“It is with a sad heart I report the passing of my dear friend and fellow iron slinger, Kev Fitzgerald. Kev left us on Sunday night May 31st. just weeks after burying his wife of 66 years,Diana, he was 84.” – Peter Yates, HOPC Editor-in-Chief

Deafness of the Mind/Triumph of the Spirit – The Story of Kevin Fitzgerald
by Peter Yates

Kev and Peter with gym in the background.

Forward

I first got to know Kevin Fitzgerald through email correspondence over the course of a year. Since our first meeting a few years ago our friendship as grown as has my respect for him. The following article will introduce him but to hear his story in his own words please consider reading his two books “Deafness of the Mind” and “Deafness of the Body,” both available from Amazon. While Kevin is a remarkable man mention should be also given to his wonderful wife Diana who has stood by him all these years through all the ups and downs and is the light of his life. +++

Over the years I have visited and lived in many countries around the world. I have met people from all walks of life, quite a few of them being extraordinary. I have always been impressed and inspired by those of humble or less than favorable beginnings who refused to give in to adversity finding inner strength and courage to turn their lives around and in turn helped others to do the same. The following article is about such a person.

All stages of childhood come with their own vulnerabilities. However around the age of 6-7 years when a child is becoming secure in his/her place in the family and society and has begun to rationalize, stability and regularity become increasingly important. Imagine as a child of 6 years waking from a dead sleep following a severe illness and being unable to hear any sounds or conversations going on around you. How unstable and insecure do you think it would make you feel? This was the fate of Kevin (Kev to his friends) Fitzgerald. After a bout of meningitis Kev woke to a world without sound. This was in 1942 in war torn Manchester, England; a war that would change the world forever as Kev’s world would now also change.

It was several weeks before Kev was recovered enough to go home. He had started to become used to the deafness and was finding ways to communicate with his family although at first it was painstakingly slow. His body however was in a very weakened condition and he had to learn to walk all over again. At first he found his balance affected as he still had some residual hearing in his right ear. At that time medical treatment and care of the deaf was to put it bluntly abysmal. The young lad received little if any help from the so called specialists.

More upsetting to Kev was the way his former pals began to treat him. Even his closest friend would avoid him leaving him feeling shunned. Only as an adult did he realize that they had probably felt uncomfortable and awkward lacking in any skills to communicate with him, not knowing just to be there with him would have been enough.

The next blow Kev received was that it was evident that his inability to hear was leaving him behind in the classroom. It was advised by the local priest that he attend a boarding school for the deaf. At first his mother was against this but eventually gave in to pressure and the promise of an education. Young Kev was packed away to a country town by the name of Boston Spa in the adjacent county of Yorkshire. On a sunny September afternoon he entered St. John’s Institute for the Deaf and Dumb {sic} his home for the next 8 year.

First impressions upon arrival were not too bad. The Institute was situated in idyllic countryside surrounded by fields in which cows and horses munched grass to their hearts’ content. The air was also clean and fresh unlike the smog and coal dust laden air of Collyhurst, his hometown.

Inside the Institute was a different story. The Institute was run with an iron discipline along military lines by the order of the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent De Paul. Rather than the promised education children at Boston Spa endured years of physical and mental abuse. Physical punishment includes lashes with a strap to the back of the legs but it was the emotional pain of having any self confidence slowly and systematically eroded that left scars which for many never healed. Kev comes from a family of ‘fighting Irish,’ so while many did crumble under the pressure and later became alcoholics, drug addicts or entered a life of crime, Kev’s fighting spirit allowed him to endure the hardships imposed.

Mr. Caproni, Kev’s first strength coach, mentor and inspiration.

Life however was not always grim and boys being boys they found ways to have fun and get up to mischief. A saving grace for Kev and some of the other lads came in the form of Mr. Caproni. Mr. Caproni was also deaf and an ex-inmate of St. John’s. Being from a wealthy family he was able to take advantage of further private education. He was a highly intelligent man and despite being of an advanced age was physically vital and the boys scout master as well as teaching physical training.

All the boys loved him. He was the nearest to a father figure for the majority of them. They could also not have wished for a better role model. He was an intelligent, accomplished deaf person who could communicate with the boys in a way no one else at the school was able. He commanded attention and gave the boys a sense of self worth. It was also Mr. Caproni who was Kev’s first strength training inspiration. He taught pushups and pull-ups and pulling against a rope tied to a horse chestnut tree to develop strength for the tug of war. The training obviously worked as the St. John’s team never lost a contest even against much older boys from the army or navy cadets.

Combined with some exercises from a Charles Atlas course and regular soccer games Kev was becoming strong, fit and swift of foot despite the lack of decent food given to the boys. Besides all of the skills learned from Mr. Caproni Kev also learned how to grow a vegetable garden and also how to cut textile. He even made his homecoming suit when he finally left St. John’s. This latter skill came in handy as he was able to find a job in a ladies garment factory once back home in Manchester.

Unfortunately the transition to life outside St. John’s was not a smooth one. Once again Kev found people shunning him or making fun of the way he pronounced his words. His younger sister Pat eager to help took his education in hand helping him with pronunciation, reading and writing. As a result Kev pronounces his words very clearly and precisely with very little regional accent. In fact you would never know by his voice that he was deaf.

John GlancyEncountering discrimination and bigotry created a buildup of anger in Kev which could have resulted in him going off the rails. Instead he channeled his aggression into pushups, pull ups and the Charles Atlas course. Not only did his body benefit but the fury was released and his mind grew calmer day by day. Around this time Kev also joined the YMCA to learn boxing and wrestling, the catalyst being having been beaten up by a group of drunken soldiers from a nearby army barracks. Kev decided that in order for him to navigate a hearing world full of discrimination and bullies he would need to be strong and able to take care of himself. Having difficulty following the instructor’s speech Kev had the good fortune to meet another deaf man by the name of Jonny Glancy. Glancy was a weightlifter and amateur wrestler. He invited Kev to his gym in the nearby town of Stockport. This was Kev’s first exposure to the world of weights and it fascinated him.

Johnnie Glancy, wrestling coach, friend and role model.

Kev admired Johnny and at his suggestion visited the gym of his friend Ken Latham situated not far from where Kev was living. Latham was a well known and respected bodybuilder and contest promoter during the 1950’s up into the 1970’s.

Ken welcomed him saying any friend of Johnny Glancy’s was a friend of his. The gym was a double car garage full of basic equipment, lots of weights, bars, dumbbells, a couple of benches, chinning bar and squat stands – a perfect environment for building serious strength and muscle. Ken was very easy going and laid back and much to Kev’s surprise and pleasure he met with no discrimination from the other trainees only acceptance of a fellow iron slinger.

Within a few months of training with Ken Latham Kev was noticing quite a difference in his physique, deeper chest, broader shoulders, thickening of arms and legs. He was hooked and has continued training since that time. Kev worked hard on the basics building up to 3X10 with 300lb on the squat, 3X10 with 400lb on the dead lift, his favorite and 280lb on the bench press but he did not continue with the latter as he felt the guys doing a lot of bench press had pecs that were overdeveloped and it put him off.


Seen left – Kevin Firtzgerald and Diana

Kevin Firtzgerald and Diana1954 was a landmark year for Kev. It was when he hopelessly and absolutely fell head over heels in love. Being at a loose end one Sunday he decided to visit a social club run for deaf people by a deaf priest, Father Hayward. Kev had met Father Hayward when the priest had visited St. John’s. At the club he laid eyes on a girl named Diana who took his breath away and decided then and there he would woo, win and marry her, which he did. Realizing that if he was going to marry and raise a family he would have to earn more money and find a better paying job. As luck would have it he was introduced to a roofing company and given employment at a much higher rate of pay.

The roofing trade was at that time one of the hardest and most potentially dangerous jobs in the construction industry and certainly not for the weak of limb or faint of heart. Kev’s physical strength and determination were put to the test by his new work mates and he passed with flying colors earning their respect. Once incident which gained Kev a reputation was shouldering and carrying a full, large size liquid propane bottle 30 feet up a ladder onto a roof. The liquid was sloshing around and the ladder was bending in the middle so it was a relieved Kev that made it to the top. He never attempted it again but it was such events that had everyone calling him big Kev (although only 5’7”) instead of deaf Kev as they called him initially.


Young Kev training in the gym he set up in his mother-in-law’s cellar.

I asked Kev if he thought all the hard daily work as a roofer helped or hindered his training. He felt that it may have prevented him from becoming bigger but it certainly improved his stamina and he was very strong being able to break six inch nails and tear phone books in half. One time while enjoying a beer after a hard day’s work with his mates, a local strongman and former Mr. Universe came into the pub with a 56lb block weight. He offered 10 pounds Sterling to anyone who could press it overhead with one hand five times in succession. Kev proceeded to rattle off a cool twenty reps much to the delight of his mates anticipating the next drink on Kev. Mr. Universe took it in good part and Kev admitted that the strongman could probably have done more.

As an industrial roofer Kev worked all over the U.K. sometimes being away from home a couple of weeks at a time. He always found time to get some training in and ate the best food that was available. He continued in this profession until his mid fifties when changing conditions in the trade made him quit. Seeking further employment he applied for a job with the Royal Mail Service as a sorter.The job was boring and easy but all Kev wanted to do was get his head down and do his work until retiring age at 65.However he was unprepared for the blatant discrimination against deaf workers and was challenged to do something about it. As Kev says “I never go looking for trouble, it comes looking for me.”

Kevin Fitzgerald’s mighty back
On the way to building a mighty back.

Despondent at the way deaf people were constantly being victimized at Royal mail, Kev thought over the problem. He believed it was that old issue of inability to communicate with each other that was the main cause. Surmising that it would be far easier for hearing people to learn Sign than for the deaf to talk he decided to qualify as a Sign language tutor.

One of the major problems the deaf face in the U.K. is the absence of a unified system of Sign language. This state of affairs stems mostly from Sign systems being developed by the hearing. Most Sign systems do not follow the standard spoken English language causing further problems. Kev chose to train at the Open College of Sign Language (OCSL) located near Liverpool. It was first established by a well respected deaf man in the community named Roy Massey. OCSL is a deaf led organization teaching Sign as most deaf people use it. From working the night shift at the Royal Mail Depot, Kev would drive home have a hearty breakfast then drive to the OCSL’s office for classes to become a qualified Sign teacher. Altogether Kev’s group achieved 5 NVQ level 5 certificates and Kev was quite proud of these qualifications even if he had been sleep deprived for several weeks.

Excited Kev approached the manager at Royal Mail with his certificates asking if he could start a Sign class for anyone who had an interest. After a cursory glance the manager declined stating that they would use another system if they ever needed it. Kev then understood that by standing up for the rights of the deaf workers at Royal mail he had been branded a trouble maker and would get no help at all from the management.

The training Kev had received from OCSL did not go to waste however. Kev went on to teach Sign at Wigan College, Littleborough Technical College Stanycliffe Community Center, Abraham Moss College and several others. He was one of the most popular tutors in the area and most schools in his area employ those who have been taught by Kev. When Kev finally retired at age 65 he was able to focus more time on building up his allotment for growing fresh produce, a skill he had developed while living at Boston Spa.

He also decided to rebuild the small shed he worked out in at the bottom of his back yard. Using salvaged packing crates he built a much larger shed and insulated it against the bitter winds that blow over the Yorkshire pennines. Always handy with tools he scoured the local scrap metal yards looking for anything that could be used for training purposes, any kind of metal disc with a hole in the middle added weight to existing barbells and four lone pieces of square metal became a power rack. The rack is unique in that it is built in to the shed, both supporting and being supported by the shed. In Kev’s own words, “I thought it best to make it as comfortable as possible as I enjoy training. I don’t look upon it as a task. It’s not, “Oh heck! I have to train today.” It’s more like, “Great! I get to train today.”

Kev trains twice weekly using two different workouts. His training philosophy is train heavy, train hard but train smart. He believes that training should make you feel good and give you energy. He sees no point in training to failure or vomiting in a bucket and being sore and wasted for days after. Do enough then leave it alone, is he feels one of the secrets of training longevity.

Adjusting one’s training as one ages is also important according to Kev. At age 70 he had build up to using 400lb in the squat for sets of 5 reps. During a rest period over Christmas his knees began to hurt accompanied by a cracking sound. After a few weeks of no relief he was thoroughly tested by a doctor who told him that he had never seen such healthy knees on a man his age and that they would be good for a many half his age. Kev decided to try squatting again only this time using half the weight and higher reps. The pain and cracking gradually went away and he has encountered no more knee problems since, though the weight on the bar has increased.

At the moment Kev is doing the following workouts emphasizing multi joint basic exercises. He starts each session with a general warm up and roman chair sit-ups, dumbbell swings and 10 minutes on a punch bag. Monday’s workout consists of squats, pullovers, standing press and close grip bench press. Friday’s workout begins with the same warm up followed by trap bar dead lift, bent over row and curls. Neck and grip work are also added from time to time and Kev has built some simple yet effective grip strengthening devices. He is planning to get back into bending and tearing again.

Mention must be made of Kev’s training partner Sammy aka Russell the Muscle. Sammy helps Kev warm up by biting hard on the end of a towel while Kev grabs the other end and does rows and curls. Odd times Sammy will sit on Kev’s chest while he reps out sit-ups. Sammy is Kev’s Jack Russell terrier.

Kev’s thoughts on nutrition are as basic and sensible as those on training. When younger while working hard and training he could easily polish off two roast chickens, potatoes and lots of vegetables. He has never followed any eating rads such as high carbs or zero carbs, preferring to eat a well balanced diet based around his delicious home grown vegetables. For protein he enjoys chicken and rump steak from the Scottish Aberdeen Angus cows. He takes only Krill oil capsules and has never taken any other supplements.

I asked Kev what advice he would give to someone starting out training. He feels it is best to set up a gym at home and get a good book on weight training. He recommends anything by Brooks Kubic or the books on John Wood’s site. As for bodyweight training he feels Paul Wade’s Convict Conditioning is hard to beat.

On our first meeting Kev greeted me as if I were a long time friend. I was also welcomed warmly by his lovely wife Diana who had a cup of tea and a plate of sandwiches in my hand almost as soon as I entered their home. We chatted for a while, then we were joined by Kev’s grandson Martin and his friend (also called Peter Yates and a martial artist), spending the next hour and a half working out in Kev’s gym.

There is no doubt at 77 years of age that Kev is still a very strong man. Roman chair sit-ups with a 50lb block weight on his chest and 300lb trap bar dead lifts for reps demonstrate the fact. Completing the experience was a delicious dinner cooked by oldest daughter Rosemary using vegetables grown by Kev.

It was evident that there is much love, respect and caring between family members and Kev considers himself a very lucky man indeed to be blessed with such wonderful people in his life. He is philosophical about becoming deaf at an early age knowing that otherwise he may never have met the love of his life, Diana and their three children, four grandchildren and four great grandchildren would not be sharing his life.

Many forces came into play and various people entered his life that helped Kev turn his life around. It was however Kev’s own vision of a better life, the courage to seize an opportunity and a determination to succeed that enabled him to overcome his early lack of self esteem and blatant discrimination he encountered as a deaf person.

His parting words to me were, “Being deaf has never been the problem for me, but the way people chose to relate to me as a deaf person has.”

Afterword

This article has been written to introduce Kev to a wider audience. His story written in his own words by far captures the trials, tribulations, sorrows and joys of his life. I heartily recommend the reading of his first book, “Deafness of the Mind – the Forgotten Children of Boston Spa. Kev has just finished his second book detailing his life as an adult navigating the hearing world and is soon to be published.

Kevin still advocates for the hearing impaired but told me that cuts in government spending have meant less funding to those with special needs and sign language classes have especially been hit hard. He appears in the film “History of Deaf Education”, which can be seen on YouTube.

(c)Deafness of the Mind/Triumph of the Spirit – The Story of Kevin Fitzgerald by Peter Yates

User Comments ( 3 )

  • Peter yates

    Thank you for posting this Diane.While i am extremely sad to lose one of my dearest friends i am also glad that he was spared a long drawn out illness and is now with his loving wife Diana who passed only a few short weeks ago. Kev developed a specific type of lung cancer from his work with asbestos roofing.While those with whom he had worked all died soon after retiring, he never had any problems at all being strong and fit almost to the end. He reckoned it was due to his lifelong training.A couple of weeks prior the passing of his wife he was diagnosed with late stage lung cancer.In a Facetime call i asked him how he was doing and he said his energy was OK but his strength was down and he was only deadlifting 80lb. The guy had just been told to go home and die and he was still out in his shed training,now that is spirit.I can certainly say my life has been enriched by knowing Kev and Diana, and many others can say the same.Sincere condolences to his wonderful family.RIP Kev.

  • Gil

    Though I only met Kev recently, I counted him as a close friend. A stronger man mentally I never met. His disability was an ability, and his sense of humour could be very cutting, especially when dealing with priests. The last lunch I had with him and Peter, he had us in hysterics. When his beloved Diana died Kevin was left with no more fight. He’d fought all his life on behalf of the deaf. Now he with he’s with the love of his life. They are united in death

    God bless Kevin and Diana

  • Chris McCalister

    I recently came into contact with Kevin through Peter.I wrote him an email asking whether i might purchase his two books.The reply was immediate:you can have them for free,any friend of Peter’s is a friend of mine.
    A mainly deaf [and partially blind] patient of mine was so taken with his story, she asked me to invite him to Sweden.I did of course not knowing what to expect.
    The immediate reply was that he was allowing his mortal life to come to a close and looking forward to being reunited with his beloved Diana.
    I asked him to say hello to her from us.
    A life well lived.

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