From Firefighter to Fire-starter
Posted On May 3, 2011
Story by Matt Larsen
Photos by Kyle Beam
Two gleaming, silver axes sit suspended on a wall bursting with plaques and awards for achievements like two-time Department Fireman of the Year and Texas Paramedic of the Year.
The humble, snug office space simply can’t hold all the honors Jimmy Stewart earned during his 22 years as a firefighter, but the owner of Waco’s pioneer Crossfit gym doesn’t have any plans to enlarge the wall.
“I get to start looking at that stuff, and I need to take all that stuff down sometime. It’s like my ego wall,” Stewart said.
No marble desktops. No elaborate fountains or fish tanks. No corner office with a view of a glistening lake out the window.
Jimmy Stewart just enjoys working.
“I felt like I was just doing my job,” the middle age, former fireman said of the overwhelming number of frames and hardware spanning the back wall of this combination storage and shared office space.
Sitting at his own desk just over an arm’s length away from Stewart’s and facing the award-studded wall, fellow Crossfit owner Jonathan Shelton gets reminded of his own humanity every time he glances up.
“He’s got a full wall,” Shelton said. “Half the stuff on there is from before I was born, I got a long time to catch up.”
Out of the fire
After 22 years Stewart decided fighting fires just didn’t keep him busy enough.
So he took on a second job: opening the first Crossfit gym in Waco. Crossfit, a style of fitness training that emphasizes high-intensity aerobic activity, has caught fire amongst firefighting, police and military units around the country as well as the average person just looking for a challenging workout.
The only kicker was that he didn’t live in Waco.
“I’d leave my house usually at 2:30 [a.m.],” he said. “By the time I’d finish my 6 p.m. [class] and got everything put up, I usually got home about 10.”
Stewart called Grand Prairie (on the West side of Dallas) home at the time, but he spent every third day at his second home in the Dallas Metroplex: the fire station.
After trying out for the firefighting unit on a whim and eventually qualifying, Stewart quickly worked his way up the ranks. However, the higher the position he had, the less he found himself occupied with the active, labor-intensive and often dangerous activities he so enjoys.
“You want to go fight a fire, that’s the guy you want to take with you,” fellow firefighter Don McCallister said after 20 years of serving alongside Stewart.
Though he spent plenty of time actually battling fires with him, McCallister thinks of Stewart’s resiliency and drive when not in a 1200 degree burning house as equally memorable.
“There was a little girl who passed away from her parents not having her in a car seat. That was enough for him,” McCallister said. “He took it upon himself to somehow convince the chiefs to start a car seat safety program. Wound up getting a bunch of money through the state so that we could give out car seats, [and] send a bunch of us to class so that we could properly install them and educate people on car seats.”
Thus, once he started sitting behind a desk for too long, Stewart needed a new outlet for his energy.
“He could have been a captain in three positions and been happy,” McCallister said.
After implementing a physical training program for the Grand Prairie Fire Department that is still in use and successfully starting Crossfit Waco, the early “retiree” chose to throw all his effort into his new endeavor.
The Stewart family, which would eventually include his wife Lisa and nine children, made the move an hour and half south to Waco.
To keep a family of 11 united, they needed a theme of sorts, a commonality around which they could bond.
Stewart didn’t have to look past his gym shorts and running sneakers.
“Pretty much everything we do is fitness related,” he said. “If we go on a trip, it’s always somewhere we can skiing or hiking where we can get out and enjoy ourselves physically. I despise just sitting around doing nothing.”
Fortunately, his children think pretty much the same way, even though most have now transitioned out of the house.
“Sometimes at our evening class we’ll have six Stewarts in here working out together,” Shelton said.
The father knew he wanted something more for his family than what he had experienced as a child.
“I grew up in a very dysfunctional home,” he said. “[My grandfather] was the only real positive role model. I saw that he had something that was different than anyone else in my life. ‘I don’t know what it is he has, but I want that,’” Stewart remembers thinking.
The ‘it’ turned out to be a relationship with Jesus Christ and a life rooted in the church.
Stewart led his own family into that lifestyle, and could not be more thankful for the opportunity to rise above the generations marked by alcohol and financial issues.
“For a whole family to be like that, it’s almost a curse,” Stewart said. “I found God. That’s why I am sitting here today and not having the issues that they are having.”
Man with a mission
“If I got nothing else from my family, my dad had a good work ethic,” Stewart said. “We were poor, he was a garbage man but he never missed work. He instilled that ethic to a certain extent in me.”
Remembering his willingness to hold two jobs an hour and a half away from each other, Shelton couldn’t agree more.
“I think work ethic is pretty good,” he said with a smile.
With all his time and energy invested in Crossfit, Stewart has seen immense growth in the business that seeks to be much more than the average gym.
“It didn’t take me long to realize I wanted to cater more towards the masses; to make it available to more than just the upper middle class,” he said. “I have dropped [the price] down now as low as I think I can. I give out free memberships, four or five a month. Sometimes people will email me and say they can’t come for financial reasons, and I’ll let them come for a month or two until they get over their financial crisis.”
Having just recently opened a new downtown location, Stewart and Shelton constantly seek more opportunities to serve the under-privileged.
One of the Waco Crossfit members works with the homeless and needy in the downtown area through her church. With a story of a New York City trainer who trained financially lacking individuals to run marathons in mind, Stewart envisions working two or three times a week with the Waco people who can’t afford the gym’s services to see where it leads.
“We realize those people would probably never be our clients, maybe a long time if ever that they could actually afford our program,” he said. “But go in and work with them, help them increase their fitness level, they feel better about themselves. A lot of times that’s all it takes for them to lift themselves up from where they’re at and go on and do bigger and better things.”
Though he possesses enough discipline to fuel hundreds of lifestyle changes, Stewart’s regimented diet makes room for a treat or two.
“I love banana pudding,” he admitted, though he only enjoys that during holidays. “The thing I treat myself to the most is an ice cream cone at McDonalds which is like 25 grams of sugar, four grams of fat. After your workouts you need to up your sugar intake right after workouts. That’s probably my biggest cheat is having an ice cream cone at McDonalds.”
On the decorative paper and shiny metal hanging on his wall, Stewart has been recognized for his almost superhuman discipline and drive to serve.
However, to Shelton, it’s the humanity of Jimmy Stewart that makes him a hero to so many.
Since they worked together at Gold’s Gym in Dallas in the pre-Crossfit years, Shelton has watched his co-owners’ down-to-earth nature and deep desire to simply be present for his family and tight-knit Crossfit community.
“He makes it a point to be there for everybody because he knows what its like not to have somebody there,” Shelton said.
Though the plaques indicate decades of dousing fires, the natural motivator seems to carry one that has yet to be quenched.
Where once there existed a fiery drive to put out fires, the ex-firefighter now pours his heart into kindling them.