– Winston Churchill
This is a story about golf and Augusta, about love and loss and about what happens when you set your mind to something.
It’s a story about former President William Howard Taft.
Most of us know that Taft was the largest man to ever live in the White House. When he concluded his single term 100 years ago this spring, he was an impressive 340 pounds.
Some of us also know Taft was the first president to play golf, at least publicly, and despite his size was pretty good at it. He loved the sport.
Chances are if you search through the online photos of the Library of Congress (as I have recently) you will find Taft shown more often playing golf than making a speech from the back of a train.
Maybe if he had spent more time in a smoke-filled room and less time setting up foursomes, he might have been president for more than one term.
But he didn’t, which brings us to a sad day in March 1913 when “Big Bill” gave Woodrow Wilson the door key to the Oval Office and, as The New York Times described it, “started to his ‘Southern Home’ in Augusta, Ga., there to rest and recuperate.”
That’s another thing you find out about Taft. He liked coming to Augusta. He came here before his presidency, during his presidency and immediately after his presidency.
But that spring trip to our town a century ago inspired something else: a big change in the big man and what could probably be called the most successful weight loss program in presidential history. Over the last nine months of 1913, Taft lost 70 pounds.
When reporters spotted him during a December visit to New York, they hardly recognized him.
“Mr. Taft,” a New York Times reporter inquired politely, “would it be out of place to ask you how much flesh you have lost since you left the White House?”
“Not at all,” Taft answered in a Dec. 12, 1913, interview. “When I left Washington for Augusta, I weighed exactly 340 pounds. This morning I weighed myself again and I tipped the scale at exactly 270.8 pounds … I certainly feel fit and fine as a result of it.”
The reporter asked how he did it, and this is how the former president described his weight loss plan:
“I have dropped potatoes entirely from my bill of fare, and also bread in all forms. Pork is also tabooed, as well as other meats in which there is a large percentage of fat. All the vegetables except potatoes are permitted, and of meats, that of all fowls is permitted. In the fish line I abstain from salmon and bluefish, which are the fat members of the fish family. I am also careful not to drink more than two glasses of water at each meal. I abstain from wines and liquors of all kinds, as well as tobacco in every form.”
A chatty Taft even told the reporter that he and Mrs. Taft planned to head back to Augusta in April for a visit to their “home folks” in that Southern city.
“Augusta,” the Times added, “held a very dear place in his affections.”
It’s a sentiment still shared by many golfers in April.
No matter what their size.