Tom is still a friend of mine to this day. So, my junior year was a really good year because it set me up to be a second-year starter in my senior year.

Home At Last

Aside from continuing my football career, the most important thing that happened to me in Rome, New York occurred the Summer before my sophomore year, not long after my Dad had moved us there. I was at a place called Franklin Field playing baseball when I noticed that a fist fight had broken out. So, I left the game because I was interested in watching these guys fight. One of the two guys was doing a real number on the other guy. Immediately after the fight ended, because I was a new guy in town, I walked up to the guy who had clearly won and introduced myself to him. His name was Russ Marchione, and I said, 'Russ, I just saw how well you handled yourself in that fight, and I want to congratulate you! I also want to introduce myself to you and let you know that I'm a new guy in town, and I NEVER want to get into a fight with you! Okay?' He laughed and said, 'Sure. That's fine with me.' And, at that precise moment in the Summer of 1961, Russell Joseph Marchione, a truly great Italian Kid, became the BEST FRIEND OF MY ENTIRE LIFE.

Russ and I hung out together a lot for two years. We liked the same things, such as drinking beer and chasing girls. Then, something happened that changed my life for sure... I was rolling along in Rome, New York, enjoying life just fine until, one day, my Dad came home, and he had another sad look on his face. I recognized that look because I had seen it in Tampa when he/we got transferred again after just two weeks. But, because of my friendships in Rome, and my role on the RFA Football Team, this news from my Dad was much worse! That was because I was about to start my senior year of football at RFA, and I was going to be a second-year starter both ways, as a linebacker and an offensive guard. And, while I didn't know it at the time, I was destined to be elected one of two RFA Co-Captains, along with my friend, Rick Harris, our senior year. So, I really wanted to continue playing football in Rome!

Very sadly, I told my best friend, Russ, the awful news that I was having to move to a place where there were only 800 students in the entire high school. I told him how badly I wanted to play in Rome where I'd made friends with many teammates and others in the Rome community. Russ said he was very sorry to hear this bad news.

The next day, Russ and I talked again, and he said to me, 'Norm, my sister, Loretta, is going away for Nursing School, and that means we're going to have a spare bedroom available.' Russ' parents, the late Dominick and Loretta Marchione, were two of the greatest human beings who ever lived! May they both Rest In Peace. Russ continued, 'So, I talked to my Mom and Dad, and we agreed that we want to invite you to live with us your senior year at RFA so you can play with the RFA football team you've worked so very hard to be a part of.'

WOW, I was stunned! Talk about being EXCITED! I had NOT thought of this idea at all! It was all Russ' idea, and I have been eternally and forever grateful to him and his Mom and Dad for what they did for me.

When Russ made the invitation to me to live with them, I couldn't believe my ears! I said, 'Russ, let me go home and discuss this with my Mom and Dad.' I immediately did that, and while they were not thrilled about the idea, they certainly realized that saying YES was the only decent thing to do because it would be fair to me. After all, they realized I had been forced to spend my lifetime so far moving every few years (or in one case, two weeks). So, my loving Mom and Dad both felt I'd earned this opportunity the very hard way... One move at a time!

I lived in Dominick and Loretta Marchione's home for ten months until I graduated from RFA on June 27th of 1964. At the end of the football season, I was named to the Upstate New York All Star Football Team, so with the game films supplied by Coach Flood, and the All Star Honor, the now late Coach Earl Edwards, Head Coach at N.C. State, gave me a full, all expenses paid football scholarship.

Early Lessons Learned

C.I. - Wow, that is truly an incredible journey, and you were not even 20 yet! Moving around so much, what lessons did you learn?
NC - Having lived through our home being moved nine different times, I believe two lessons I've learned that have helped me a lot over the years are:

  1. 1. Develop a lifetime habit of NEVER MEETING A STRANGER. By that, I mean never let a stranger continue to be a stranger once you've both met. Always be genuinely interested in what the new people you meet are doing in and with their lives.
  2. 2. - You rarely get something in this world IF you don't ask for it.

N.C. State University

C.I. - As you mentioned, your time playing football didn't end at Rome Free Academy. Instead, you continued on at N.C. State University on a scholarship. Please take us through that experience.
NC - Here I was, an extremely determined young guy who earned a one-year full football Scholarship to N.C. State. But, I had to show up in Raleigh and prove myself before I would be granted and awarded the remaining three years of the scholarship. Did I prove myself? Long story short, I sure did! But, here's what happened.

Reporting to N.C. State for the freshman football team in September of 1964, I was assigned to a tiny room in Tucker Dorm on, of all things, Cates Avenue (By the way, they didn't name Cates Avenue after me! They named it in honor of the Charles F. Cates and Sons Company of Cates Pickle Company fame!). There were three of us crammed into that tiny dorm room, and the bathrooms were down the hall.

The two guys I roomed with were great fellows. There was Chuck Amato, a truly amazing dude who, in addition to being an All State Linebacker out of Easton, Pennsylvania, had also won the Pennsylvania State Wrestling Championship at 167 pounds three years in a row! Later in life, Chuck went on to be the N.C. State Head Coach for six years, and he did a fine job during that era. Chuck recently retired after 45 amazing years of coaching football at all levels but the pros. There was also Art McMahon, who was from New Jersey. He became an early starter and was also elected to be one of the Co-Captains of our 1967 Team, along with Steve 'Pigpen' Warren. I nicknamed Steve 'Pigpen' because, during rainy day practices, Steve would often end up totally covered with mud! I know he hated that nickname, but that didn't stop us from electing him Co-Captain. And, he turned out to be a great player and team leader.

Coach Earl Edwards was N.C. State's Head Football Coach for many years, and in our Class of 1964, he had recruited some truly great high school football players from all over the country. So, to say the least, I was very honored to be given a full scholarship in this class, and then, shortly after arriving at N.C. State, to have been voted by that special 1964 Freshman Team to be one of their Co-Captains along with Jay 'Momma' McDuffie. We nicknamed Jay 'Momma' because he was always looking out for any of our teammates who were home sick or not feeling well.

Let me also mention that our special freshman class included a defensive tackle named Dennis Byrd (the late), who went on to be named 1st Team All American three years in a row and a 1st Round NFL Pick by the New York Jets! And, we had Freddie Combs, another super star, who would also make the 1st Team All American Team our senior year in 1967. Plus, we had a great kicker our senior year named Gerald Warren, and he also made 1st Team All American! So, as freshmen, when Jay and I were elected to be Co-Captains of this amazing freshman team, we both felt very highly honored to be Co-Captains among such talented company! Finally, but certainly not least, there was Pete 'Mad Dog' Bailey, my teammate, roommate and best friend at N.C. State.

Following my freshman year, and after playing second-string defensive end my sophomore year and then as a second-string offensive guard my junior year, I went on a massive weight training program. Here is what happened... Immediately after the last game of our 1966 season, I had five days to lose 17 pounds, from 200 down to 183, so I could pass the required U.S. Air Force R.O.T.C. (Reserve Officer Training Corp.) pilot training physical. Somehow, I did it! I bought a rubber suit and went on a starvation diet, and in just five days, I lost those 17 pounds and weighed in at 183. After that weigh-in, starting Thanksgiving weekend of 1966, I went on a three-day-per-week, two-and-a-half-hours-per-workout upper body weightlifting program in which I would do ten sets each of six different lifts: Standing Clean and Press, Bench Press, Standing Strict Bicep Curls, Standing Rows, Dead Lifts and Bridge Bench Presses.

Simultaneously, I went onto a Hoffman High Protein Milk Shake augmented diet. My program was successful, because from December 1, 1966 to August 1, 1967, a total of eight full months, I went from 183 pounds to 237 pounds with a high percentage of my weight gain being muscle. Then, on August 1, 1967, I reported to Myrtle Beach Air Force Base in South Carolina for a mandatory one-month-long R.O.T.C. Program, in which six days a week we would rise at 5AM for two hours of exercises such as pushups, pullups, sit-ups, running, etc. During that month, my body weight went from 237 to 220.

So, 220 was my football playing weight at guard when I reported to N.C. State for my senior year of football. Here I was, a dude who had played 2nd string guard my junior year behind a guy named John Stec, who made 1st Team All ACC at guard, to then become starting guard on our 1967 Team. At one point, our team was 8 and 0 and ranked #3 in the country. And, as a starter on this special team, I was honored to be named as a member of the Associated Press' 1st Team All Atlantic Coast Conference Football Team for 1967, and I also received an Honorable Mention on the 1967 All American Team, both achievements I'm very proud of. Let me add that one month of R.O.T.C. Summer Camp training helped me achieve all of this.

Looking back on it all, ironically, the decision my 9th Grade High School Football Coach convinced my Mom, Dad and me to make, which was to drop my newspaper routes and play 9th grade football, had finally paid off 8 years later!

C.I. - I know what football has meant in my life and the lessons I've learned from the sport. What lessons did you learn from this experience?
NC - There's a few:

  • In football, remember and never forget that it isn't for the weak. If you can't tolerate pain, forget about it, because football is NOT for you. But, trust me when I say that life is often very painful, too, no matter what you do. So, having a powerful, disciplined mind when you're dealing with physical or emotional/mental pain, or both, you will do better in life. And, YOU WILL SURVIVE.
  • In football, always keep your head up whenever you're blocking a defenseman or if you are defenseman, always apply the same rule... always keep your head up, not down. And, when attacking challenges in life, keeping your head up and going into challenges with intensity will give you a better result than if you do not attack!

A Flying Man

C.I. - Following college, like your father, your early career was in the Air Force. Please tell us about that experience.
NC - Being a pilot became a goal in my life when I was just a kid. Having grown up with my Dad in the aviation world and being at Air Force bases all around the world all of my early life certainly fueled that goal. I never, ever forgot my goal, so when I got a full football scholarship to N.C. State, I immediately found out about and signed up for the U.S. Air Force R.O.T.C. Four years later, in October of 1972, upon graduating from N.C. State, I was immediately commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force and stationed at Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta, Georgia. There, I attended the U.S. Air Force's 53-week Undergraduate Pilot Training Program. If I recall correctly, I finished #7 out of a Class of 72 student pilots.

Upon graduation from pilot training, I was a qualified enough pilot that they made me an Instructor Pilot in the same 53-week program I had just graduated from. This was during the Vietnam War, and during that time, I taught about 60 student pilots, guys who had zero jet flying time, how to fly jets. Then, I was honored to be selected by the Base Commander to become what they called a 'Check Airman' in what they called the 'Stan Board.' My job in that role was to give proficiency check rides to the other instructor pilots, including the Base Commander! This was an amazingly interesting job. Moreover, the same Base Commander that recommended me for the Stan Board also recommended me for a job at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

I was hired at the Air Force Academy to become an Athletic Instructor. My Base Commander told me he had personally recommended me because he thought I had the talent, mindset and potential to be a General in the U.S. Air Force. Just a few months later, the airlines restarted hiring, and I had to tell my Base Commander, my Squadron Commander and my friends, 'Sorry, but I've got to go be an Airline Pilot.'

C.I. - What lessons did you learn from that experience?
NC - What I learned is that, in life, you never know what's going to happen, and just when you think you've got things figured out... boom... things can change really fast!

C.I. - As you mentioned, following your time in the Air Force, you became a commercial airline pilot. Please tell us about that experience and how it actually led to your entrance into the health and fitness club industry.
NC - On January 6, 1973, I got out of the Air Force and immediately moved into the spare bedroom of my old friend and teammate, Pete Bailey's Riverbend Condo in Atlanta, Georgia. For any of you who have seen the amazing Academy Award nominated movie, Catch Me If You Can, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks, you have seen exactly where I lived for four years, two years in Pete's condo and two years in my own apartment overlooking the entire scene. To say this was probably the LUCKIEST happening in my life would be an understatement. And, it was during this time that I got hired for two different jobs as a commercial pilot.

The first was as a Co-pilot on the Holder Construction Company's eight passenger Sabreliner Corporate Jet. Then, after flying the Sabreliner, I was extremely lucky again to be hired by what has, through multiple airline mergers, become Delta Airlines. The odds of getting that airline job were very low, so the story of how it happened is one of sheer fortune.

One night, I was at the Riverbend Clubhouse waiting my turn to play on one of the two racquetball courts they had there when I met a guy named Gerald Cox. While we waited and chatted, he told me he was the General Manager of the Southern Airways Airlines Employment Office (This is TRUE, folks, I'm not lying!).

I said to him, 'WOW! That's great, Gerald! I've got to tell you that I've had an employment application turned in and on file in your Employment Offices for over two months now, and I've been hoping and praying for an interview. I've got close to 2,000 hours of jet time as a jet instructor pilot and as a Sabreliner pilot, and I would greatly appreciate an interview.'

He laughed and said, 'Well, you happen to be in the right place at the right time. Norm, right now, we have over 1,200 applications on file, and we are hiring pilots at the slow rate of 20 pilots per class per month. I'm about to finish a new class that will start next week, so why don't you call me at my office tomorrow and I will set up an interview for you with me and the Chief Pilot, Bubba Shanahan, who is also interviewing new hires.'

Wow! I said, 'You bet I will! Let me find a pen, and I'll write down your phone number.' So, I went into the weight room and found a pen and an unused workout card. The next day, I called him and got an interview with Southern Airways that afternoon. I was hired the next day, and had my destiny been different, I would now be a retired Delta Air Lines Captain.

Again, this is a true story! I was hired the next day, I went to a 30-day orientation class, and I started flying. Ironically, after being hired in April of 1973, six months later, in October of 1973, 39 other pilots and me, all new hires, were furloughed for what turned out to be four years! We no longer received pay and most benefits, but we did have one nice benefit remain during that time, which was they allowed us to ride on DC9 jump seats for free!

The Health and Fitness Club Industry

C.I. - How did your furlough lead you into the health and fitness club industry?
NC - As you may know, there's an old saying, 'The Lord works in mysterious ways,' and I can give testimony here to that being a fact and my belief that the Lord was working for me when he got me laid off by the airline for four years. I believe that to be a 'Divinely Guided' event, because it led me to meet in this order: Ray Irwin, Rich Boggs and Fred Streck. The four of us created a chain of nine racquetball clubs called Courtsouth that eventually had 58 courts in Atlanta and 50 courts in out-of-town franchises. These nine clubs also offered things such as Nautilus rooms; free weight rooms; indoor tracks; swimming pools; bar/lounges; locker rooms with full amenity packages including steam, sauna and whirlpools; and typically, LOTS and LOTS of parking! Here's how it happened.

Once again, while living at Riverbend and waiting for a racquetball court (laughing... that seemed to become a theme in my life), I met another person who changed my life forever, and that was the late Lyle Ray Irwin! From that meeting in 1974, I became deeply involved in the health, racquet and sportsclub industry, and since 1974, I've spent 47 years of my life involved in this great industry. Meeting Ray Irwin that night, while he and I waited for a racquetball court, truly changed my life forever.

Not very long after I met Ray, we were again by the courts one evening when I asked Ray to consider investing in the Southeast Land Syndications I was selling with my college football teammate and friend, Pete Bailey. Ray told me that he couldn't invest because he was saving his money to start a new business. I asked what kind of business it was, and he told me it was a 'Racquetball Club.' Needless to say, I became very interested in Ray's project, and we became involved with a local guy named Bobby Siegal, whose father was rich. So, we sold Mr. Siegal on the racquetball club idea, and he decided to do it... with his son, Bobby, NOT WITH US! We only found out about it when a big billboard sign was erected on the land next to I-285 in Atlanta. To say that we were pissed would be an understatement!

Fast forward a few months, and Ray and I met the one and only Rich 'Romeo Papa' Boggs. An old Air Force Instructor Pilot of mine, Ed Jelk, introduced us to Rich. They were both Georgia Tech graduates, and Rich had just moved back to Atlanta from California. He had come back to Atlanta because there were ZERO racquetball clubs here at the time, and he intended to build the first one. So, there we were, the three musketeers of the racquetball world: Ray Irwin, Rich Boggs and Norm Cates.

We then had a meeting at Rich's house where we met the late Fred 'Fast Freddie' Streck. The bank we had been talking to for a loan to start the business had recommended him to Rich because he was a very successful customer of theirs. Fred was a very wealthy night club owner who dabbled in the world of construction. His two famous Atlanta night clubs, one named Xanadu and the other named The Stone Pony, provided Fred (and us) with the $300,000+ in cash we needed to build our first club. Good thing, too, because combined, Rich, Ray and I didn't have a pot to piss in! Also attending was a friend of Rich's, an architect named Peter Hand, whom we had already been working with.

Truly amazingly, in just an hour and a half, we formed a partnership among us four guys. And, even more amazingly, these words came from Fred's mouth to wrap up the meeting. 'We will be under construction on Friday morning!' That pledge was made by Fred on a Wednesday night.

At 10AM the Friday morning following that Wednesday night meeting, I went to the building, and when I walked in, I spotted Court #1 with brand-new cinder block walls already over 10 feet high! Clearly, as he promised, Fred was wasting no time getting this baby done. That afternoon, we had our Membership Presales Office open, and Rich, our marketing guru, was preparing brochures for membership sales. By the time we opened what we originally called Courthouse I, we had presold 1,200 annual memberships. Then, in just three months, we had 5,000 memberships.

Our model was to sell very low-priced annual memberships for $15 a year for a single, $25 for a couple and $30 for a family. People would then book one of our ten courts and pay by the hour for court time. The hourly rate in non-prime time was $2.50 per person, and starting at 4PM, prime time was $4 per person. For months, we were 100% booked from 6:30AM to 11PM at night!

In two years, we had nine clubs either open or under construction. We had four in Atlanta; one in Columbus, Georgia; two in Knoxville, Tennessee; one in Murfreesboro, Tennessee (outside of Nashville); and one in Birmingham, Alabama. Following the success of Courthouse I and additional locations, we changed the name to Courtsouth, and we grew to have 60,000 memberships!

An Infant Industry

C.I. - In 1974, when you entered the health and fitness club industry, it was truly in an infant state. Please describe the clubs of old compared to what has become the norm of today.
NC - They are two different worlds, really. In the early days, we got by without Lifecycles because they weren't yet invented and brought to market by Ray Wilson and Augie Nieto. When they arrived, we immediately acquired dozens of them. Of course, so did our competitors. And, at the time, all we had for strength training were five Nautilus machines, dedicated primarily to lower body work and a small free weight room. We added more Nautilus upper body machines, and we installed Bill Hubner's Paramount Sports Trainer Multi-Station Weight Machines. So, needless to say, the health and fitness club world is far, far more advanced today than it was 47 years ago when I started. Later, as we went our own ways outside of the original Courtsouth partnership, my future clubs were multipurpose format. We had a lot of what you would expect today, but of course, they were earlier versions of everything (laughing).

C.I. - During those early days in the industry, you became a Co-Founder and the First President of IHRSA (then IRSA). Please take us through this founding experience and the early days of the Association.
NC - I was nominated by my Courtsouth partners to become a Board Member at the 1978 National Court Club Association (NCCA) Convention in Sarasota, Florida. I was elected to that Board, and that's how I met and became a lifelong friend of the amazing Rick Caro. To say that 'Uncle Rick' Caro (as I have referred to him for years) had an enormously positive impact on my life would be yet another understatement.

At the time we met in Sarasota, Rick was also serving on the Board of Directors of the National Tennis Association (NTA). So, here we had this brilliant New Yorker named Rick Caro partnering up with another fellow New Yorker (laughing... I say that because I went to high school in Upstate New York) to pursue an idea that Rick had. I was very excited about the idea, which was to merge the NCCA and NTA to create a new organization called the International Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IRSA), what we now call IHRSA. It was Rick's idea, pure and simple. And, today, Uncle Rick deserves all the credit for IHRSA's existence. Period.

We kept the IRSA name for 12 years, at which time, under the leadership of the Association's President at the time, Cecil Spearman, a great man and good friend I call 'Daddy Rabbit,' and Founder and Owner of the Laguna Niguel Racquet Clubs in California, we added the 'H' for Health into the IRSA name and acronym to make it IHRSA. Hopefully, this September in Los Angeles, we're going to have our 40th IHRSA Anniversary Convention and Trade Show! Of course, all of those plans are subject to developments with the COVID-19 Disaster!

C.I. - Please describe the importance of IHRSA and the effect you feel it has had on the industry over the past 40 years.
NC - Without a doubt in my mind, IHRSA has done more to positively influence and improve the health, racquet and sportsclub industry than any other single organization in the world. Just like the U.S. industry and in countries worldwide, IHRSA is suffering significantly right now. But, Brent Darden, IHRSA's Interim President and CEO, is doing his best to lead the Association through this disaster that is affecting the entire world and every industry within it. Sadly, Brent has had to make massive staff layoffs. But, with vaccinations just now rolling out, there is light at the end of the tunnel even if it is still a very small one.

Club Insider is Born

C.I. - In 1993, you made the difficult decision to leave the day-to-day operations of the health and fitness club business. This led to the creation of Club Insider. How did this decision come about, why did you make it, and how did Club Insider come into existence?
NC - Well, Justin, you were just eight years old at the time, and we had built your Mom a nice antique store called The Shops of Distinction in Roswell, Georgia. That store kept her away from our home a lot. I still had four clubs, which also kept me away from home a lot, so I determined that my goal in life at that time would be to leave the day-to-day club business to create and enter into a home-based business where I could earn a living but still help our industry improve its operations. And, this would allow me to be an at-home Dad to you.

At the time, the late, great Dr. Gerry Faust had the terrific and now legendary Faust Roundtable #1. Rick Caro had introduced me to this great group of industry professionals and future long-time friends. We would all meet every three or four months, discussing our challenges and ideas, and seeing examples in the field with facility tours in each host city.

In Chicago, during our January 1993 meeting, I brought my request for help deciding on a new home-based business to our Roundtable, and we all brainstormed it together. The late Jane Beusman, beloved wife of our also beloved and late 'Brother' Curt Beusman, came up with the idea of a new industry publication when she said, 'Norm, we need to have a new, irreverent, outspoken industry publication that Tells-It-Like-It-Is to our industry, and I think that would be a perfect new business that you could create and operate at home!' I was standing there with a flip chart and a magic marker in my hand, writing down the group's ideas, and I yelled, 'That's it!'

Four months later, at another Roundtable in California, we were brainstorming name ideas for my new publication when the late 'Brother' Curt Beusman said, 'We could call it the Insider. NO! Better yet, The Club Insider! Even better, The Club Insider News!' I smiled and once again exclaimed, 'That's it!' And, that WAS it. (We have since dropped the words The and News from our title to become Club Insider.)

Now, we are in our 28th year of publication, and I could not be prouder and happier with the fantastic job you, JUSTIN CATES, my Partner and Son, have done as our new Publisher since taking over when I was blind during those tough months in 2020! Thank you!

C.I. - Wow, Dad, thank you. As you always say, 'That's clear proof there is a God.' Please tell us why you feel that way.
NC - Dude... there is no way you and I would have survived what we've survived publishing Club Insider for what's now 325 monthly editions without 'Devine Guidance' from a higher power! Period! And, I will go to Heaven with that belief.

C.I. - It goes without saying that 2020 has been a horrible year for just about everyone. Though you have been fortunate to avoid contracting the virus, you did experience a tough battle with blindness. Please take us through that experience.
NC - First, let me say this... without you achieving what you achieved with Club Insider when I went blind in March of the '2020 Year From Hell,' this conversation would be very different, and certainly not be presented in a new edition of Club Insider. So, THANK YOU JUSTIN CATES! You have made your Dad VERY THANKFUL and VERY PROUD!

As I hope everyone knows by now, I am NO LONGER BLIND IN BOTH EYES! In fact, I am able to see well with my left eye that now has a 20/25 rating. I can once again drive my car, read and write on my computer... you name it; I can do it. My right eye is a different story, though. It's about 90% blind except for a tiny segment of vision that is worthless. It goes without saying that having this happen in the middle of a pandemic certainly didn't present an easy experience, and no matter what, I wouldn't wish blindness on anyone!

C.I. - It is never easy to turn the reins of something you created over to someone else. But, in 2020, you needed to do so with Club Insider. Please take us through that experience.
NC - TRUST. That's the key and operative word I have for you here. I TRUST you 100% with both my/our newspaper and with my life, and that's all I have to say about that.

Oh yes... one other thing... GOD HAS TRULY BLESSED ME WITH SUCH A TALENTED PARTNER WHO JUST ALSO HAPPENS TO BE A GREAT AND LOVING SON! I HONESTLY COULD NOT BE MORE BLESSED! GOOD ON YOU AND THANK YOU, JUSTIN CATES!

A Family Affair

C.I. - Dad, what strikes me about your entire story is how one thing led to another. You were in the right place at the right time multiple times and at least two of those times being waiting on a racquetball court at Riverbend! (laughing). And, it is not lost on me that all of that literally led to my existence, let alone what I get to do as a career. Please share your thoughts about this.
NC - Absolutely. This amazing and fun collection of fond memories and experiences would definitely not be complete without comments about one of the greatest things to ever happen to me in my life, and that was when I met ILENA, my Wife of almost 39 years now, and of course, your Mom!

One night back in my single days in Atlanta, I was introduced on a blind date to the beautiful Ilena Marks. After having been called by her friend, Betsy Kappen, to be a last-minute blind date for me, Ilena arrived at the South of France Restaurant around 10PM. We had a lovely dinner. Then, we went to a night club for dancing. Throughout the entire evening, we got along famously, and as we were dancing cheek-to-cheek at 2AM while night club staff were starting to place the chairs upside down on the tables, I looked down at her, and asked, 'Ilena, can you see yourself married to me?' She smiled, looked up at me, and said, 'Yes.'

A few months later, in Las Vegas, Nevada, where Ilena and I attended IRSA's 2nd Annual Convention and Trade Show. With prior conversation, but honestly, no advance planning at all, on January 20, 1982, Ilena and I decided to get married at the Chapel adjacent to the Riviera Hotel in Vegas! Doug Miller, friend, an employee at the time, and later, a principal in Sales Makers with two other good friends of ours, Ray Gordon and Eddie Tock, was my Best Man.

Fast forward to January 18, 1985. This was clearly the BEST DAY OF MY LIFE because it was the day our wonderful son was born. As you know, you were born at the Northside Hospital here in Atlanta! And, I was so excited that I even hired an airplane to tow a banner around the hospital that read: IT'S A BOY!!! JUSTIN CATES!!! You have truly been a BLESSING to our family and a major JOY in our lives since your Day One.

All of the stops in my life led to you. Period. And, I may just be one of the luckiest guys in the world to have a son like you. God blessed this family.

Work Hard; Play Hard

C.I. - Your life has not been all work and no play. I think it's safe to say that anyone who knows us knows that you and I both work hard and play hard, so please take us through what has become a pretty fun hobby for you: THE Great Characters and Legendary Ladies of Atlanta.
NC - Over 30 years ago, a good friend of mine named Ron Hudspeth was working as a daily columnist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC), and he had a great job there writing a daily commentary column about what he found out while on the scene in Atlanta's fabulous night life. Ron really had it rough (laughing). All he had to do was go out, drink and eat in Atlanta bars and restaurants, then write about the experience! So, this great dude had the entire City of Atlanta, Georgia in his back pocket. But, somehow, he just didn't like AJC Management. Another famous AJC Journalist, the late Lewis Grizzard, was buddies with Ron. And, Lewis had also grown to hate AJC Management... just like Ron did.

One day, Ron and Lewis were talking, and they both decided to walk out on AJC Management to protest what they felt was the bad way they were being treated. So, they made a pact to quit. The next day, though, Lewis talked to Ron and told him he wasn't going to quit the AJC because of a heart problem he had that required health insurance, and the company provided the needed insurance. Lewis had no idea if he could get insurance anywhere else, so he told Ron he was not going to resign in protest.

Ron decided he was still going to quit the AJC. So, Ron and I were drinking one night and talking about all of this, and I told him: 'Dude... you have a market brand notoriety that you'd be a fool to just walk away from and get nothing for it! What we need to do is dream up some kind of business that you can start to take advantage and benefit from the brand name you now own in the marketplace. I want to think about this for you.'

The next day, I called him and said: 'I've got it! What you need to do is create a nightlife newspaper, where each month, in print, you get out there doing what you used to do at the AJC. Report on WHAT's HAPPENING and WHERE! But, this publication that has your writing in it will have YOUR NAME ON IT, not their name! And, you can throw parties, take trips and just have FUN with it.' Ron called me back and said, 'I'm going to use your idea and start a nightlife newspaper.'

Well, he did exactly that, and it was called The Hudspeth Report. He took on his beautiful girlfriend at the time, the lovely Cathy Brown, as a partner with him, and they published it for about 25 years. Ironically, a few years later, when I started Club Insider, Cathy did our layout work, and she continued in that role for eight years.

Each year, as I originally suggested to him, Hudspeth would also produce a big annual party called 'The Great CHARACTERS of Atlanta Party,' and that event was always a hoot! These parties were always well attended, drawing several hundred FUN LOVERS every year. People just loved to be with the celebrities that Ron would attract. At its peak, there were about 60 'Great CHARACTERS' honored every year, and this special group included such Atlanta-area luminaries as Atlanta Mayor, Sam Massell; TV Sportscaster, Brad Nessler; NFL great, the late Alex Hawkins; the late Pete 'The Northside Barkeep,' who was a celebrity himself because Ron wrote about him a lot; bar owner/operator, Bill Houck; bar owner/operator, Bill Swearingen; and Doug McKendrick, the highly successful owner of a very popular steakhouse called McKendrick's. There were many others, but you get the picture.

Over 20 years ago now, Ron moved to Costa Rica, and the annual event went dormant for three years. But, neither of us wanted it to die forever, so with Ron's agreement, I took over the party production duties and have been putting on the event every year ever since. Along the way, it became clear that, for every Great Character, there was a Legendary Lady. Several asked to become Great Characters, so instead, I created another annual event to specially honor them, thus THE Legendary Ladies of Atlanta was born. Sadly, like so many other events around the world, though, the 2020 events were canceled. But, they will be back in 2021!

So, through the years, I've always figured out ways to mix FUN into all I've done during my life, and this was one of the best ways ever!

C.I. - Well, speaking of FUN, in every Edition of Club Insider, we have published a small ad that says three simple words: Make It Fun! Please explain why we do this and the importance of Making It Fun in clubs.
NC - Let me explain it this way for club owners, operators and employees. Because of the devastation caused by the pandemic, this has become even more of an important thing for people to focus on than in the past! Folks, whatever you do... DO NOT FORGET that, in order for your business to be successful, it must be CHOSEN by someone when they're thinking of what they're going to do during their day.

Your club is up against a huge amount of competition for their time. That means that, whenever they go to your club and they do not have an enjoyable time, they very possibly might not come back! And, if they do not come back because you or someone who represents you have not treated them in a respectful, nice and friendly manner, you are in trouble, and you may not even know it!

So, as we progress into this New Year, 2021, I urge you to have staff meetings where all you do is discuss customer relations and generate new ideas about how you can get better at the job of Making It Fun. YES... Making It Fun is a job, and it will put more money in your pocket!

By the way, here is a free tip. As we move out of the pandemic, and gatherings become safe again, it will be time to welcome back not only members but their friends and family! Like the Member Appreciation Parties of old, new Welcome Back Parties should become a monthly staple at your facility or each of your facilities (if more than one). For years and years, I had Member Appreciation Parties once a month in all of my clubs... not once a year but once a month! During each, members would bring their best friends. Compared to various marketing vehicles, the cost really is minimal and not significant when compared to the possible results of the effort.

I get it; things will continue to be different for a while. But, as people begin to trust that things are becoming safer, a since of normalcy will prevail again, and people will be itching for a great event. Become that event in their life, each month, and this will lead to their wanting to be with you daily.

But, importantly, until the pandemic is declared 'OVER,' follow all safety protocols and provide masks for as long as attendees feel more comfortable wearing them than not. Masks will be a reality for months into vaccine delivery, but it will not be forever. Like any other barrier to a sale, tear it down to get a prospect to say, 'Yes.' Create comfort, caring and a place to be.

You Did Something Right

C.I. - Along the way, you have received some wonderful honors, including IHRSA's 2000 Dale Dibble Distinguished Service Award and Club Industry's 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award. So, you clearly did something right! How does this make you feel?
NC - Happy. Honored. Grateful and Thankful. I am Dedicated and Committed to the industry. And, I am willing to do almost anything to help all in our industry.

C.I. - In closing what has been a truly monumental interview, I'd like you to share the top three lessons you have for anyone reading this. It could be someone just entering this industry, or someone who has been in the industry as long as you (47 years).
NC - Absolutely, they are:

  1. 1. Never, ever walk into the front door of your club without first briefly pausing for a moment to start your day with a quick Thank You To God for blessing you with the members and guests you have to serve that day and the staff you have to help serve them.
  2. 2. Treat your members like the MOST IMPORTANT PEOPLE THERE ARE IN YOUR ENTIRE LIFE... because THEY ARE!
  3. 3. Never, ever, ever, and I mean ever, let a member or employee leave while they're mad at you.

• • •

I want to thank my Dad, Norm Cates, Jr., for his time interviewing for this cover story, not to mention his 47 years of dedicated service to the health and fitness club industry! Happy 75th Birthday, Dad! Folks, because of space limitations, there were some stories that just didn't make the cut.

Thank you also to Russell Marchione, Robert White, Pat Nolte, Rick Caro, John McCarthy, Brent Darden, Pamela Kufahl and John Gormley for their comments and birthday wishes (Feel free to submit your own directly to Norm by email at Norm@clubinsideronline.com). Finally, thank you to our readers for taking the time to read this story. I hope it has been entertaining, informational and beneficial.

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Wealth of Wellness