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Original Issue

Friends for 50 Years

So what better way to toast SI's 50th anniversary than this: Call those original subscribers who've been with us for every issue. You know, find out what got them started, what kept them buying--the kind of killer reporting that gets you on Nightline.

Turns out 381,458 people signed up for the first issue in 1954 and 7,668 are still subscribers today, not to mention 112 libraries and God knows how many dentists' offices. Do you realize how many of those annoying little cards they've had to throw away?

I started with Herb Helfrich, 75, of Las Vegas. "I really can't remember how I subscribed," he said. "No idea."

O.K., let's try Reverend Herbert Walther, 83, of Durham, N.C. "Don't make me go back that far," he said.

There was also a "Hell, I can't remember! I'm 91!" and a few "What? No! I already subscribe!" (Click.)

Oooh-kaaay, let's try this: favorite covers over the years? "Well, I really don't recall any favorites," said Dave Gowans of Redding, Calif. None? No covers out of 2,603? "I mean, I'm 82 years old."


"I would like to say one thing, though," Gowans said. "For 35 years now, I've used my own NFL ratings points system. I use it to pick games. And I consistently outperform Dr. Z. Will you tell him that?"

It'll make his day.

O.K., favorite writers over the years (wink-wink, nudge-nudge)? "I actually don't even look at the names," says Claude Long, 87, of Greensboro, N.C. "Except when there's an article that's really bad, then I look to see who wrote it."

Gee, thanks.

O.K., let's try this. How much free crapola has SI sent you over 50 years? Must fill a Tuff Shed, right? Zippo, they all said. "Nope," says Helfrich. "Nothing at all."

No sneaker phone? No football phone? No NFL hoodie, no football follies video, no boxer shorts, none of the other 300plus items we've doled out to new subscribers?

"Nope, not that I can remember," said Ed Streeter, 74, of Rancho Sante Fe, Calif.

(Then it hit me: The key word here is new. Why would they give free binoculars to old subscribers?)

Still, for most of the Forgetful Faithful, the magazine seems to be enough. "If there's some way you can subscribe for life, I'll do it," said Gowans.

"It's like a good friend," said Helfrich. "I know it'll come the same time each week, and I'll enjoy it."

Then why have most of them thrown away every issue? One very good reason: wives.

"I have a happy marriage," said Bill Hickson of Lynchburg, Va., who's been at it 55 years, "and to keep my marriage happy, I had to get rid of them."

Matthew Chew, 72, of Scottsdale, Ariz., is one member of the Faithful who's held fast. He's got every single issue--protected in plastic slipcovers and stacked, in order, neatly on bookshelves in his living room. "There were four or five over the 50 years that didn't come for one reason or another," he said, "but I always managed to go to my dentist and take them from him."

Where else would you go to fill a cavity?

The Chewseum is a resource for the neighborhood. Drunks have knocked on his door needing a bar bet settled. Kids have stopped by to do a school project. His grandchildren giggle at how hairy everybody looked in the '70s.

Of those 7,668 originals, 92.5% go to males, but we know of at least one that goes to a woman. That's because she won it in a divorce settlement.

"I still love him," said the woman, whose ex-husband asked that we keep everybody's name out of it, "so I read it on Thursday and then quickly mail it to him on Friday.... He'll come back to me someday, when his money runs out. See, he didn't just give me the magazine, he gave me everything."

Hey, whatever it takes to keep the subscription going.

Perhaps the guy whose 50-year subscription means the most to him is the reverend. Walther's going blind. Won't be long before he'll lose his sight altogether. He says he's really going to miss his SI. He pilfers nuggets from it for his sermons. In fact, for years, the reverend was religious about reading every word every week. "I calculated it once," Walther said, "and it came up in the millions of words. Can't remember now, but it was a bunch."

Well, the reverend didn't read every word, because, like some others, he's always tossed the Swimsuit Issue as soon as it arrived. "The female is being exploited in it," he said.

That's the other thing a lot of the Forgetful Faithful have in common. They've been married about the same number of years they've gotten SI. Which brings us, at last, to the point of this column: Contrary to what our critics say, the Swimsuit Issue does not break up marriages, it saves them.

But only if the husband throws it away.

If you have a comment for Rick Reilly, send it to

Turns out 381,458 people signed up for the first SI in 1954 and 7,668 are still subscribers, not to mention 112 libraries.