It’s been a long time since I had the need for a fake boyfriend.
The ’80s, in fact. But if I did, I would want it to be Russell Barefoot. The handsome, huggable trainer met me recently near the 12th Street Gym, where he trains and inspires his clients on a daily basis. As we walked toward a coffee shop where we sat to talk, I was struck by how many people not only stopped him to say hi, but threw their arms around him for a warm bear hug.
PGN: Tell me about yourself. RB: I grew up outside of Pittsburgh in a little town called Duquesne. My dad was a steelworker, my grandfather was a steel-worker, my great grandfather was a steel-worker. I remember when I was about 12 years old, I was helping them build a deck onto my grandfather’s house and my uncle was watching me hammer. He shook his head and said, “You’re going to college.” And I was the first person in my family to go to college. I went to Slippery Rock University, about an hour and a half north of Pittsburgh, and spent four years there changing majors. I switched about eight or nine times! I’d always been involved in a lot of school activities, including working as a resident assistant and, during my senior year, I realized that the people who I reported to at the school were getting paid! I just thought they were older students working that had real jobs and just did this on the side. I had no idea that there was a degree for working with college-student personnel. So I dropped my second major and looked for the simplest bachelor’s degree I could get so that I could graduate and start on my master’s. I got a job at a fraternity (which was trial by fire), decided that I liked it and went to Bowling Green State University in Ohio and got my master’s. I worked in the field for 12 years as director of student activities, director of leadership development, director of student involvement, up to working as the assistant dean of students.
PGN: Are you an only child? RB: I have a little sister who is four years younger than me. It’s weird to say little sister: She has an 11-year-old daughter. She just went through a yearlong chemotherapy battle with lymphoma. She’s doing well and they think it’s gone.
PGN: So did you go bald in solidarity? RB: [Laughs.] No; my dad, my grandfather and even my grandmother were all pretty follicly challenged. When I was 27, my hair had been thinning ridiculously for a few years. I ran into an old friend who’d shaved his hair and it looked good, so that night while taking a shower, I took the plunge and shaved it.
PGN: What was it like growing up in a steel family? RB: It was tough: When I was about 8, the mills closed and my dad got laid off. When I go home, there’s nothing left. My dad bought his house for about $30,000 in 1973. He’s had it on the market for five years and he can’t get $8,000 for it. It’s a big three-bedroom house with a huge kitchen, dining room, porch and backyard and he’s renting it for $300 a month.
PGN: Tell me about the family. RB: As I said, the men all worked at the steel factory. My grandfather said he’d go to work in a white shirt and he’d come home and it was brown every day. So you can imagine what it did for their lungs. I worried, but they were all smokers anyway. For living so close to the city, they were really country folk. A wild night was watching back-to-back episodes of “Dukes of Hazzard” or “Hee Haw.” My mother was a stay-at-home mom. She’s in her mid-50s now and she thinks she will be forever. A few years ago, she fell down and they didn’t know why. Her knee just collapsed on her. So they gave her a battery of tests and it turned out she has MS. As a result, she’s gained about 100 pounds and has to use a walker. But things are turning around. She used to bowl, so for her birthday I got her the Wii bowling. At first she was fussing that I’d spent too much money, but I got her to try a game from her chair. After a minute of playing seated, she stood up and started really getting into it. It was the most exercise she’d had in ages. Now she calls and brags about her scores.
PGN: What was your favorite toy as a kid? RB: I had a “Six Million Dollar Man” action figure, the kind where you could look through his bionic eye. But mainly I was into comic books: I still am. I have about 3,000 comic books packed away and about a dozen Superman T-shirts.
PGN: Play any instruments? RB: I was always in band. I went to an inner-city school and didn’t really fit in on the sports teams, but I loved music. I played the trumpet in our marching band, jazz band and concert band, and then when I got in college I also learned how to play the French horn so I could be in the orchestra with all my friends. Then I took voice lessons so that I could join the choir and travel with my friends as well.
PGN: Crazy band story? RB: I went to a pretty rough school and when we traveled to play our chief-rival high school, we would have to hang our uniforms in the window. The reason was so that if anyone threw bricks at the bus, we would be shielded from any glass debris or rocks.
PGN: So what brought you to Philadelphia? RB: My ex and I were both in the educational field and feeling kind of stagnant. He got a job here, so we both came to Philly. We got a house and then things didn’t work out. It had been 11 years, but things happen. I liked Philly, though, so I got another place and looked for new work. I’d always paid attention to my health and had taken numerous classes in things like yoga and judo and nutrition and psychology during my days of mobile majors. So going into training was an easy transition. My last job in Ohio had been as director of student life and athletics. I’d never played organized sports before, but I looked the part and so I was a supervisor for the team coaches.
PGN: You seem to be a good cheerleader. RB: I think everybody should make time to help uplift everybody else. I probably got that from my grandmother. Oh, now I’m going to cry. As I said, I’m the only one in my family who was academically inclined: I was on the honor rolls and involved in student government. President of the band, head of the newspaper, all of those things — and she would tell me that if I kept at it, I could be president of the United States. She was always a constant support, encouraging me and telling me I could be whatever I wanted to. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized how much that encouragement helped me.
PGN: How did you come out? RB: Well, in college I was the perfect asexual being. I lived in Patterson dorm and they called me “The Pope of Patterson Hall” because I didn’t drink or smoke, I didn’t swear and I didn’t appear to have sex. I’d had some experience, but it wasn’t until I was in grad school studying identity development that I ever spoke about it publicly. I started integrating “me” statements into my oral presentation on identity when I was on the part about gay identity theory. That Christmas when I went home, my mom started asking me about my friends — like Nick, the dancer, and Tim, the theater major. The funny thing was Tim wasn’t even gay! She finally just asked me outright if I was gay. I took a sip of my cocoa and said yes. She said, “OK, but don’t tell your dad just yet; men don’t understand these kind of things.” What’s amazing is that she’d been preparing for two years. Her best friend’s son was gay, so on spring break, she went to South Beach, Fla. As her homework, she went out clubbing. She then told my aunt who told my grandmother; they all agreed the men shouldn’t know. It wasn’t until my partner (who’d come home with me for six years) and I decided to have a ceremony that I officially told my dad. I invited him to come and he sent me an e-mail declining. My father, my grandfather and his father all have the same name. Part of his response was, “You want me to celebrate the fact that our family name isn’t going to be passed on?” We’ve become closer now but it’s not something on the forefront.
PGN: Any hobbies? RB: Well, I discovered volleyball several years ago and I love it. I played in tournaments back in Ohio and am now connected with a New York team. We’ve won five or six tournaments, including the nationals one year in Atlanta.
PGN: What do you love about training? RB: Well, it’s a lot like when I was working in higher education inspiring students and helping them become better people. It’s just in a different setting. You really build up a relationship with your clients because you see them at such vulnerable moments. It feels good to help people feel good about themselves.
PGN: Life lesson? RB: I used to mow my grandfather’s lawn each week. One year I got a job at a pizza shop, but I would still cut his lawn on weekends. One day he picked me up and, by the time we got to his house, it was raining. I stayed and had dinner, hoping it would clear. It didn’t, so he drove me home. When we pulled up he paid me as usual. I protested, “But I didn’t mow the lawn!” He looked at me and said, “You have a job now and your time is worth something.” It gave me goosebumps and I’ve always remembered that it’s important to value people and their time.
PGN: What kind of reader are you? RB: [Laughs.] Well, I like to read all sorts of books, but right now I’m on a run of “young women’s” books! I’m on the last book of the “Twilight” series. I’ve been reading along with some of my clients, so we gossip about what part of the book we’re on.
PGN: Stupid human trick? RB: I’m good with a yo-yo. I have 39 of them.
PGN: So where does the name Barefoot come from? RB: They say that it’s Welsh in origin and that somewhere along the way the spelling changed, but that doesn’t make sense to me. It sounds more like it was from an intermarriage with someone from a different culture, perhaps Native American. In those days, a lot of people would marry and then pass for white so that they could get into good schools and vote and do a lot of things they were denied as Native Americans. I look at my uncle and he has black hair and high cheekbones and looks the part. Who knows the truth, but that’s my theory.
To suggest a community member for “Family Portraits,” write to: Family Portraits, 505 S. Fourth St., Philadelphia, PA 19147 or [email protected].