(This story was written for the Saturday, April 10, 2010 edition of The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.)
Now, the native Iowan is probably doing handstands in heaven.
“That’s what somebody else said,” daughter Dian Ramirez said with a laugh. “He’s probably jumping on a trampoline there.”
“And with ease,” added Dagmar Munn, his other daughter. “The joints don’t hurt.”
Nissen, a fitness fanatic and tumbler, most likely since birth on Feb. 1, 1914, in Blairstown, was healthy until he went to the hospital Sunday afternoon. Diagnosed with pneumonia, he died surrounded by his family, including wife, Annie, whom he married 59 years ago Jan. 24.
“He just kept going,” said Ramirez, fitness director at the San Diego Tennis & Racquet Club. “His deal was for every year to be more exciting than the last.”
Nissen, a graduate of Cedar Rapids Washington High School, was scheduled to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. He also had planned to present the Nissen-Emery award to the nation’s top senior male gymnast at next week’s national collegiate meet at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.
“He only missed it a couple of times (since 1966),” Ramirez said. “I think he knew it would be the last time.”
Last September, Nissen held his annual reunion with fitness guru and longtime friend Jack LaLanne in Las Vegas. Nissen always called LaLanne “the spring chicken” because he was eight months younger than Nissen.
As LaLanne began promoting fitness in the 1930s, Nissen became fascinated with the safety nets used by circus trapeze artists. He stretched canvas onto a crude frame with springs made of tire inner-tubes and demonstrated it at a YMCA summer camp.
In 1941, he and Larry Griswold, his gymnastics coach at the University of Iowa, built their first “rebound tumbling” device. Eventually, Nissen Trampoline, based in Cedar Rapids, became the world’s largest gymnastics equipment manufacturer.
“He was just very, very full of vigor,” said Munn, who lives in Green Valley, Ariz., and worked with the wellness programs at St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids for 29 years.
“He was a terrific guy to work with,” said Norm Barnes of Cedar Rapids, a 37-year employee of Nissen’s company. “He had great Christmas parties for employees.”
One year, Nissen built a 40-foot-tall Christmas tree out of trampolines.
Another time, recalls Tom Ecker of Cedar Rapids, a longtime friend and former employee, Nissen put a small Japanese car on one of the company’s Ping-Pong tables to show how strong it was.
“He was quiet and full of energy,” Ecker said. “Other people who traveled with him said he never had to eat, sleep or pee.”
The trampoline, named after the Spanish word trampolin, which means springboard, became Nissen’s baby. He traveled the world promoting it with the hope that it would some day become an Olympic sport, which it did in 2000. He attended those games in Sydney, Australia, to take the first ceremonial bounce.
As a Navy veteran, Nissen’s cremated remains will be interred at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego. He was a flight instructor during World War II, using his trampoline to improve the timing and coordination of pilots.
“He was a great guy, a fantastic father, a great role model,” Ramirez said. “He did some fantastic things. We really loved him.”