Jim Van de Zilver, like many of the former gymnasts who attended Saturday night’s dinner to honor Fred Turoff, wore a nametag on his shirt.
Under each person’s name on the sticker, an empty line offered a space to write a one-word description of Turoff. Van de Zilver wrote “life-changer.”
Turoff gave him an opportunity, despite not having the best grades in high school, to compete on the team from 1988-93. Van de Zilver, a Temple Athletics Hall of Famer, helped Temple win four straight Eastern Intercollegiate Gymnastics League titles. He earned a criminal justice degree and became a police officer and sergeant in Lakewood, New Jersey, before he retired in 2009.
“Being on that team and having a place to go actually saved my life,” said Ron Perry, who grew up in Sharswood, Philadelphia, and joined Temple as a walk-on as a freshman in 1979 without any formal training.
More than 70 former Temple gymnasts and Turoff’s family and friends gathered at the Hilton Hotel on City Avenue for a celebration of his career. After 41 years as the head coach, including 38 at the Division I level from 1976-2014 before the sport’s demotion to club status, Turoff, 70, will assistant coach this year to help Jesse Kitzen-Abelson transition to taking over the club.
He’ll help Kitzen-Abelson, who was on the team from 2007-11, learn how to schedule meets, book hotels and complete other necessary tasks. Kitzen-Abelson coached in South Africa for five years and returned to Temple in September 2016 as an assistant.
“Right now, the plan is just this year, but we’ll see,” Turoff said. “I won’t be a stranger. I’ll pop in once in a while for sure next year, but let’s see how Jesse develops and how the team develops. Let’s see how my wife let’s me out of the house once in awhile.”
MEN’S GYMNASTICS COACH
As attendees walked into the Garden Ballroom, got drinks and reminisced, a slideshow played with underwater photos from Turoff’s scuba diving trips, something he discovered as a passion about 30 years ago. He’ll spend two weeks in Indonesia on a diving trip in January.
Turoff has taken diving trips with gymnasts he has coached and former opponents from his days competing at Temple from 1966-69. Norman Vexler, who competed for UMass from 1967-71, has been to Mexico, Indonesia and the Red Sea with Turoff, said his son Aaron Vexler, who competed for Temple from 1995-98. His brother Luke Vexler competed 10 years after him.
During Aaron Vexler’s sophomore year, he, his father and Turoff took a trip to the Caribbean Sea to scuba dive.
Doug Brown, a Temple gymnast from 1980-85, said Turoff always ran the team like a family. He water skied for the first time when Turoff took him and other gymnasts to Central Pennsylvania during his sophomore year.
After he graduated, Brown worked as the team’s announcer for 13 years and had a front-row seat for nine of Turoff’s 18 EIGL and Eastern College Athletic Conference title-winning teams.
“I hadn’t seen Fred in probably about four years, and seeing him tonight it’s just like you hadn’t skipped a day,” Brown said.
“Fred has a way about him that [is] hard to describe,” said Mickey Gorn, who was a senior gymnast during Turoff’s freshman season and worked out in Pearson Hall for 30 years after his graduation. “It’s like, very open, very friendly, but extremely intelligent. So he’s able to communicate with everybody very easily.”
Saturday was a celebration of Turoff’s career, one that includes competing in the 1970 World Championships and gaining USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame membership as a coach. Miles Avery, who has coached in four Olympics, thanked Turoff for developing him from a gymnast without experience to someone who competed for the United States in the 1980s.
Tom Gibbs, one of Turoff’s assistant coaches in the 1980s, held a “roast of Fred,” where he joked about Turoff’s diminutive stature and how he’d do a press handstand every morning, often nude, even when sharing a room with assistant coaches on trips to away meets.
Saturday was also a celebration of Temple gymnastics. The former gymnasts cheered and applauded between bites of food as a reel of Turoff’s five NCAA champions played.
All former athletes in attendance signed a “Temple Gymnastics” flag that hung in Pearson Gym 143 for decades. It was auctioned for $2,100 with proceeds benefitting Philadelphia Boys’ Gymnastics, where Turoff is the program director.
Turoff closed the night with a speech. Before everybody went home, Turoff wanted to make sure all of the gymnasts signed the flag and posed for a picture — a family photo of sorts with the past and future of the program in the frame.
“It’s big shoes to fill, and it’s hard because now the program is in a new phase and I’m being relied on by a lot of people,” Kitzen-Abelson said. “I’ve got a big job to do. We want this program to survive, and I’ve got to deliver.”