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Bob Hoffman: From World War I veteran to legendary weightlifter

May 17, 2016

Filed under Pennsylvania State Archives, Pennsylvania Treasures

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For decades, the name Robert C. “Bob” Hoffman has remained synonymous with U.S. Olympic Weightlifting and the founding of the York Barbell Co.

Known as the “Father of World Weightlifting,” Hoffman gained national recognition in 1927 when he took home the sport’s heavyweight championship.

However, before he became a pioneer in the fields of weightlifting, weight training and dietary supplements, Hoffman braved the battlefields of World War I.

Born Nov. 9, 1898 in Tifton, Ga., to parents who were native Pennsylvanians, Hoffman launched his military career at age 18 by enlisting in the 18th Infantry Regiment, Company A of the Pennsylvania National Guard at Pittsburgh. This week’s Pennsylvania Treasure includes documents and a photographic postcard from Hoffman’s war service record preserved at the Pennsylvania State Archives.

Hoffman’s World War I Veterans’ Service and Compensation File is somewhat atypical when compared to the majority of others in the same collection. The photographic postcard of Hoffman in his uniform is a wonderful addition to his file and was something that the Pennsylvania’s War History Commission requested from all of its veterans. Unfortunately, perhaps only 10 percent of the respondents chose to send an image along with their completed war service record. Hoffman’s file is also unusual in that it does not include a veteran’s service compensation application. In the 1930s, Pennsylvania provided an opportunity for its honorably discharged World War I veterans to receive bonus payments. Bonus applications usually provide information such as residence, birth and other genealogical information, as well as listing the applicant’s service organizations and any battle engagements in which they participated. Pennsylvania paid more than $44 million in bonus money to about 322,000 World War I veterans, averaging $138 per claim. Perhaps Hoffman’s success by this time as a business owner dissuaded him from filing for a veteran’s bonus.

Hoffman’s initial National Guard enlistment papers, dated April 18, 1917, describe him as having blue eyes, dark hair and a fair complexion as well as being 6 foot 2 inches tall. Hoffman’s National Guard unit was taken into federal service as Company A of the 111th Infantry Regiment of the newly formed 28th Division, as part of the United States mobilization efforts as the country entered the First World War.

By the summer of 1917, Hoffman was promoted to being a non-commissioned officer, but was demoted to private for being under age on September 3, 1917. He again was promoted to Private 1st class on Dec. 1, 1917 and later to the rank of corporal on Feb.20, 1918. The National Guard sent Hoffman to France on May 5, 1918 to serve with the American Expeditionary Force. Hoffman was honorably discharged from the 111th Infantry in order to accept a commission as an officer in the 802 Pioneer Infantry on March 27, 1919, according to Hoffman’s war service abstract card. The Adjutant General’s Office of Pennsylvania produced these cards that highlight important information regarding service during World War I. The cards were created between 1920 and 1921 for primarily historical and statistical purposes.

During Hoffman’s service in the American Expeditionary Force, he was active in numerous campaigns and engagements including Fismette, Champagne-Marne, Aisne-Marne, Oise-Aisne and Meuse-Argonne. Furthermore, Hoffman was decorated numerous times for bravery during the Great War, receiving the Belgian Order of Leopold, the French Croix de Guerre and a silver star. Hoffman saw considerable action at the front and was slightly wounded by a shell splinter on or about July 2, 1918. Hoffman was honorably discharged from the military on Aug. 13, 1919.

After being discharged from the military, Hoffman moved from Pittsburgh to York, Pa. where he managed a store that sold automotive supplies and tires. Later, he was a partner in two different oil burner manufacturing companies in the White Rose city.

Hoffman gained national recognition in 1927 when he won the national heavyweight championship in weightlifting. In 1938, Hoffman founded the York Barbell Company. This company, with Hoffman at its head, became a successful weight manufacturing company. Between 1948 and 1964, Hoffman served as the U.S. Olympic Weightlifting coach. In later years, Hoffman was also a noted local philanthropist who donated funds to build the Hoffman Memorial Stadium Complex in York. That field complex is still in use today.

Recently, Ancestry, in partnership with the Pennsylvania State Archives, released a searchable digital collection, the Pennsylvania WWI Veterans Service and Compensation Files.

This edition of Pennsylvania Treasures was written by Richard Saylor, an Archivist at the Pennsylvania State Archives.


About Pennsylvania Treasures:
The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission houses artifacts hailing from all eras of the commonwealth’s past. These objects represent Pennsylvania arts, culture, history, sciences, business and agriculture. PHMC curators continue to research the stories behind many of these rarely exhibited artifacts and works of art. We are sharing these Pennsylvania Treasures with the public through weekly updates.