Paul Anderson: The Story of the “World’s Strongest Man”
by Thomas P. Ryan
Paul Edward Anderson was born on October 17, 1932 in Toccoa, Georgia. His family moved frequently when he was a child, in conjunction with his father’s construction projects. Paul was sickly as a small child and although he did recover from Bright’s disease, he was not expected to have a long life because of the damage to his kidneys. They did eventually give out, but not before he made quite an impression in the sports world.
He entered Furman University in 1950 on a football scholarship, but his interest would soon turn to weightlifting. There was a small but serious group of weight trainees at Furman and they were impressed with what Paul could lift, although at this point in time Paul was simply fooling around with weights. He soon realized that he had discovered something at which he could really excel and this motivated him to pursue weightlifting seriously.
Not being scholarly inclined (in his autobiography he stated that he did not crack a book to study outside of class in high school), Paul was not suited for college and he wanted to pursue weightlifting, not football. So he left Furman during his first year and returned to his parents’ home, which at that time was in Elizabethton, Tennessee. He did very little for a year but he devised ingenious ways to make himself stronger. Indeed, when he and Terry Todd, Ph.D., collaborated on a series of articles in Muscular Development magazine in 1969-70, Todd stated at the outset “I have the Ph.D., but he has the genius.”
Power racks, which allow a very heavy barbell to be safely lifted over a short distance, were almost unheard of in 1950 and were not available commercially until several years later. So Paul had to be inventive. Accordingly, he devised a method for doing partial squats that consisted of filling two barrels with heavy objects and digging a hole in the ground in his back yard to shorten the distance that the bar had to be lifted, with the bar attached to each barrel. When he needed to increase the distance that he lifted the weight, he would simply partially fill in the hole. Shown below is a photo taken by Atlanta Journal and Constitution award-winning photographer Floyd Jillson on May 24, 1955, which shows Paul standing in the hole at the completion of a partial squat, with a pretty girl sitting on each barrel.
Paul’s novel training methods coupled with undoubtedly vast strength potential quickly catapulted him to the top of the weightlifting world. At a height of approximately 5-9, his weight soared past the 300-pound mark, exceeding by more than 100 pounds his weight when he entered Furman. On April 16, 1955, lifting at a meet in High Point, North Carolina, Anderson became the first weightlifter to press 400 pounds in competition when he lifted 402, a weight that was previously regarded as impossible. Despite the world records that he set in 1955, he was still unknown internationally. This changed dramatically in June of that year, however, when he pressed 402.25 at a competition in Gorky Park in Moscow, with about 20,000 people in attendance. Paul’s performance was so astounding that the crowd rose to its feat and shouted, “Chudo Prirody,” which means “a wonder of nature.”
Paul went on to win the world championship in the heavyweight class in Munich in October, 1955 and received a hero’s welcome when he returned home to Toccoa. He and other weightlifters and coaches were received at the White House by then Vice-President Richard Nixon.
After Munich, at which he weighed 370 pounds, Paul lost down to about 300 pounds because, as he stated in a magazine article dated October 28, 1956 (Atlanta Journal and Constitution) he was unable to hold the bar in the proper position at his chest because of the size of his arms at the heavier bodyweight. He weighed 304 at the Olympics that year and needed to make his final attempt in the clean and jerk with 413.25 pounds (after missing his first two attempts at that weight) to win the competition on bodyweight. He did just that and became an Olympic champion.
Hoping to make the Guinness Book of World Records, Paul reportedly staged a backlift in 1957 in which he lifted from the ground a table with a safe and assorted weights on it weighing a total of 6,270 pounds. Guinness later recognized Anderson’s feat as the greatest weight ever lifted by a human being—which became the basis for his reputation as the “World’s Strongest Man.” However, in the years that followed several questions arose about the lift—including the actual weight of the safe and table—leading Guinness to withdraw its recognition of his 1957 lift. As a result, Paul Anderson’s name is no longer found in the Guinness Book of World Records. While we will never know how much he could have lifted, he forever will be remembered as the “World’s Strongest Man.”
In addition to his love of weightlifting, Paul had a strong desire to start a Youth Home. He participated in boxing (ingloriously) and wrestling in order to raise funds for that effort, and also had a small part in the 1958 movie Once Upon a Horse.
Originally engaged to Gail Taylor of Tallulah Falls, Georgia in 1956, while she was a high school senior, Anderson became engaged to Glenda Garland in 1959, directly after she graduated from high school. (It was Gail who introduced Anderson to Glenda.) Reared in a boarding school and sharing Paul’s dream of starting a Youth Home, Glenda became Paul’s life partner and their 35-year marriage ended with Paul’s death in 1994. Their marriage was blessed with an adopted daughter, Paula.
In addition to his Youth Home in Vidalia, Paul positively influenced the lives of thousands of young people, including various youth groups. Combining strength demonstrations with his Christian witness, Paul also took his message inside prison walls. When Paul Anderson Appreciation Day was held in Toccoa in 1983, a few days before Paul’s kidney transplant surgery, the featured speaker was the late Tom Landry, famous coach of the Dallas Cowboys. Paul had a very positive influence while maintaining a grueling travel and performance schedule, as evidenced by the numerous letters of appreciation that he received from people from all walks of life, including a 1963 letter from J. Edgar Hoover.
Paul Anderson died in Vidalia on August 15, 1994. His last years were sad ones for the “World’s Strongest Man.” He experienced total renal failure in 1983 and only a kidney donated by his older sister Dorothy (Dot) Johnson enabled him to temporarily regain some semblance of a normal life. Unfortunately, his health began failing again several years later and he was practically bedridden during his final years.
His memory lives on, especially in the form of the Paul Anderson Youth Home in Vidalia, Georgia, which he and Glenda started in 1961 and which has steered many young men toward a better life. Perhaps for even more than his weightlifting feats, Paul Anderson should be remembered for a life dedicated to serving young people in need.