When You're Never Too Old : These Seniors Add Adventures to Their Experience

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Former accountant Colin "Mac" MacKay of Monarch Beach still dons a wetsuit and hits the surf at age 76. Richard Benitez of Santa Ana continues to cut hair at 85. And Helen Hannah Campbell of Fountain Valley, a retired Marine Corps Reserves master gunnery sergeant, devotes her time to volunteering--when she isn't finding new challenges for herself.

Campbell went para-sailing for the first time at age 75 and took a hot-air balloon over the Serengeti Plains in Africa when she was 78. Says the 83-year-old Campbell: "I'll try anything once; nothing frightens me."

MacKay, Benitez and Campbell are part of a wave of American senior citizens who "have a spirit that's alive," says Jessie Jones, director of the LifeSpan Wellness Clinic at the Ruby Gerontology Center at Cal State Fullerton.

"Probably the biggest predictor of people aging in a successful way has to do with their attitudes," she says. "It's really a personality issue and continuing to be enthusiastic about life."

Thanks largely to better health care and advances in technology, the average American man now lives to age 73, and the average American woman lives long enough to celebrate her 79th birthday.

Here are 15 Southern Californians, ages 71 to 98, who continue to work, serve as volunteers or simply find new ways to enjoy their lives.

Marjorie A. Johnson: Volunteering Is a Snap

Marjorie A. Johnson no longer volunteers three days a week at Saddleback Memorial Medical Center in Laguna Hills. She dropped down to one day when she gave her beloved 1967 Chevrolet Impala convertible to her grandson a year ago.

It wasn't easy for Johnson, who turned 96 in April, to give up her wheels.

"It was a beautiful car," she says. "But, you know, you get older, you have to give up a few things."

That's not to say she's given up her volunteer work at the medical center. Friends and neighbors in Leisure World drive her.

She's been a Pink Lady--as members of the hospital's Volunteer Services Department are called--since she and her late husband, John, moved to Leisure World from Laguna Beach in the mid-'70s.

In 1988, she helped start the program she's still involved in: taking photographs of newborns.

Fellow volunteer Ruth Vosburgh arranges the babies, "and I do the snapping," says Johnson. "We try to get the babies' eyes open, and most of the time we're successful."

In her early years, the Racine, Wis., native worked as a clothing buyer for stores. But she enjoys her work at the hospital.

"It's a great satisfaction to think you're doing something for somebody," says Johnson. "I try to do something good for somebody every day whether I volunteer or not."

Felix Cruz Benitos: Ice Cream and Patience for Kids

Most call him "Paletero" (Spanish for "Ice Cream Man"). Others simply refer to him as Abuelito ("Grandpa").

Felix Cruz Benitos, who has been pushing an ice cream cart on downtown Santa Ana streets for the last seven years, is always a welcome sight on his route.

Benitos, 78, says he's learned to be patient with his younger customers, who will order one type of ice cream, then, after he's dug it out of the freezer compartment, change their minds and want something else.

"The parents tell me I have too much patience with the kids," Benitos says in Spanish.

Benitos works five days a week. He begins at 8:30 a.m. when he arrives at Tropical Ice Cream on 5th Street to begin loading his push cart. He's on the street by 10:30 and doesn't return until after 6. It takes at least 45 minutes to unload the unsold items.

It's a long day on his feet, but he doesn't mind. "I'm used to it,' he says. "It's like a sport for me."

His wife, Sofia, 55, pushes an ice cream cart when she's not working in a factory.

Eight years ago, Benitos and Sofia arrived in Santa Ana from Mexico, where he labored in the fields. They came to visit their daughter and stayed.

Benitos worked for a landscaping company in Mission Viejo for a year before selling ice cream. Retire? It's not on his agenda; besides, he needs the income.

When he makes his first sale of the day, he takes the money, kisses it, and then makes the sign of the cross, asking for God's blessing for the workday.

Anita Bogan: Her Father's Lesson

Pick just about any day of the week and you'll find Anita Bogan on a golf course in California City.

The former small-business owner took up golf about 20 years ago after a course was built 10 minutes from her home in the small desert community 14 miles north of Mojave.

At 98, Bogan still plays five days a week with her 76-year-old golf partner ("She's just a pup," Bogan says with a laugh).

"I love the outdoors: I love to fish, I love to sit out at the park--anyplace," Bogan says. "But it's fascinating to get that little ball into the hole. And it's relaxing."

Bogan says age hasn't slowed her down. "I just feel the very same. I can do anything I've always done."

That includes her other favorite pastime: Going to Las Vegas with friends and playing the slot machines.

"I go there about every weekend," she says. "I stay up all night pulling those little bandit handles."

Born in Minden, La., Bogan moved to Los Angeles when she was 24. In the '40s, after a 12-year marriage failed, she opened a florist shop and ran a wedding chapel in the garden of her home and a transportation business that took railroad employees to and from trains and hotels.

"My father was a Methodist minister, and he taught me [that] whatever community you live in, you owe it something; it owes you nothing."

Bogan formed a nonprofit organization to build low-income apartments for seniors in her city. Desert Jade Villas, a 43-unit apartment complex on land donated by the company that created California City and $2 million from the city's redevelopment agency, opened five years ago.

"It took 15 years to get it going, but I never gave up," says Bogan. "I felt it was needed here. I'm very proud of it."

She's working on building a second, adjoining 40-unit complex at Desert Jade Villas where a street now bears her name.

Helen Hannah Campbell: Still in Uniform

Helen Hannah Campbell of Fountain Valley signs off on her telephone answering machine message with the leatherneck motto, "Semper Fi" ("always faithful"). But "always busy" might be a more appropriate motto for the 83-year-old former Marine Corps Reserves master gunnery sergeant.

Since retiring from the Corps in 1975 after 32 years, she's been helping out. She's a docent at the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda, a board member for the Pacific Coast League Historical Society and a volunteer at the Talbert Medical Group pharmacy.

Campbell's also an Angels Booster Club member who hands out miniature bats, caps and other promotional items at home games. Her father, Harry "Truck" Hannah, was a catcher in the Pacific Coast League after playing for the Detroit Tigers and the New York Yankees, where he was a teammate of Babe Ruth.

She had her own brush with baseball: For five years in the late '40s and '50s, she served as a chaperon for the Muskegon Lassies of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League.

Campbell, who joined the Marine Corps Reserves during World War II, is also a past national president of the Women Marines Assn., which she helped form in 1958.

But she spends most of her volunteer time driving a police black-and-white 20 hours a month: She's a uniformed member of the Fountain Valley Police Department's Retired Senior Volunteer People program, a team of 40 retirees who provide home vacation checks and patrol parking lots for cars that are illegally parked in handicap slots.

Campbell can't imagine doing less.

"That's the only way to go," she says. "It keeps your mind occupied and makes you get up every morning. I think the more you exercise your brain, the better off you're going to be."

Master Mai Bac Dau: Sharing His Life Saver

With the limberness of a man half his age, Master Mai Bac Dau, 78, leads a half-dozen of his students in Longevity Stick exercises--a series of 12 movements performed with the aid of a long stick.

"In . . . out," Mai says, breathing slowly and deeply, his outstretched arms clasping his stick waist-high then, rotating his shoulders, bringing it over his head and down to the small of his back.

Mai conducts his classes at the Westminster Senior Center, Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and Medical Center and five other locations.

Practitioners say Mai's routines are life changing, providing both physical and mental benefits.

The Stanton resident created the exercises during his five years in a Communist re-education camp in North Vietnam. A former colonel in the South Vietnamese army, Mai was imprisoned after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Physically weakened by the conditions in the camp, he regained his strength by practicing routines he created using a stick he used to carry water.

Released in 1981, Mai moved to Ho Chi Minh City, where he and his wife, Pham Thi Phai, were supported by their children.

Eager to share the benefits of the exercises, Mai trained 500 instructors over a decade. He offered his classes without compensation, fulfilling a vow he made that if his life was spared in the camp, he would contribute to mankind. He's continued that practice since arriving in Orange County with his wife and five of their 10 children in 1994.

Doing the exercises, Mai says, makes him feel "healthier and happier."

Don Paulson: Handling Mutton on the Hoof

Call Don Paulson in Pomona between March and July, and chances are he won't be home to answer.

That's because it's the busiest time of year for a sheep shearer, and Paulson, 81, has more than his share of work.

Each season, he clips 30 to 35 sheep a day at a ranch in Lancaster that has a flock of 1,500. But most of his work is done on smaller bunches, which he jokingly refers to as "backyard lawn mowers."

The Long Beach-born Paulson, who worked in aircraft factories before going into the Navy near the end of World War II, managed a flock of 500 sheep on leased land in Huntington Beach in the early '50s. He taught himself to shear when he had a small flock while living in San Dimas Canyon during the war.

He continued shearing on the side while working as a machinist at General Dynamics in Pomona in the late '50s and '60s. Then, he says, he started doing more sheep shearing.

It takes him between five and 10 minutes to shear a sheep, "depending on the sheep and the setup conditions."

Paulson says, "It's a pretty hard job in a lot of ways. Generally, the sheep sit pretty good when you get them down, but catching them and putting them down is a little work."

With age, Paulson acknowledges, "you get a little bit weaker. I'm in pretty good shape yet, but I'm slower than I used to be. I don't look for the bigger sheep anymore, but we get some of them anyway that weigh 250 or 300 pounds."

Paulson, whose wife, Arlene, died in 1986, thinks shearing helps keep him fit.

"My doctor used to tell me, 'You're lucky to have something to do that gives you exercise. Shearers that are really working fast, the younger guys, they keep themselves up like an athlete because some of those guys are doing 300 or 400 a day, and that's handling a lot of mutton on the hoof."

Richard Benitez: A Haircut but No Shave

When Richard Benitez started barbering in Santa Ana in 1934, a shave and a haircut cost 25 cents each. A haircut now goes for $7 at the 4th Street barbershop where Benitez works, but forget about getting a shave there.

"Hardly anybody asks for a shave anymore, so we just did away with it," Benitez says during a midday break.

At 85, Benitez might be Santa Ana's oldest working barber.

The shop where he's worked the past 23 years is owned by his brother Bob, 78, who quit 1 1/2 years ago to take care of his ailing wife. But their brother, Raul, 76, still works four days a week, cutting hair in the chair next to Richard.

Raul says his older brother Richard always had a flair for cutting hair.

When the three brothers were growing up in Santa Ana, Raul recalls, "he'd sit us on a wooden box in the backyard and cut our hair. He's just a natural."

In 1933, a visiting uncle asked Richard if he had ever thought about going to barber college. A year later, the 19-year-old graduated.

"It's quite awhile I've been on my feet," acknowledges Benitez, "but I like the trade, so I don't mind it."

Benitez suffered a stroke about five years ago and missed about five months' work. That was long enough.

Once he recuperated, he says, "I found it real hard to stay home. I had a lot of time to sit around and think about the future and my illness." Too much time, he says.

"Here, you're concentrating on what you're doing or you're talking to someone or watching the scenery go by. It keeps your mind off yourself."

Benitez says varicose veins on his legs bother him if he stands too long, and he gets tired at the end of a busy day.

"Every now and then when I get tired, my wife [Lupe] says, 'Why don't you stay home? You don't have to work.' I know that. But during the day [at home], if I don't have anything to do in the yard, I get bored."

Hazel Padelford: Live Wire, Shining Light

At 79, Hazel Padelford proves you're never too old to clown around.

The retired Orange County probation department counselor from Garden Grove has been painting her face white and slipping on a clown costume for 26 years.

"There is not a day that I don't make somebody laugh; that's my goal every day, and I don't have to be in costume to do that," says the extroverted Padelford, a.k.a. Twinkles the Clown.

Visitors to the annual Strawberry Festival in Garden Grove know Padelford as Twinkles, the strawberry clown. For 25 consecutive years, she walked in the festival parade dressed as a plump strawberry.

Last year, however, marked her final year at the festival. Padelford, who moved to a retirement community in San Marcos 10 years ago after 40 years in Garden Grove, was no longer willing to battle the Memorial Day weekend traffic to and from the festival.

She hasn't curtailed her clowning, however.

Her strawberry costume is only one of the 18 hand-sewn costumes in her closet. She also has four different colored wigs and six pairs of clown shoes, including a $250, 13-inch-long pair she bought at a clown convention in Atlanta.

Padelford originally took up clowning to amuse her three grandchildren at their birthday parties. Trained by a former clown from Germany who belonged to the Elks Club in Garden Grove, she soon began entertaining at children's parties and convalescent hospitals.

Although she no longer does private parties, she still clowns at convalescent hospitals, hospitals and parties at her church. Not to mention entertaining her four great-grandchildren.

Vows Padelford: "I'll clown as long as I live. I ask the Lord every day to provide a means where I can make people happy and provide a shining light for them and just really be a live wire wherever I am."

George Moss: People Depend on Him

When George Moss of Long Beach retired from his warehouse job in shipping and receiving in 1991, he quickly discovered he had no interest in just staying home.

So when a friend told him Volunteers of America needed a driver to deliver meals to seniors, he applied for the job.

For seven years, he's been delivering meals to 25 or 30 people a day throughout Long Beach and Lakewood.

Moss, 71, works five days a week, loading his truck at 7:30 a.m. He makes his first stop shortly after 8 and works until about 11:30. Quitting time varies, depending on how long he stays at each stop.

"For some of the seniors, I'm about the only person they see," he says, "and when you go there, some of them are lonely and they have little problems or whatever and they want to talk to someone about them. So you have to take time and listen to them."

One woman with failing eyesight has him tell her everything that's in the meal he's brought her. Others have arthritis and ask him to open the food bags. Occasionally, he's asked to change a lightbulb or move a piece of furniture.

Moss earns a little more than $6 an hour, income he uses to supplement his pension and Social Security. His wife, Mary, 54, works as a school crossing guard.

"When I first went into it, it was primarily for money," Moss says. "But since I've been into it, I really enjoy it. I have a wonderful bunch of people, and they depend on me."

Moss remembers he once prayed and "asked the Lord to show me what he would have me do."

About four years ago, he pulled into a parking lot where a woman was training bus drivers for a private transportation service. Thinking that driving a bus might be a better job than delivering meals, he asked her if there was an age limit on the drivers.

"The girl said, 'What kind of work are you doing now?' I said, 'I'm delivering frozen meals to the seniors.' She said, 'You're doing the Lord's work.' "

Clarence Killion: Running to Win

Clarence Killion was 55 in the mid-'70s when he read a magazine story chronicling California Sen. Alan Cranston's penchant for competing in masters track meets. The headline: "The Fastest Man in the Senate."

That's all it took to motivate the Church of the Nazarene minister, whose idea of exercise had been a weekly round of golf and yard work, to hit the track.

Within a couple of weeks, the Sanger resident competed in his first race, the West Coast Relays for runners age 55 and older in nearby Fresno.

"Without really a chance to prepare, I took fourth out of five runners, but it was a beginning," recalls Killion, in red shorts. He went on to regularly compete in about eight track meets a year. (He even ran against--and beat--Cranston in several races.)

With Frances, his wife of 57 years, in his "cheering section," Killion, 81, has competed in World Veterans Championship races in Sweden, Germany, Puerto Rico and Canada.

"Probably my best performance was five years ago in a national Senior Olympics in Baton Rouge, La. I took two silvers, and I had to beat 79 of the 80 fellas in my age group to do that," he says.

A lean 150 pounds, down from his pre-running weight of 185, Killion is motivated to stay healthy. His family has a history of heart disease, and he underwent open-heart surgery in 1989. He had run a 100-meter race in Modesto four days earlier "and I was back running again about three months after that."

Killion, who runs 100- and 200-meter races in the 80-84 age bracket, has cut down to about four track meets a year.

"I'm quite competitive in spirit. We're all in it together, but we're there to win if we can."

Jack Smith: Wild, Blue Yonder

Seated in the open cockpit of his ultralight aircraft, Jack Smith cruises three feet above open fields then soars up to 400 feet over hills where his only company is an occasional hawk.

"It's freedom of flight," says the veteran pilot who lives in Rialto.

Smith, 79, helps out his son, Bill, 40, a co-owner of Ultralight Airsports Inc., a flight and sales business at the Perris Valley Airport that specializes in the lightweight aircraft.

The elder Smith, who flew as an engineer-gunner on B-17s and B-24s during World War II before earning his wings in 1945, retired as an Air Force major in 1965. He spent the next 11 years as a fixed wing and helicopter pilot, then worked as a flight instructor.

Although he remains in good health, Smith grew concerned about passing the annual physical for commercial flying as he approached his mid-70s. Then he discovered ultralights, which require neither a physical nor an FAA license to operate.

Most days, Smith is up at 5:30 a.m., at the airport by 7 a.m. and doesn't return home until 2 or 3 p.m. He helps his son with lessons, conducts test flights and goes up with students before they're allowed to solo.

"He's almost 80 years old, and I can hardly hold him down, he has so much energy," says Smith's wife, Lorraine.

There is, Smith says, nothing like cruising in an ultralight.

"This is fun flying," he says. "You're flying relatively slow and you see so much. We cannot fly over cities and gatherings of people. You're over open country and you can fly where you want. You're free like a bird.

"The Lord willing, I'll keep this up for another 10 years. I just love it."

Dottie Ross: Pooling Their Talents

Dottie Ross first learned about Leisure World's synchronized swim team when she read a story in the Laguna Woods retirement community's newspaper shortly before she and her late husband, Joe, moved in.

"I thought, 'Hmmm, that's for me!' " recalls Ross, 78. "I've been in it 15 years and I love every minute. It's absolutely wonderful."

Ross is one of 26 members of the Aquadettes, which produces and performs the annual Aqua Follies, a synchronized swimming revue on four nights in August.

Ross, who worked for many years as a secretary in her native San Francisco, started swimming as a Campfire Girl in the '30s. But, she says, she had to take private lessons "to brush up on my breathing" before joining the Aquadettes.

"As the girls come into the group, none is that expert at [underwater] stunts," she says. Coaches Eileen Allen, Helen Balch and Beverly Margolis teach them their routines.

In the four months leading up to the Follies, the group--the average age is 75--practices three times a week in Leisure World Pool No. 1. The rest of the year they practice together on Mondays and Fridays, but some, like Ross, are in the pool virtually every day.

"It's a very healthy sport, and there is no stress on your body," she says. "A few of the girls have minor disabilities, but we don't talk about that; it's a very upbeat group. Each brings something very special to the group."

Some members go to the movies and have lunch together, and others have formed bridge groups, but swimming's the thing, and the Aquadettes never rest on their laurels.

Says Ross: "Right after the [final] show, we have a luncheon, and as soon as that's over we get right back into the water again and start all over. We don't waste any time."

Grace Boyd: Mind and Body Well-Being

The first time Grace Boyd saw someone practicing t'ai chi ch'uan, she and husband Bill "Hopalong Cassidy" Boyd were on a promotional tour to China. It was 1952, during the peak of Hoppy-mania.

The Brooklyn-born Boyd was fascinated by the ancient mind-body discipline, but it wasn't until 21 years later that she began practicing it. Within a year, she was teaching a class to the nurses at South Coast Medical Center in Laguna Beach, where her screen legend husband died.

At 85, Boyd conducts three classes a week, one that's open to the public at the medical center and two at Leisure World in Laguna Woods. "Doctors send me patients for stress reduction," says the Monarch Beach resident.

Characterized by slow, relaxed, circular movements, t'ai chi moves every muscle in the body and stimulates internal organs.

"It works on the flexibility, the balance, the circulation, and the well-being of the mind and the body," says Boyd, who has studied at the Academy of Martial Arts in Aspen, Colo. "It's something you can do your whole life."

Boyd is a founding member of the women's advisory council and the Star Finders support group at South Coast Medical Center. She supports various arts groups in Orange County and helps keep her husband's legacy alive by attending western films festivals around the country, including the annual Hopalong Cassidy Festival in Boyd's hometown, Cambridge, Ohio, in May. Along with answering fan mail, she says, "I'm working harder than I ever have in my life."

That's where t'ai chi comes in.

"It's a lifesaver," she says.

Colin "Mac" MacKay: A Man, a Board, a Calling

Colin "Mac" MacKay was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease three years ago. But the incurable disease that is characterized by a rhythmic tremor and muscular rigidity hasn't stopped the retired accountant from doing what he loves: Surfing.

"I think it takes more guts to surf if you've got Parkinson's, but that's one thing that does help me," says MacKay, 76. "I forget all the problems that are associated with Parkinson's when I'm surfing."

MacKay, who served in the Army Air Corps as a navigator during World War II and returned to Stanford, where he majored in economics and attended the business school, learned to surf on the gentle break at Doheny Beach in 1958.

Before long, he and his late wife, Jackie ("She was a good mat rider"), were frequent visitors to San Onofre, tooling down the highway in their Plymouth woodie.

Retired in 1987, MacKay says he doesn't "surf as often as the fellas who are die-hards," but several mornings a week the Monarch Beach resident loads up several surfboards in his 1977 VW van and drives down to San Onofre.

MacKay heads to the Point where he joins a group of up to 10 surfers in their 60s and 70s and stays in the water about two hours.

"I don't do all of the tricks that the young fellas are doing now, and I have some problem in jumping up and coming up into the stance, but it's quite a thrill when you get up there," he says. "There's a feeling of exhilaration.

"I like the motion and the comradeship. [The other surfers] don't bounce me off the wave. All my guys know I have [Parkinson's], and they take particular care of me."

MacKay's wife died in November after 49 years of marriage.

"It's quite a blow, living alone," he says. Preparing his own meals, he discovered, "turned out not to be such a good idea, so I've taken up Meals on Wheels."

The meals are delivered around 11 in the morning when MacKay is usually out of the house, so he leaves a note: "Please put the meals in the kitchen. I will be back after 12 o'clock."

Though the note doesn't say it, the unwritten message is clear: MacKay's gone surfing.

Don and Blanch Miller: Now There's Time to Dance

Don and Blanch Miller met at a nightclub in Pasadena in 1938. Blanch came with her sister; Don came with his brother.

The couple danced for the first time that night.

"Oh, I love to dance; I just love it," says Blanch, 91.

"I always liked to dance, especially with Blanch, because she always had good rhythm," says Don, 86.

But after they were married in 1939, the Millers started a nursery business, growing camellias in Monrovia, and "for 31 years we didn't go to a dance," Don says.

"We never had time to do anything," Blanch says.

The El Monte couple sold their business in 1976, and they've been dancing ever since.

They dance weekends at Disneyland, where swing bands play in the Plaza Gardens and a couple of times a week at senior centers in West Covina and Cypress.

At a recent dance at the Cypress center, which typically generates a crowd of more than 100, the Millers were clearly the center attraction.

Seated in the front row of chairs at the edge of the dance floor--she in a white blouse and black skirt; he in a white shirt and black pants--they greet a constant stream of couples.

"I get more kisses," Blanch observes, a tad embarrassed.

Promptly at 7, Scott Shoemaker and His Swingin' Hi Tones launch into their first number of the evening, and the dance floor quickly fills with swirling couples.

"It makes you feel like you want to get out there and dance off your shoes," Blanch says with a laugh.

Don, smiling at the crowd, sways to the beat.

Does it make him feel like dancing, too?

"Well, yeah," he says. Then he takes Blanch's hand, and off they go.

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