Gymnasts Look Back at History German Group Changed Politics, School Phys Ed

Article excerpt

A handful of veteran Turners reminisced last week about their organization's influence on the Olympics here in 1904 and on physical education in St. Louis public schools.

The occasion was a gathering at the Concordia Turner Hall at 6432 Gravois Avenue. Some members of the organization were briefing Katja Rempelmann, a researcher for the National Turners Archives of Indiana and Purdue universities. She is touring the country to interview members of the gymnastics society for a research guide on the American Turners Movement. St. Louis has traditionally had one of the largest contingents of Turners in the United States.

The organization of the Olympics at the time of the 1904 World's Fair here was largely accomplished by Turners, says Louis Kittlaus. He was director of physical education for the St. Louis Public Schools for more than 25 years before his retirement in the 1970s.

The Turners date back to about 1811 when Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, better known as Father Jahn, founded the organization in Germany. Jahn's idea was to build up German youth physically as a foil against Napoleon. His motto was the Greek and Roman ideal of "a sound mind in a sound body."

But many of Jahn's gymnasts used those healthy bodies in the unsuccessful revolution against the kaiser to form a republic in 1848-49. Many of his followers fled to the United States. They founded Turnverein, or gymnastic societies, throughout the country, including St. Louis. The first Turner group here was started about 1855.

St. Louis histories indicate the Turners here were more interested in politics than physical exercise.

If you wanted to be elected to political office here, it was an advantage to be a member of a Turner society, says Frank Bild, a lawyer and a former state senator. Bild was an instructor at the Schiller Turner Hall, 200 Weiss Avenue in south St. Louis County.

Some Turners here claim the Turners were a factor in keeping Missouri in the Union during the Civil War. They were among Union sympathizers, along with regular Union troops, who defeated an attempt by Southern sympathizers to seize the Federal arsenal here in the battle of Camp Jackson on March 10, 1861.

The Concordia Gymnastic Society was formed in 1875 here. It was one of about 80 American Turner organizations promoting physical education in the United States. The Concordia Turners was founded by members of the Central Turnverein who wanted to have their meeting place nearer their homes in south St. …