Cal Neff: When Giants Fall, The Earth Shakes

Cal Neff — a legendary Staples athlete from the 1960s — died last week. His friend Myles MacVane sent along a special tribute. They have been edited for length. A full version can be found on Facebook; search for “Myles Angus MacVane,” and scroll down.

A giant fell last week, and all who knew him well were shaken by his passing.

In 1964 I donated over 300 pounds of equipment and a pair of squat stands to Staples’ weight room. Football coach Paul Lane let me use the room whenever it was open.

I was fairly strong. But one evening I noticed a strongly built 15-year-old do 10 deep, full squats with over 300 pounds on his back. I was thunderstruck. That young man was Calvin Neff.

Within 2 years Cal and I became fast friends. Though his great strength was always present, I came to appreciate his many other qualities.

Cal Neff (Photo courtesy of Myles MacVane)

Cal Neff (Photo courtesy of Myles MacVane)

He was intelligent, well-educated, liked to read, played a strong game of chess, had a quick wit and a vivacious personality. He was open, unaffected, direct, and, almost childlike in his sincere enquiries. Above all, he was loyal to his friends.

Though he was just 5-9, he was a powerhouse. Once, a young man fled into a telephone booth to escape Cal’s wrath. Cal simply picked up the whole telephone booth and flung it 6 or 7 feet. Then he walked away.

Cal believed wholeheartedly in William Blake’s adage that “The road of excess leads to the Palace of Wisdom.” Cal was certainly on that road. Without ever joining the Armed Services, Cal was “special forces,” and a special force of personality is what he had in spades.

As he matured, he specialized in powerlifting. Cal bulked up to over 250 pounds, bench pressed 525, and earned a master’s rating in powerlifting. Yet his weight, and the methods he used to gain it, hurt him. In his late 30s or early 40s he could barely walk, and needed a cane to support himself.

In later years, he ran a marathon — in Vietnam. That’s the kind of drive and willpower that he exemplified.

Near the end of Cal’s time of excessive mass, his life took a totally unexpected and fortuitous turn toward the East. It turned out to be the keystone of his existence. He, who would have laid down his life for a friend, was saved from a life of working as a guard at Bridgeport’s North End jail, in Bridgeport, working the door at the Black Duck, and tooling around in an over-sized, over-powered, totally unnecessary, red pickup truck by a childhood friend who grew up a few houses away from Cal.

Cal Neff, Terry O'Grady and Gerry Manning. (Photo courtesy of Myles MacVane)

Cal Neff, Terry O’Grady and Gerry Manning. (Photo courtesy of Myles MacVane)

Gerry Manning opened a door for Cal to walk through, so that he might become the person he was always meant to be. Cal, as with everything he ever did, saw the opportunity, and barreled through that doorway.

Gerry was a few years older than Cal. An artist by nature, he eventually returned to Westport to enter the business that his father had built dealing semi-precious gemstones.

Cal Neff and his wife Surat. (Photo courtesy of Myles MacVane)

Cal Neff and his wife Surat. (Photo courtesy of Myles MacVane)

I guess that in Cal, his friend and childhood neighbor, Gerry found the perfect protégé to learn the overseas trade. Cal gave up the red pickup, the door at the Black Duck, and the concrete corridors of the North End Jail, and moved to Lantau Island, off the coast of Hong Kong. After several years of daily travel to Hong Kong by ferry, Cal’s business interests shifted to Sri Lanka, where he lived before settling down for good in Thailand. There he found a wife, with whom he had a son, Colter M. Neff, now 17. After a divorce, Cal found his last wife, a younger woman who practices Muay Thai (Thai kickboxing).

Cal Neff loved his son more intensely than he had ever loved anyone. Their bond was breakable only by the Grim Reaper. Cal’s life in Thailand was the adventure that most of us can only experience vicariously, as if in a dream, during a vacation. His training blossomed into a practice of Strong Man events.

At times, when the behemoth participants in those events would come to Thailand to train, compete, or vacation, Cal would train with them. He had his own commercial gym for a while. He was invited to Scandinavia to design a strong man event gym there.

Cal Neff and his son Colter. (Photo courtesy of Myles MacVane)

Cal Neff and his son Colter. (Photo courtesy of Myles MacVane)

He kept up his own practice of those events in Thailand, even staging competitions for up and coming Thais interested in the culture of strength. At his son’s school he taught the proper methods of strength and health, using his vast knowledge of those subjects to help the children find a wholesome path — one which, at times, he had strayed from in his own youth. In that field, I can think of no better a role model than Cal.

Cal Neff was a unique force of nature. In the end, the youthful excesses of the road that led to his own, personal palace of wisdom, marshaled an insidious attack upon the organs that supported that still muscular, still strong body, and finally cupped the bright light in Cal’s eyes. But we will always remember his childlike wonder, his strong personality, the man who would have given his own life unhesitatingly to protect a friend. And to the end of our days, we shall revere him not as a legend, but as our true friend, the one friend who loved life so much, that life created legends to wrap ‘round him.

23 responses to “Cal Neff: When Giants Fall, The Earth Shakes

  1. I was not fortunate enough to call Cal “friend”, but we had a nodding acquaintance at Staples. It was at the Newport Folk Festival, where Dylan went electric, that his name popped up in a way that cemented his reputation and respect in my mind. The local Newport paper screamed a headline that a Connecticut man had been stabbed in the back at the festival, but had pulled the knife out himself, and then proceeded to give his attacker, a well-deserved beat down. The Connecticut man was Cal Neff.

    • Willy Waclaw Godziemba-Maliszewski

      Miggs is in error, it was Jim Bratz at Newport.

    • Miggs, Willy’s right; that was James Keller (formerly A.K.A. by his stepfather’s surname – Bratz), who has a long scar running diagonally across his back to prove that he was severely slashed that day (or, evening) in Newport. As with Cal, Jim, too, was a local legend who has grown into a great friend and a wonderful asset to our world. Best wishes, Myles

    • Miggs the person you are referring to was not Cal Neff it was Jimmy Bratts who was stabbed in Newport . Jim was stabbed with a screw driver and yes he beat the crap out of the several guys who attacked him

  2. I didn’t know Cal, but I was intrigued by your headline. I have a simliar phrase in my story about the Dibia or medicine doctor in Nigeria. When I ask the Dibia to hold back the rain during the wake and funeral for my father-in-law, he says, “When a great man dies, the earth trembles,”

  3. I remember Cal very well, he was in my class. Thank you for this beautiful and loving tribute.

  4. Barbara Sherburne '67

    I got out my Stapleite 1967 yearbook to look for Cal’s photo. We were in the same class. Interesting, Madeleine Mercier’s photo is on the opposing page. In those days, just little bits were written about each person. This is what Cal’s says: “Goona”… likes wine, weights and women … Powder Puff Homecoming Queen … famous for his hairstyles … desires to be a cook at the Arrow … Wrestling Team … “That’s foul.”

    Thank you for the story, Myles. I never would have known anything about what became of Cal. Rest in peace.

  5. Thanks for the tribute to Cal.He is missed by all that knew him.

  6. Bob Leggett

    I was on the wrestling team with Cal. I remember even then his biceps were as big as most peoples thighs. He had a relatively new tatoo of a bull dog on his arm, and after one of the matches (which he of course won) the bull dog had a bloody nose, which he proudly showed off.
    I never saw Cal after HS, but I do remember him as a kind and happy ‘gentle giant’.

  7. Tom Allen '66

    Oddly, Cal wasn’t big back then. Huge upper body, of course, but little legs. Bob, he wrestled at 175, didn’t he? Although we had a well-equipped weight room back then, courtesy of Myles MacVane, there were very few lifting enthusiasts who lifted for the sheer fun of it, not just to prepare for sports. Rick Scott ’65, also a wrestler, comes immediately to mind, as does Bobby Jacobs from my class. But Cal Neff occupied his own niche.

    • Tom, As I mentioned in my eulogy, I first saw Cal in the Staples H.S. weight room, when he was a 15 yr. old sophomore. He had 300 lbs. on the bar, with which he proceeded to do a set of 10 quick reps of a very full, deep squat. His legs then were not “little,” except, perhaps, in comparison to his large upper body. Once, over at my father’s house, Cal and I were working out with my solid iron 80 lb. dumbbells. I cleaned them to my shoulders and did 13 standing alternate presses, which was my absolute limit. Then it was Cal’s turn. He cleaned those 80 pounders and proceeded to do 24 alternate presses. And that’s when he was still a teenager. In his upper body, too, Cal was remarkably strong! Best wishes, Myles

  8. Willy waclaw Godziemba-Maliszewski

    Miggs is in error, it was Jim Bratz at Newport.

  9. Willy Waclaw Godziemba-Maliszewski

    A poem for Cal Neff 1948 – 2014

    Exile’s Letter

    By Ezra Pound

    From the Chinese of Li Po, usually considered the greatest poet of China: written by him while in exile about 760 A. D., to the Hereditary War-Councilor of Sho, “recollecting former companionship.”

    SO-KIN of Rakuho, ancient friend, I now remember
    That you built me a special tavern,
    By the south side of the bridge at Ten-Shin.
    With yellow gold and white jewels
    we paid for the songs and laughter,
    And we were drunk for month after month,
    forgetting the kings and princes.
    Intelligent men came drifting in, from the sea
    and from the west border,
    And with them, and with you especially,
    there was nothing at cross-purpose;
    And they made nothing of sea-crossing
    or of mountain-crossing,
    If only they could be of that fellowship.
    And we all spoke out our hearts and minds …
    and without regret.
    And then I was sent off to South Wei,
    smothered in laurel groves,
    And you to the north of Raku-hoku,
    Till we had nothing but thoughts and memories between us.
    And when separation had come to its worst
    We met, and travelled together into Sen-Go
    Through all the thirty-six folds of the turning and twisting waters;
    Into a valley of a thousand bright flowers …
    that was the first valley,
    And on into ten thousand valleys
    full of voices and pine-winds.
    With silver harness and reins of gold,
    prostrating themselves on the ground,
    Out came the East-of-Kan foreman and his company;
    And there came also the “True-man” of Shi-yo to meet me,
    Playing on a jewelled mouth-organ.
    In the storied houses of San-Ko they gave us
    more Sennin music;
    Many instruments, like the sound of young phœnix broods.
    And the foreman of Kan-Chu, drunk,
    Danced because his long sleeves
    Wouldn’t keep still, with that music playing.
    And I, wrapped in brocade, went to sleep with my head on his lap,
    And my spirit so high that it was all over the heavens.

    And before the end of the day we were scattered like stars or rain.
    I had to be off to So, far away over the waters,
    You back to your river-bridge.
    And your father, who was brave as a leopard,
    Was governor in Hei Shu and put down the barbarian rabble.
    And one May he had you send for me, despite the long distance;
    And what with broken wheels and so on, I won’t say it wasn’t hard going …
    Over roads twisted like sheep’s guts.
    And I was still going, late in the year,
    in the cutting wind from the north,
    And thinking how little you cared for the cost …
    and you caring enough to pay it.
    Then what a reception!
    Red jade cups, food well set, on a blue jewelled table;
    And I was drunk, and had no thought of returning;
    And you would walk out with me to the western corner of the castle,
    To the dynastic temple, with the water about it clear as blue jade,
    With boats floating, and the sound of mouth-organs and drums,
    With ripples like dragon-scales going grass-green on the water,
    Pleasure lasting, with courtezans going and coming without hindrance,
    With the willow-flakes falling like snow,
    And the vermilioned girls getting drunk about sunset,
    And the waters a hundred feet deep reflecting green eyebrows—
    Eyebrows painted green are a fine sight in young moonlight,
    Gracefully painted—and the girls singing back at each other,
    Dancing in transparent brocade,
    And the wind lifting the song, and interrupting it,
    Tossing it up under the clouds.

    And all this comes to an end,
    And is not again to be met with.
    I went up to the court for examination,
    Tried Layu’s luck, offered the Choyu song,
    And got no promotion,
    And went back to the East Mountains white-headed.

    And once again we met, later, at the South Bridge head.
    And then the crowd broke up—you went north to San palace.
    And if you ask how I regret that parting?
    It is like the flowers falling at spring’s end,
    confused, whirled in a tangle.
    What is the use of talking! And there is no end of talking—
    There is no end of things in the heart.

    I call in the boy,
    Have him sit on his knees to write and seal this,
    And I send it a thousand miles, thinking.

    – (Translated by Ezra Pound from the notes of the late Ernest Fenollosa, and the deciphering’s of the Professors Mori and Araga.)

    • Willy, Thank you for turning me on to such an emotionally moving poem. I feel that it captures what many of us who all shared together those halcyon days of yore feel about Cal. Best wishes, Myles

  10. Ron Parise

    Thanks Myles for the great tribute to Cal. When I first got word last week through the grapevine of Cal’s passing, I was really shaken…Now I understand it must have truly been the Earth moving beneath my feet.

    I also had the privilege of many long hours in the Staples weight room and at the Westport YMCA lifting with Cal; he was both motivating and challenging.

    Although Cal spent much of his latter days in Thailand, his periodic trips back to Westport and the gatherings he inspired were legendary.

    With Cal’s passing I think all who knew him must now feel a bit more vulnerable with the reality of having to face our own mortality. After all, Cal was the rough and tumble, burly guy who had inspired many, now he is no more. Certainly he will live in the hearts and minds of all who knew him. But the physical presence of his being – a funny remark, a kind word, the infectious laugh – sadly, are no more.

    Well Cal, now whenever I hear and feel the rumble of thunder across the skies, I will know the Great Weight Room in the sky is occupied by a friend who perhaps just broke another personal record as the weights go bouncing to the floor mats. Keep the iron moving, Cal.

  11. john gaynor

    I didn’t know Cal Neff, but I had three brief encounters with him. Once when I was bartending at Rosebuds and cut him off. Another time when he offered to fight someone in my stead. And finally when I towed he and Gary Mcginnis from Cockenoe to Compo when their boat engine cut out. Later, was in a twelve step program with Dave Hale (sp). I drove Dave to meetings and he shared some of his glory days with Cal Neff. Dave passed away in ’08.Their passing is a poignant reminder to me. RIP.

  12. Jean DuVoisin Staples ’67 Nice job Miles. It was nice to hear of Cal’s passing in such a positive way. I was Cal’s workout buddy along with Ludy Wessle for several years in Westport. We converted a neighbors old shed on East Ferry lane into a workout room. My parents asked us to move the weight room out of the basement after we started cracking the cement floor.

    Cal was very disciplined about working out and it was probably the one constant throughout his whole life. In the early years Cal was the new kid at Bedford Junior high school when he came back to public school. He soon became one of the most well know kids for his “antics” and very direct style of confronting people and issues. Cal also won a school wide english essay contest for Staples, uncovering another of his abilities. I’m sure there were many other abilities we didn’t all get to know.

    • Jean, Cal was something, wasn’t he. I remember him telling me of your workouts together in that old shed. I had not heard about the English essay, but I am not surprised by it. Although no taller than average, truly Cal was a giant. Best wishes, Myles

  13. Janice Beecher

    Dan & Myles: Your tribute to Cal was wonderful and brought back some old memories of the short friendship we had when we were Juniors(?) in Staples. He was dating a girl named Barbie Laughlin at the time, who was a very close friend, even though I haven’t seen her since high school. He was a very tough and strong guy even then. And, I remember very well a time when he and bunch of other boys headed off to Norwalk to settle a score with some guys there. We sat around Ann Harding’s house worried about the outcome, because they had garrison belts and car antennas for weapons. Luckily, things were settled without violence. Interesting days! Thanks for the memories.

    P.S. Jim Bratz was also a good friend during those days.