by Paul Horn | January 29, 2022

boise group shot

What are you supposed to do when someone dies? I guess I’m lucky in that I haven’t had much experience with such things. I lost grandparents when I was too young to comprehend it. My dog died a few years ago—that was rough. And too recently, we lost Nick Huth, one of our apprentice coaches at the gym. Their passing was sad, but it made sense. There was a logical explanation. The former were old. The latter lost a lifelong battle with addiction. I understood it.

On January 21st, I got the news that Dave Fox, owner of Starting Strength Boise, died suddenly and unexpectedly in his sleep, leaving behind his wife, Rachel, and his two boys, Justin (5) and Matthew (11 months).

This I do not understand. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s not supposed to happen.

Dave was my boss and my friend. He hired me to help him get his first gym up and running. I had just sold my business in Los Angeles and was eager for a new project and a change of scenery.

We talked almost daily in the months before I moved to Boise. He bounced ideas off me. He sent me the resumes of potential coaches to review. He even drove over to a house I was considering renting and FaceTimed me so I could get a feel for the neighborhood.

The day I finally arrived in Idaho, Dave tried to play it cool and give me some time and space to unpack, but he couldn’t help himself. He showed up at my door and practically burst through it to give me what felt like a long-overdue hug. I was exhausted from the long drive, but Dave’s energy was refreshing. He was genuinely excited I was there. It was real. Another piece in the complicated puzzle that is launching a new business had snapped into place, and he was one step closer to realizing his dream.

Within a few days, I was over at Dave’s house for dinner. I met Rachel, his in-laws, Steve and Amanda, and his two boys. When I left that night, I thanked Dave for having me. He said, “Of course, man. You’re family now.” For someone that just uprooted his life to move to a new state, with no friends or family nearby, it meant a lot, and it was sincere. By the second time I saw his kids, I was already “Uncle Paul.”

Dave regularly checked in on me to make sure I was settling into my new life in Idaho. He coached me through getting my new driver’s license. He recommended restaurants. He told me where to buy good steaks.

One afternoon, he took me on a terrifying ride through the hills surrounding Boise in his side-by-side—a souped-up, off-road go-cart. I’m not a religious man, but I recall offering a few prayers to The Almighty as he blasted around corners, over boulders, and through puddles—giggling to himself like a mischievous little boy. During the quieter moments of the ride, however, I got to know the man.

I learned he was adopted and raised by a single mother. He told me how Rachel’s mom had been one of his personal-training clients and set them up. Apparently, her cooking sealed the deal on his decision to propose. He surprised me when he told me his favorite musician was Prince, and Fleetwood Mac was one of the best concerts he’d ever been to. He was easy to talk to. There was no pretense. No bullshit. No ego. Just a salt-of-the-earth kind of guy you’d want to get a beer with.

In the days before the gym opened its doors, Dave called more frequently. He was panicking – scared we wouldn’t get enough members. He was nervous the business wouldn’t succeed, that he’d let his family down. I did my best to reassure him. I told him the fear was normal and a good sign he would do whatever it takes to make this thing work. Fear of failure is a healthy source of motivation for any entrepreneur. Plenty of new businesses die under the direction of overly-confident owners. I told him, “Once we get the doors open, people will come.” And they did.

As the months went on, I got to watch Dave evolve into a competent leader. His previous career was in sales, and he was a damn good salesman, but he never had employees. He needed to learn how to manage people—a task he approached with surprising humility. Ray, Steve, and I had all run our own businesses, and Dave was never too proud to seek our advice and always humble enough to take it. He didn’t care about being right; he cared about doing what was best for the business.

Entrepreneurship is tough. Not everyone is cut out for it. Dave was. He was motivated. He worked hard – always making calls, fixing things, following up with clients, checking in with the staff, etc. Sometimes it was annoying. I remember getting a barrage of work-related text messages from him late one Saturday night and thinking, “Whoa, man. How about some boundaries here? It’s the weekend. Can’t this wait until Monday?” Looking back now, I feel like an asshole. I remember what it’s like to run a new business. Your brain never shuts off. You’re always thinking about what needs to be done. I should have been more empathetic. And, for what it’s worth, I’d welcome a few of his unsolicited texts right now.

His “tendency to over-communicate,” as he put it, was just an extension of his enthusiasm for what he was doing, and he carried that into other important areas of his life.

Starting Strength Boise has always been a family business. Dave started it with the help of his father-in-law, Steve. His mother-in-law, Amanda, keeps the books and handles the bills. And soon after the gym opened, Rachel left her corporate job to take over marketing, social media, and a host of other unglamorous, behind-the-scenes duties.

Of course, the whole family trains in the gym too. Steve is in the early morning group. Amanda comes to what’s been deemed our “Wisdom Hour”—the 12 pm class that consists of a lively group of strong women over 50. And Rachel trains during the sessions I coach in the evenings. Those are my favorite classes because she often brings the boys with her, and it’s there that I got to witness Dave’s enthusiasm for two other roles he loved to play – husband and father.

Whenever Rachel pulled into the gym parking lot, Dave ran out to greet her. He’d kiss her, ask her how she was, and tell her he was happy to see her. Their voices softened when they spoke. I remember noticing that they paused and stared at each other longer than I expected them to. Like they both went somewhere else for a moment before snapping back to reality. There was a tenderness you don’t often see with married couples, particularly ones exhausted from wrangling small children all day. But they seemed like they were still in that puppy-love phase we all hope will last longer than it does.

Their fondness for each other surprised me on more than one occasion. On the night before Dave and I left for a conference in Texas, I remember asking Rachel if she was looking forward to having the house to herself for a few days. We’re both only-children, and I figured she’d relish her alone time as much as I did. But without hesitation, she replied, “Oh no. I always miss Dave when he’s gone.”

While Rachel lifted, Dave eagerly embraced the role of dad and resident cheerleader. He’d carry Matthew around the gym, allowing him to inspect all the different metal, rubber, and wood objects and determine which ones tasted the best. He’d make funny noises and silly faces, inducing his son’s uncontrollable laughter. He’d feed Matthew, burp him, change him, and clean the throw-up off his face and shirt. But he always made sure he was close enough to cheer Rachel on during her heavy sets.

One Saturday, I watched him teach Justin how to deadlift. Justin is a spirited kid, and his emotions can overwhelm him at times. He was getting frustrated that he couldn’t pick up the bar. He wanted to quit. His eyes filled with tears. But Dave never lost his cool. He was patient and encouraging, yet firm. He talked Justin through several attempts until the bar finally broke off the ground, and his son stood proudly, barbell in hand, smiling from ear to ear.

Not all men embrace the role of husband and father so easily – particularly those that grow up without a father of their own. But Dave did. It was natural, and he made it look effortless. I think, more than anything else, the quality of his relationships with his wife and children is the thing I admire most about him.

I often get angry and annoyed by the public response to the death of famous politicians, presidents, supreme court justices, etc. For much of their career, they are criticized, mocked, and derided by a subset of the population that disagrees with their agenda. But as soon as they’re dead, many of these same people will take to social media and post heartfelt tributes to the departed, celebrating what they accomplished and the impact they made during their time in office.

I know that’s exactly what’s going to happen with Rippetoe dies, and it pisses me off. All these internet trolls who did nothing but bash the man while he was alive will suddenly pontificate in lengthy Instagram posts about his important contribution to the strength training community. But the man will be dead. He won’t see any of it. Seems like if someone mattered to you, you’d want to tell them when they’re still around.

But I guess that’s what it all comes down to in the end – your legacy. Large or small, what impact did you have? Who did you help? What did you change? What did you leave behind?

Part of Dave’s legacy is his boys. They’re too young to grasp what happened – how they were robbed of their father.

Rachel will be okay. She’s tough-as-nails. Trust me, I’ve trained her. Dave couldn’t have picked a stronger woman to shape his boys into quality men.

The boys aren’t strong yet, but they will be. We’ll make damn sure of that.

Justin and Matthew, if you read this someday, never forget that you’ve got a lot of people in your life who care about you. Your grandparents, your mom, the people in your community, and the coaches in the gym your dad built are all here to support you.

Justin, you’re the man of the house now. I’m sure your mom is doing everything she can to make your childhood as normal as possible. But you’re probably going to have to grow up a little faster than a kid should have to. Your mom needs your help, and your brother needs someone to look up to. You’ve got a lot of responsibility to take on and some big shoes to fill, but I’ve seen you deadlift, so I know you can do difficult things.

Give your mom lots of hugs and tell her you love her often – even if you think she already knows. Trust me, she’ll never tire of hearing it. When you go off to college or move into your first apartment, send her flowers every so often for no reason other than to let her know you’re thinking about her.

Look, buddy, you got dealt a crappy hand pretty early in life. It’s gonna hurt, probably forever. You’re allowed to be angry. You’re allowed to be sad. But you’re never allowed to let this make you cold, or bitter, or resentful. You’re never allowed to use your pain as an excuse for doing anything that betrays your integrity. Your dad also grew up without his father, and he turned into a pretty stand-up guy. You’re made up of the same stuff he was. Whatever he had is in you, and he’d expect you to use whatever gifts and talents he gave you to become the best version of yourself.

Some of the most successful people in this world have a story like yours – an early tragedy that shaped their childhood. But they learned to use their pain as a source of motivation to do good in the world and help other people. I hope you choose to do the same. I hope you build a successful business, write a bestselling novel, invent a new medical procedure, become a jiu-jitsu champion, play drums in a rock band, or paint beautiful pictures that get displayed in museums all over the world. Whatever you decide to do, give it everything you’ve got. As long as you do that, whether you succeed or fail, your dad will be proud of you.

Matthew, the same goes for you. But you’ve got it a little easier because you have your older brother. He’s going to be there to show you the ropes, but you make sure to be there for him too. He may seem pretty tough, but even tough big brothers need hugs sometimes. Do your best to bring as much silliness, joy, and laughter into the house as you can. Your dad always loved your laugh.

And finally, boys, don’t forget you’ve got a gym full of big, strong “uncles” down the street to help you with “guy stuff.” When, out of nowhere, getting a girlfriend becomes the most important thing in your life, we’ll teach you how to lift weights. It turns out that a lot of girls like guys with big muscles. Beyond that, we’ll try to teach you other stuff we know about women, but honestly, we’re all still figuring out how they work. It’s complicated. You’ll see.

But we can be helpful in other ways. You’ll definitely want to consult with Uncle Ray and Uncle Brandon before you get your first tattoo – they have a lot of them, and they’ll probably talk you out of it. They’re both also really into jiu-jitsu and can be good sparring partners when you get tired of trying to armbar each other. Uncle Avery is one of the smartest guys in the gym. He’s full of random, fascinating, completely useless facts. But if you get stuck on some tough schoolwork, he’s a great resource. Uncle John is the strongest dude you know. He looks like a big, jacked Viking, and if you ever have problems with bullies and need backup, he’s your man. Uncle Ben is a technology wiz. Talk to him about any issues with phones, computers, or internet stuff. And I’m here to coach you through your first powerlifting meet, should you decide to do one. I also have a pretty cool dog you can hang out with whenever you want (in case your mom doesn’t let you get one).

My point is, your dad may not be around, but he put together a pretty solid team of guys to support his vision. He made us all family, and that doesn’t stop at the door to the gym. If there’s something you need, or you just want someone to talk to that isn’t your mom, we’re always available.

The other part of Dave’s legacy is his gym.

Too many people are afraid to take risks in life. They choose the safe option. They stay in jobs that make them miserable or in relationships that suffocate them because they’re afraid to go after the things in life they really want. It takes guts to chase your dream, to cut the safety net, to accept that it might not work, that you might fail, and move forward anyway.

Dave had guts. He put it on the line, and he took the risk. He built something that will outlast him.

Some gyms are special. They become more than just a place to get sweaty. There’s a sense of community that develops. They’re not all like that, but Dave’s is.

I was in the gym the day he died. Only the coaches knew about his passing. The evening session was packed, and the energy in the room made us forget the sadness we had been carrying all day.

One of our younger clients, Ethan, was set to test his one-rep maxes. It was his last session with us before leaving to join the Navy. His siblings were there. The coaches were there. Even some members from the earlier session stayed to watch.

The entire place was rooting for Ethan, and he could feel it. That 160lb kid managed to grind through one of the slowest 325lb squats I’ve ever witnessed. He refused to quit in front of his audience, and his effort earned him a hearty round of applause and approving fist-bumps.

I remember thinking, “None of this would have happened without Dave.” His vision brought us together and created a space where a shy, scrawny 20-year-old could come in, train for a few months, and transform himself into a bigger, stronger, more confident man.

Dave did that, and not just for Ethan. I have plenty of stories about lives changed because he had the courage to try and build something that mattered.

I’m still not sure what you’re supposed to do when someone dies. Support the people they left behind? Grieve? Reflect on their contribution to the world? Write a long essay about them? Grieve some more? Perhaps. But I think in Dave’s case, he’d want us to keep his dream alive – to help take this seed of an idea he had and turn it into something that continues to improve the lives of others and provides stability and a strong community for his family. So, we’re going to do that.

If you’re ever in Boise, Idaho, there’s a very special gym in an unassuming strip mall. You should come by. Dave would have wanted you to meet you. He would have talked your ear off about barbell training. He would have sold you on a membership – not in some sleazy used-car-salesman way, but with honesty and sincerity. He believed in the product. He would have wanted you to get stronger. He would have wanted to help you. And as long as the gym exists, Dave’s legacy will live on.

Rest in peace, Brother. We miss you.  

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