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Celebrating Super Seniors

The popular quote, “Life Begins at 40,” was actually the title of a 1933 best-selling book by author W. B. Pitkin. These days, you could probably say, “Life begins at 70, 80 or even 90.” In a recent article, I mentioned my wonderful chance encounter with Olympic hurdler Bert Morrow who didn’t even start hurdling until age 69. I guess you could say I piqued my own curiosity and started looking around for other stories of amazing seniors. Turns out there are plenty of seniors doing incredible things well into old age. Here are just a few of them:

Aging Backwards Celebrates Seniors

1) Mae Laborde of Santa Monica, California. Maybe you can call her a late bloomer, but Mae Laborde started acting at age 93. She’s now 97 and can boast of getting her Screen Actors Guild (SAG) card in her mid-90s. It all started when a former neighbor of Laborde’s, Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, wrote an article in 2002 about her driving around Los Angeles in her 1977 Oldsmobile Delta 88. According to Lopez, the car was so big and Laborde was so small that “behind the wheel she looked like a cricket driving a tank.” The article caught the attention of L.A. talent agent Sherrie Spillane, ex-wife of the late crime novelist Mickey Spillane. Spillane and Laborde met and the rest, as they say, is history. Spillane explained, “She’s got this way about her that’s so endearing that everybody falls in love with her. She’s got that cute, little face and she’s very funny.” Laborde has landed role after role in her 90s, including the part of Vanna White from Wheel of Fortune, aged 40 years, for MadTV; the part of a cheerleader on ESPN and roles in commercials for Lexus and JP Morgan Chase, to name a few. Laborde, along with her husband and daughter, moved to Santa Monica from Fresno during The Great Depression. She still lives in the same house, more than 70 years later, having outlived her husband, Nicholas, and their only child, Shirley. When people ask her for the secret to living a long life, she tells them to never retire. When she was 89, she took a police training course, just for fun, and she still paints, cooks for herself and raises tomatoes in her garden that she sells to a restaurant.

2) “Banana” George A. Blair of Winter Haven, Florida. Banana George Blair, who’s been in the Guinness Book of World Records no less than four times, is the undisputed king of barefoot water skiing. Born January 22, 1915 in Toledo, Ohio, he just celebrated his 93rd birthday. Blair learned to ski at age 40, learned to barefoot ski at 46 and to snowboard at 75. At 81, he drove a race car. He went skydiving at 82, surfing at 83 and at 85, he rode a bull. His love of skiing began when he had gone to Ft. Lauderdale to recuperate from back surgery. He enjoyed watching the action of a nearby ski school and was invited to try skiing by instructor Lyle Lee. Blair was in a back brace at the time. Who could imagine skiing in a back brace? Instructor Lee told Blair, “I’ve seen you walk and if you can walk you can ski.” Right then and there, he got up on skis, back brace and all, and his life hasn’t been the same since. His wife, JoAnne, and their four daughters were as excited as he was and they all learned to ski on that fateful trip. Soon, the Blairs opened ski schools, put on ski shows and participated in tournaments. Blair’s favorite color is yellow, so his costumes were always yellow. At the end of his show, he would eat a banana, which he concealed in his costume and that, combined with the bright yellow, earned him the nickname, “Banana George.” An entrepreneur who made his money in banking and from several patents, Blair has appeared in dozens of magazines, commercials and even a movie. In 1991, he was inducted into the Water Ski Hall of Fame. (What took them so long?)

3) Yvonne Dowlen of Lakewood, Colorado. Yvonne Dowlen has a rich history in sports and has done everything from ski racing to synchronized swimming and badminton, but ice skating has always been a major part of her life. She began figure skating competitively in 1938 in her hometown of Lakewood, Colorado. A former Ice Capades skater, Dowlen has been skating for about 68 years, and at 82, she has no plans to stop. “What keeps me skating is the fact that as you grow older, if you don’t move, you won’t move,” she said. Dowlen, a longtime skating coach and teacher, practices 45 minutes to an hour a day, five days a week. Last year, she finished in fifth place in the Age 56 and Over Ladies Masters Junior competition at the 13th Annual U.S. Adult Championships in Bensenville, Illinois. Watch an incredible video of Dowlen skating at age 81 here.

4) Harry Bernstein of Brick, New Jersey. While he has written articles in the past, Harry Bernstein wrote his first book, The Invisible Wall, at age 96. After the death of his wife of 67 years, Ruby, Bernstein was so lost without her he sought refuge in writing. “I had this gap to fill. Writing was sort of therapy. When you’re old, it seems you have no future. Where are you going to go? But I could go back to my past,” said Bernstein. The title, The Invisible Wall, comes from a self-imposed divide between Christians and Jews in his childhood neighborhood in a poor English mill town during World War I. Christians on one side of the street, Jews on the other. “The one thing the two sides of our street had in common was poverty,” Bernstein writes. “When the landlord came to collect his shilling rent on Sunday afternoon, there was panic on both sides.” The International Herald Tribune said of The Invisible Wall, “In Bernstein’s hands, the small events of family life and the daily dramas on the street take on a shimmering, timeless quality.” In May, 2008, Bernstein’s follow-up to The Invisible Wall, entitled The Dream, will be released by Random House. The Dream is the true story of the Bernstein family as they cross the Atlantic in search of a better life.

5) Herb Schon of Santa Fe, New Mexico. 75-year-old Herb Schon didn’t let age stop him from completing a cross-country bicycle ride from San Francisco to New Hampshire last July. Schon wanted to show the world that, “Senior is a state of mind — and often means wiser, better, stronger.” Schon was the oldest rider going the entire distance on a tour organized by America By Bicycle. Suite101.com chronicled Schon’s entire ride – 47 days on a bicycle. He summed up the experience: “I’m proud of myself for having completed this ride at age 75. I knew, after completing the first 11 days without a break, it was to be. My spirits were often dampened but never flagged. Most sports-oriented people agree that mental determination will far outweigh physical discomfort. And no matter what you might be determined to do, go ahead and do it. Not trying is more of a failure than failing to reach a goal.”

So, the next time you groan when it’s time to exercise or you tell yourself you’re too old to do this or that, please come back and re-read this article for inspiration. I know I will.

“I’ve often thought that the process of aging could be slowed down if it had to go through Congress.”

  • George H.W. Bush, 41st U.S. President
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