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The Lost Tape 

Nixon-era recommendations for youth fitness found in a local junk store

click to enlarge "It could have been the missing minutes from Watergate for all they knew." - John Holiday - SCOTT LARRICK
  • Scott Larrick
  • "It could have been the missing minutes from Watergate for all they knew." John Holiday

A Colorado Springs man has unearthed a 44-year-old 16-mm reel-to-reel tape of Richard Nixon chairing a Council on Youth Fitness strategy session to determine what to do with an out-of-shape and spiritually lacking young Americans.

Neither the National Archives, nor the Nixon and Eisenhower libraries have a copy of the tape, which contains the Sept. 10, 1957 conclusions of the committee's findings.

Indeed, none even have a transcript of what was said during the session, which then-Vice President Richard Nixon chaired. But they have not expressed much interest in obtaining the records, said John Holiday, a rare book and art dealer and local private detective.

Holiday said he found the tape several months ago sitting on a shelf and its contents clearly marked, in a Colorado Springs junk store which he declined to identify. Holiday paid less than $10 for it, and was amazed when the Nixon Library advised him they had no resources to procure the tape and advised him to try selling it on eBay online.

"It could have been the missing minutes from Watergate for all they knew," he said. "This is government history -- our history -- we're talking about."

Holiday subsequently borrowed an old reel-to-reel player and, in the presence of this reporter, listened to the tape. Alas, the secrets of Watergate were not finally revealed; however the session was full of recommendations to improve the health of young America.

Holiday wants the tape preserved and made part of the public record. But, an avowed Demo- crat -- as well as a businessman -- he wants someone else to buy it and make the donation.

"I'm holding the tape hostage; the Republicans have to come up with the money for this left-wing radical, otherwise I burn it in front of The Gazette Telegraph," Holiday joked. "Actually, I'm not really holding it hostage; I just want a fair price commensurate for its rarity and historical significance."


Fruits of their efforts

The tape contains comments of six committee heads appointed as part of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Council on Youth Fitness.

The council was organized and convened after studies found that America's youth were generally falling behind their European and Asian counterparts.

The unmistakable voice of Nixon emanates clearly from the tape, as he steers the committee through its report.

A Catholic monsignor opens the session with a brief prayer, praying that the committee members "see the fruits of their present dedicated efforts in a whole and wholesome and holy youth of America -- at once the pride, the hope and the security of this great nation."

To which Nixon advises those gathered that, in his experience as the presiding officer of the Senate, generally the "most appropriate and the best speech of the day is the invocation."

One of the committee heads, Dr. Ruth Abernathy, advises that a "total concept of fitness" must be emphasized. "Physical fitness is intimately related to mental, emotional, social and spiritual aspects of fitness," she said.

Another speaker, George Hjelte, admonishes citizens, organizations and agencies to counteract a disturbing trend that, since World War I, has de-emphasized health and physical fitness.

Most of the speakers urge legislation be enacted at the federal, local and state levels to tackle the growing problem, and that parents and families be asked to jump on the bandwagon.


'Just hot air'

Noble Melencamp, who served as the chief executive clerk of the White House under Nixon and now lives in Colorado Springs, said the Council on Youth Fitness was formed before his time -- he began working for Nixon in 1969. The office overseeing youth fitness was later broadened under John F. Kennedy's tenure to include all Americans, and, when Nixon held office, was headed by Bud Wilkinson, a retired University of Oklahoma football coach and, at the time, a household name.

Melencamp said his boss was committed to health and similar issues, but other pressures forced the president to shift his focus.

"I don't think Richard Nixon ever lost his interest in fitness, but Vietnam took precedence," Melencamp said.

However, like other specially appointed presidential committees, Melencamp questioned its true effectiveness.

"I don't think the Council for Physical Fitness did anything but sit around and chatter -- most of these things are just hot air," he said. "You just get people who are interested in physical fitness together and they vapor about, 'How do you get these kids out and get them active?' "

Forty-four years after the committee's report, child obesity in the United States is at an all-time record high. Some schools, faced with budget cuts, have eliminated many of their physical education and after-school athletic programs. Indeed, many school districts, including District 11, have entered into exclusive contracts with soft drink companies promoting their sugar-laden products and have invited fast-food companies like Taco Bell and Pizza Hut into their lunchrooms as well.


Lack of interest

Steve Greene, an archivist with Nixon Presidential Materials at the National Archives, said the tape of the Council on Youth Fitness session "may be very important to some scholar, but it's hard for us to put a value on the record."

"All of them are of great value for the federal government," he said.

The government has more than 22,000 still photographs from the Nixon years, 4,500 sound recordings of official events, 4,000 videotapes and more than a million feet of 16 mm tape.

Greene said missing tapes are not uncommon, and both he and Melencamp noted that the tape Holiday found could have been mislaid or sat in a box or someone's attic for years before its owner, or descendents, sold it off in a rummage sale or to a junk store.

However, Holiday laments the lack of commitment to the country's past.

"I can't instill the importance of history on the bureaucrats who are charged with preserving the nation's history," he said. "They don't even ask for a copy of it -- they're bureaucrats and they don't care."

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