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Robert L. Rice — 1929-2007

Published: Friday, Aug. 31 2007 12:21 a.m. MDT

Robert L. Rice, a pioneer in the health spa industry and philanthropist whose name is on Rice-Eccles Stadium, died Thursday. He was 78.

The Farmington native was born Aug. 15, 1929, and started a Salt Lake City gym in 1952 after winning several body-building contests. His boxing and weightlifting facility earned $2 its first day, but Rice grew Health Industries — operating European Health Spas Inc. — to nearly 200 locations and more than a half-million members by the 1970s.

Rice sold the company in 1974 but later became chairman, president and chief executive officer of Spa Fitness Centers Inc. With longtime partner Ken Melby, they owned Lifestyles 2000 health clubs in Utah, French Riviera Health Spas in several Southern states and Spa Fitness Centers in Hawaii.

Rice was appointed to President Nixon's Council of Physical Fitness in 1972, where he served for four years.

Rice's success in the fitness industry stemmed from his desire to make gyms attractive to local high school students — who he believed would build both muscles and self-confidence — and professional men and women who would see clean, modern facilities and equipment as "spas" rather than "sweat boxes."

Rice also wrote a syndicated newspaper column for the Deseret News in the early in 1970s and has compiled many of his columns in a book, "Wake Up and Live."

His name was added to the University of Utah football stadium in 1972 when he gave the university $1 million for stadium renovations. The stadium name changed in 1998 to Rice-Eccles Stadium when George S. Eccles, through the George S. and Dore Eccles Foundation, contributed $10 million toward a $52 million stadium expansion and renovation.

"I have always thought that sports underlies what we actually face in life," Rice said shortly after making the donation. "Watching teams and individuals become great at sports is important, I think. The good athlete has the advantage of taking advantage of what gifts he has."

Last November, Rice was inducted into the university's David Eccles School of Business Hall of Fame.

"Bob will always be remembered for his passion for people and his imagination and vision for the state and for our university," U. President Michael Young said Thursday. "We have all benefited from his foresight and generosity, especially our students. We will all think of him with gratitude every time we pass by Rice-Eccles Stadium. He will be greatly missed."

At his November induction, fellow philanthropist and businessman Spencer F. Eccles described Rice as "the quintessential Horatio Alger man."

Gold's Gym Chief Executive Officer Ron Littlebrant at the time credited Rice and a few other people with saving the fitness-gym industry because Rice lobbied hard in 1981 against federal legislation dealing with "deceitful" gym operators who sold memberships to gyms that never opened. That bill, which ultimately died, would have banned selling contracts for health club memberships.

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