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Octogenarian offers vehicle inspections, inspiration on the south side

Octogenarian offers vehicle inspections, inspiration on the south side

The skinny 85-year-old man is never far from fond memories of a life well lived. Those moments in time are frozen in photos nailed to the wall of his company – John’s Inspection Station on South Flores.

In the early 1960s, customers see him shirtless, in a muscular pose with bulging biceps the size of footballs. There is a photo of bodybuilder and “The Hulk” actor Lou Ferrigno towering over him at a Traders Village event. And there’s a framed, autographed 8-by-10 glossy of Jack LaLanne, the “Godfather of Modern Fitness,” flexing his physique in his iconic jumpsuit.

The images chart the rise of the octogenarian as a disciple of physical fitness.

His story begins at Burbank High School in the 1950s, when he imagined that one day he would be chiseled as bodybuilding icon Eugen Sandow.

John Ellis was a 16-year-old 100-pound when young men with hair combed back sang doo-wop from street corners into the night. Weightlifting with friends became his favorite pastime.

Although his buddies outweighed his 5-foot-2-inch height, size didn’t matter to Ellis. What mattered was excelling at a pastime defined by something he had an endless supply of: determination.

John Ellis, 85, spends time at his gym on South Flores on Wednesday. Ellis has been a bodybuilder for most of his life, preparing a back room at his auto inspection company for “John’s Gym.”

Jerry Lara, San Antonio Express-News / Staffographer

“I knew I was going to be a little boy,” Ellis said, “but I would be the best little man I could be.”

Vincent T. Davis, a 22-year Air Force veteran, embarked on a second career as a journalist and found his calling. He observes and listens throughout San Antonio and discovers intriguing stories about ordinary people. Every Monday morning he shares his stories with Express-News subscribers.


He shares his story with customers in the dusty white cinder block building with “John’s Inspection” painted in red letters above the entrance. Customers get more than vehicles inspected in the bay – they also get inspiring life and spiritual tips from Ellis. Recently, he greeted drivers waiting for their check, dressed in a white short-sleeved shirt, gray sweatpants and a black Army baseball cap printed on wisps of gray hair.

“Hey how are you?” he asks customers. They leave with “Thank you” and “God bless you.”

Before they leave, Ellis hands them a business card. On the back are three images of him in his twenties, bending his giant frame that garnered awards and praise. His motto is: “You come in as a customer. You leave as a friend.”

For the past 20 years, the Army veteran has been running the site just down the hill from his alma mater. Ellis started the company after retiring after 25 years as an official at Randolph AFB.

John Ellis, 85, talks to a customer at his company, John’s Inspection, in South Flores on Wednesday. Ellis has been a bodybuilder for most of his life, preparing a back room at his auto inspection company for “John’s Gym.” His daughter, Jennifer Ellis, 45, is in the background.

Jerry Lara, San Antonio Express-News / Staffographer

A symbol of his faith is a plastic white crucifix that dangles from his wall from strings of celebratory flowers inches from a depiction of Jesus with a glowing halo.

High above hangs a black and white photograph of a young Ellis and his wife, Mary Ann. At first glance, he fell hard for her. They married three months after he brought her home from a Sommers Drug Store on Nogalitos. The couple raised six children: three boys and three girls.

Mary Ann Ellis, a religious woman, died 10 years ago, but she is always on his mind. He calls his wife of 53 his ‘Earth Angel’, the title of his favorite song from the 50s.

“It hurts every day,” Ellis said, lowering his head and breathing. “Oh my God, I think about her every day.”

Since 2007, his daughter Jennifer Ellis, 45, has worked at the station, inspecting vehicles and performing technical tasks while providing customers with one-on-one attention. She recalled how teens who lift weights after school were intrigued by her father and the photos of powerhouses from his childhood.

“He is a real inspiration to everyone who meets him,” she said. “Young people are influenced by him. I call him a living legend.”

Once a gas station and lounge, the old building is a hub for many South Side residents, some who frequented Ellis’ gyms. Danny Aguilar, 51, client, has known Ellis and his family since he was 11 years old. He said stopping at the station is more than just business – it’s like visiting family.

“He’s from around here, and that’s where we come from,” Aguilar said from the downturned window of his car. “So we try to keep it local as much as possible.”

On a wall at John's Inspection are photos of John Ellis and his late wife, Mary Ann, top right, and John as a young man bowing, bottom left.  Ellis, 85, has been a bodybuilder for most of his life and is currently working on opening a gym in the back room of his auto inspection business in South Flores.

On a wall at John’s Inspection are photos of John Ellis and his late wife, Mary Ann, top right, and John as a young man bowing, bottom left. Ellis, 85, has been a bodybuilder for most of his life and is currently working on opening a gym in the back room of his auto inspection business in South Flores.

Jerry Lara, San Antonio Express-News / Staffographer

Today Ellis and his family are preparing for the grand opening of “John’s Gym” in a room behind the bay. Ellis and his son Michael, 43, provide a free workout space for neighborhood kids and athletes in his alma mater. The weight room is filled with benches, weights and equipment donated by supporters and local gyms.

“It’s about love — that’s what God is,” Michael Ellis said of the space his family devoted to community and faith. “He has a heart of forgiveness and gives people a chance.”

Ellis hopes to help young people get in shape, like he did as a teenager pumping iron in his backyard.

Unlike the free weights at his new gym, the dumbbells he lifted were coffee cans filled with concrete and 90-pound cinder blocks. In his heyday, Ellis said he could bench press 300 pounds.

Ellis acknowledged that he was part of his once stately stature, when his back muscles spread wide like the wingspan of a manta rays. Recently, doctors placed a pacemaker in his chest. Nine years ago, Ellis had quadruple bypass surgery. The surgeries have sidelined him for a bit, but he never gives up and passes his passion on to his sons and grandsons. He complained that over the years, friends with whom he once lifted weights have died.

“They’re gone,” Ellis said, “and I’m still here for some reason.”

John Ellis, 85, talks to his grandson, Ellis Guastella, 20, at his South Flores gym on Wednesday. Ellis has been a bodybuilder for most of his life, preparing a back room at his auto inspection company for “John’s Gym.”

Jerry Lara, San Antonio Express-News / Staffographer

Ellis devoted his remaining years to preaching the gospel about health and physical fitness. The days of powerlifting are behind him. These are days of moderate and light workouts twice a week at a TruFit Athletic Club at Southwest Military.

And these are the moments when Ellis treats customers to his first love – singing ’50s songs – the theme music of his life. When he plays a tune, his strong, rousing voice echoes through his bare-walled room decorated for fitness and faith. Recently, Ellis stood between the workstations, lifting his head and singing a 1950s standard, “Angels in the Sky.”

“The Lord will see you walking and He will hear you speak,” he moaned, his arms spread wide. “Talk to the angels in the sky. And if you know that He is close to you, the Lord will always hear you, talking to the angels in the sky.”

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