Forty-five years ago a young woman walked into Rockville City Hall with a wild and crazy idea: She wanted to teach physical fitness classes for women, and she wanted the Rockville Department of Recreation and Parks to help her do it.
This was 1957. Women in suburbs such as Rockville were supposed to stay at home. The modern women's liberation movement was not yet launched. The men who ran city hall in Rockville were nonplussed by the idea of physical fitness for women. "Don't they get enough exercise doing their housework?" asked one.
But the young woman persisted, and eventually she prevailed. The Rockville Department of Parks and Recreation agreed to sponsor her exercise classes.
Thousands of sweaty women, tens of thousands of workouts and hundreds of thousands of hours of bending and stretching later, those physical fitness classes continue at the Rockville Civic Center and other locations. Now they are the living legacy of their founder, Virginia Sullivan Moore, the young woman of 1957 who walked into Rockville City Hall with her new idea.
In the spring of 2000, Moore's ovarian cancer was diagnosed. Through months of chemotherapy and surgery, she continued to lead the women of Rockville and Montgomery County in the bi- and triweekly regimens of leg lifts, sit-ups, push-ups, deep knee bends, squats, hip rolls and the like that she designed over the years to build body strength and shrink stomachs, bottoms, thighs and abs. But by midsummer of this year, she could no longer continue. She died Nov. 2.
Moore was a former fashion model and beauty contest winner. In 1960, she was "Mrs. Maryland." With the passage of time, it was inevitable that she would lose her youth, but she kept her shape and her looks, and she did it the old-fashioned way: diet and exercise. She was zealous, determined and organized in her campaign against excess body fat. To illustrate a point, she once brought a five-pound hunk of suet to a workout just to show her "girls" -- she always called them girls -- what five pounds of fat looked like.
"If you learn to accept a newly gained pound or two by using another belt notch, it should be no shock when your zippers get contrary and seams refuse to contain you," Moore wrote in a dieting and exercise manual, "Every Inch of You," published in 1982. "We accept the little things, and the big things slip in sideways. . . . Taking affirmative action to control the operation of the world's most magnificent machine, your body, should begin with a plan. . . . The will of self-preservation affords you the power for fight or flight. . . . The prime of your life can last longer if you continue to make the effort to do young things. Stretching out the summer and fall days to delay the onset of the winter of your life is within your ability. Exercise may give you an extra Indian summer."
Since 1953, Moore had lived in Rockville. She grew up on Capitol Hill in Washington, the only girl in a family of five children. With her brothers, she roller-skated around the Supreme Court, waded in the Reflecting Pool on hot summer days and sat on the lap of Abraham Lincoln's statue at the Lincoln Memorial. At age 16, she married Harry A. Moore, who had just returned to Washington after Army service in World War II. He would later be a Potomac Electric Power Co. lineman and then a power distribution office supervisor. In 1977, he died.
They had five children, and for a period Moore ran what amounted to a family day-care operation. "She was a stay-at-home mom with her hands in a lot of other things besides," said Colleen Bennet, one of her daughters. At night and when the children were in school during the day, Moore was running exercises classes. She taught line dancing and ran fashion shows. She was always entering contests, many of which she won. In a statewide egg-cooking competition, she took first place with a dish she called Eggs and Scalloped Pearls. She was a supernumerary with the Washington Opera, and she appeared on stage at Wolf Trap Farm Park with Rudolf Nureyev in a production of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake." For 20 years, she was junior choir mother at Christ Episcopal Church in Rockville. She wrote travel articles and a historical novel about a Maryland woman during and after the Civil War.
But she was best known as a fitness guru. She led lunch-hour workouts at federal offices and shipboard workouts on Caribbean cruises. Periodically, she'd get a group together for a week of exercising and health food dieting at Bethany Beach. She had a television exercise show, "Fifty and Moore," which since 1988 has been shown on suburban cable channels.
Over time, she acquired a loyal following of dedicated and persistent exercisers. Ruth Shevach, a Rockville marketing specialist, showed up at one of Moore's fitness classes 30 years ago, when she was pregnant with her youngest son, and she's been a regular participant since. There are others who have been around for decades, and many of them come as much for emotional and psychological support as they do for the physical exercise. Several are cancer survivors. They used to exercise to music, but the music made conversation difficult and hard to hear. So they got rid of the music.
Only religion and politics were off conversational limits during Moore's workouts, but this edict was bent on occasion. There was one subject never discussed. That was Moore's age. Not until after she died did the members of her fitness classes learn that she was 72.
On Veterans Day, less than a week after Moore's funeral, about a dozen women from her Monday morning class gathered on the ground floor level of the Rockville Civic Center for an hour of exercise. Shevach was leading. She had filled in before when Moore was on vacation, and more recently when Moore's medical condition made it impossible for her to be there. "Virginia wanted us to continue," she said. " . . . Let's do 50 leg lifts in honor of Virginia."