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At some level, Ed had always known that this life was about more than just him, and so when he was drafted on his 21st birthday, he made his plans without thinking twice. In April 1952, he finished basic training, made a brief stop in Wichita to marry Juanita, then hopped a plane for Korea. "He got the honeymoon cruise, and I stayed home," Juanita says.
Ed spent a year and a half in Korea, some of it in North Korea, in a combat-ordnance unit. Juanita would write to him. "I'm not gonna have any weights in my house," she said in one letter. "There's just no sense in it, and I just don't see the point."
Ed responded politely but firmly: "I was lifting weights before I ever met you, and I will continue to lift weights."
"And that was the end of it," he says today.
"I was wrong," admits Juanita.
Besides, Ed was going to considerable trouble to get in his workouts. He and a buddy from Georgia, a gator wrestler named Boyette, were the only ones interested in something as foolish as pushing iron around in a war zone, so they had to make do. They convinced some of the guys to cut wheels of inch-and-a-half armor with a torch. A hole burned in the middle completed the barbell plates. The local Koreans hired by the Army to help out on the base would come and gawk when the two giant Americans worked out. They gasped when Ed lifted big; they called him Ox.
Eventually, the commanding officer gave Ed and Boyette a tent in which to put their equipment. He was supportive of them because they supported him: Ed and Boyette were so much bigger and stronger than everyone else, they were the guys called whenever a fight broke out. "I was big enough so that when I told them to sit down and shut up, they'd sit down and shut up," recalls Ed.
Ed arrived back in Wichita on the last day of October 1953 and immediately returned to work at the meat-processing plant. It wasn't the best job, but, again, this wasn't about him. "I never did like it there," he says, "but I needed the work, and with little ones coming along and mouths to feed -- mine being the biggest -- I couldn't afford to quit."
After 28 years, though, Cudahy took care of that for him, shutting the plant because there wasn't enough work, they said. Ed found that hard to believe: He'd been going to work at 2 and 3 a.m., coming home for a quick dinner and then returning to work until 8 or 9 p.m. His kids had grown up accustomed to his empty chair at holiday dinners because, after all, that's when people needed their hams.
Losing the job was tough, but in retrospect, Ed sees it as a blessing. "It's depressing to come back home and call up guys I used to work with," he says. "They catch me up on all the guys who've died or who got crippled up from working in the cold. I'm sure that if the plant hadn't closed, I wouldn't be alive today."
After Korea, Ed topped out at 215 pounds of sculpted muscle. His 36-inch chest was now 50 inches. His 10-inch teenage arms had swelled to over 18 inches. He came in second in the Mr. Wichita contest ("The other guy had a better tan than me," he gripes) and joined the first gym in the city in 1956. A photo from those days shows him in white briefs and bare feet, posing like a Greek statue; next to him is Ed "Strangler" Lewis, a professional wrestler. Both were to be featured speakers at a local Boy Scout gathering.
Still, Ed's hobby continued to confound people. Today it's considered a character flaw not to exercise; back then, he was an oddity -- and, every so often, a local celebrity. He would be called in to perform stunts of strength to inspire his church's youth group, squeezing metal soda caps between his fingers five at a time, or bending twelve-inch-long, 3/8-inch bridge spikes with his hands.
For his most famous act, he attached wooden seats to either end of a long pole and had members of the congregation sit in them while he lifted with his back. "One time," remembers Juanita, "he lifted both the pastor and the Sunday school superintendent."
"Once we added up all the weight, and it was just over 1,000 pounds," says Ed. "'Course, it wasn't a full squat..." Nobody noticed. Grownups who were kids then still approach Ed's kids and ask if their father continues to work out with weights.
He does. Over the past five decades, the only time he hasn't was when duty called -- either in the form of much-needed overtime (he'd landed another job at the local Cessna airplane factory) or when his kids needed him around. All four of them became superior athletes because of Ed, who built them their own tiny pieces of weight equipment when they were little. Each of the Steventon children earned four varsity letters in swimming.