Charles Arnold died Sunday, Jan. 17 at the age of 80.
Better known as ‘Uncle Chuck,’ Arnold grew up in Florida and earned degrees in exercise science and psychology in 1962 from the University of Alabama, where he played football for the Crimson Tide. After college, he moved to Omaha to accept the position of Athletic Director at the Jewish Community Center. After 28 years in that position, he became the executive director of the Council Bluffs Senior Center, a position from which he retired in 2004. At the time, he said:
“Your greatest gift to me has been the recognition that age is truly a state of mind. I will miss the center and all the dear friends I have made in our journey to make this the only comprehensive wellness center for older adults in the region - and the most exciting. My appreciation to each and every one of the members, volunteers, businesses, civic leaders, elected officials and professional staff who believed in us and supported us. I wish you much health and happiness and look forward to meeting you at the center as a member.”
He was a professional member of the American College of Sports Medicine, the Council on Aging and the International Council on Active Aging. He was past president of the Downtown Council Bluffs Noon Kiwanis and served as a Cee Bee Ambassador.
His biggest impact was as the JCC’s athletic director: there are countless people who have stories, memories and, most importantly, gratitude when they think of Uncle Chuck.
Bill Ginsburg is one example: “I worked with Uncle Chuck from 1963 until about 1970, both as a high school kid and as a college student,” he said. “Chuck was wonderful in that he was hands-on. He was never an administrator, he couldn’t sit behind a desk but had to roll up his sleeves. He was 6’4,” at least; he truly was a ‘gentle giant’ and was very dear to me. I remember how every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, a group of then-senior citizens, including Henry Riekes, Max Platt, Les Burkenroad and Dr. Beber, would come and we would play volleyball with them.”
“The institution’s oldest institution,” the Jewish Press called him in 1983. In an interview he gave on the occasion of his 20th anniversary, he mused about the Jewishness of his job:
“What about all this is Jewish? Chuck refers those who ask that question to the Talmud, which says the mind cannot survive without a healthy body. He said further that the strenuous activities at the Center may have helped to dispel a popular image of the Jew as a ‘sedentary, inactive’ person and gave the JCC Blue-Star basketball team as an example of how Jewish identity is ‘woven into the P.E. program. Besides, said Chuck, athletic programs in which Jews participate always do much to foster Jewish friendship and association.”
Larry Kelberg said: “Uncle Chuck put the ‘Community’ in the JCC. He was the heart, and he was family. He brought love and warmth to what was much more than a job and kept us all coming back for more. He had the place bustling from five in the morning until nine at night. He had the youth groups, of which there were eight at the time, the synagogues, everyone wanted to be there. There was a sport for every season; we played softball at Elmwood Park and flag football where Beth Israel was built later. The JCC athletic department was the place to be, whether you were athletically inclined or not. We needed nothing else.”
Chuck’s department was instrumental in developing the first pre-school physical education program in the Midwest. It was called ‘Tot Gym,’ and served as a model for educators all throughout the region. The JCC even held training workshops for visiting pre-school teachers.
“It was so popular,” Bill Ginsburg said, “kids would be bused in from different locations in Omaha to learn how to exercise. It was Chuck’s baby.”
Then, there was the rehabilitation program for people with coronary disease, which was supported by the Nebraska Heart Association. Chuck started an educational and pool exercise program for those with rheumatoid arthritis, stress-management workshops and cardio-pulmonary resuscitation classes. A special exercise class for heart patients was called ‘Sweathogs;’ the ‘Early Risers’ met five times per week at 6 a.m. Some of these groups bonded to the point where they held other, more socially-aimed events, like Hanukkah breakfasts. The Sweathogs wore white T-shirts with, appropriately, a heart on it.
“Once a year,” Larry Kelberg remembers, “he would put all the best kids from the different Blue Star basketball teams on a bus and we would ride to Sioux City and participate in a tournament. Our parents would stay home; they trusted Uncle Chuck with their kids. He told a lot of jokes, he was a funny guy, but even though the bus was full of rowdy kids, we didn’t dare misbehave. He was tall and had this booming voice (he never needed a megaphone) and we were on our best behavior, because as much as we all loved him, we were also a little bit intimidated.”
In addition to the many programs he ran, Chuck ran summer camps for many years. He took kids out of the city and gave them memories that would last a lifetime.
“We took the kids 40 miles out of Omaha,” Chuck himself said in 2016, “and it felt like they were far outside the city. Kids would stay anywhere from two to eight weeks and we did nature projects, arts and crafts, and the kids couldn’t wait to meet up with each other for the summer. They all came from different shuls and schools. They didn’t have social media and there was no television at Camp. Camp was a time to look at the stars and smell the trees! Camp gave you new perspective, took you away from indoor electricity and air conditioning. We even had telescopes, so we did astronomy lessons.”
“The most impressive part of the work Chuck did,” Bob Belgrade said, “was the breadth of the programming. From little kids to senior citizens, he included everyone. He had special programs for women, for teenagers, Chuck’s world was a very inclusive place. I joined Iddy Biddy Basketball when I was about seven or eight years old and have good memories of everything we were taught. Chuck explained the fundamentals of the game, the rules, he taught me how to dribble and how to shoot—unfortunately, I did not possess the basketball gene and was never really good at it. Didn’t matter—I had fun; my friends and I talk about it until this day.”
Bob calls Chuck ‘a great ambassador.’ The ability to engage so many people of so many different ages allowed Chuck to create memories that have lasted.
“We would watch our dads play sports; my dad would drag me along to the JCC and I’d sit there watching him play handball with Chuck. And every week, he’d write a column for the Jewish Press and you’d have to check if your name was in it. Chuck didn’t just run the athletic department, he WAS the athletic department.”
Chuck is survived by son and daughter-in-law, Barton and Brenda Arnold, daughter and son-in-law, Andrea and Paul Ahern; grandchildren: Jacob, Spencer, Zachary, Brendan, Darcy and Devin; sister, Patricia Armstrong, nephews, and companion, Pat Mogil.
Memorials may be made in Chuck’s honor to Barton and Brenda Arnold, 1635 N 107 Ave, Omaha NE 68114. Barton and Brenda will be sending all donations to charities of Chuck’s choice.