And then there are days like last Wednesday, when I had the chance to meet Red Lerille.
In case you missed the announcement, Lerille is Club Industry's Lifetime Achievement Award winner for 2011. He will be at the Club Industry show in Chicago this October to receive his award, but since I was heading to New Orleans to attend the NIRSA show last week, Club Industry's editor, Pam Kufahl, suggested that I drive up to Lafayette, LA, to check out Red Lerille's Health and Racquet Club and meet the man himself.
At first, the five-hour roundtrip drive sounded like an unnecessary hassle when it's so easy to interview someone over the phone—but the minute I met Lerille, I knew that the long trip had been worth it. When he spotted me in the club's reception area, he immediately came to greet me, saying in his Louisiana drawl, “I don't recognize you, so you must be Lara.”
As he showed me around the massive club that he's owned and operated for almost half a century, I understood what he meant—he recognized and acknowledged everyone we passed, from the older members he called by their first names to the college-age staff members who smiled and said, “Hi, Mr. Red!” as he passed.
Lerille's outgoing personality seemed to have rubbed off on his members, too. I didn't see many who were plugged into their iPods and oblivious to their surroundings. Instead, groups of guys chatted as they spotted each other in the weight rooms, trainers encouraged members while they did their floor exercises and plenty of members socialized in the club's café and by the pool. And everyone was smiling. Maybe part of that is just the Southern way, but I think a lot of the friendly, inclusive atmosphere at Red's is a result of the way Lerille and his staff treat everyone who walks through the door. No member of Red's just goes to the gym—they are part of a club.
After touring the club, Lerille took me on a tour of Lafayette to share some of his other interests. Although his Chrysler Prowler (designed in the style of a vintage hot rod) looks like it was built for speed, we took it slow so Lerille could point out some of the city's attractions along the way. Our first stop was the ice cream parlor he bought and restored in 2009, which one of his daughters now manages. Once we'd finished our treats (a scoop of butter pecan for me, a vanilla malt made with skim milk for Lerille), we climbed back into the Prowler to go to the airfield where the five vintage airplanes that Lerille has restored and pilots himself are hangared (see photo above).
After an early morning flight, a complete tour of the city and a long drive, I should have been exhausted by the time I got back to New Orleans and finally checked into my hotel at 11 p.m. Instead, I was buzzing with energy. I felt inspired by the way Lerille packs so much into his days and the enthusiasm he has for his hobbies, his community and especially his club.
All in all, it was a pretty good day's work for me. But now comes the difficult part: I have to write a profile of Lerille for our October issue, and I'm daunted by the task of capturing his spirit in words. I'll do my best, but I hope you'll come meet him at Club Industry 2011. Trust me—it'll be worth the trip.