Originally created 10/25/98

Sensational seniors

When 77-year-old Sen. John Glenn blasts off on the space shuttle Discovery Thursday, he'll make history as the oldest person ever to travel in space.

When the former astronaut made his first space flight 36 years ago, the American population included 17 million people 65 and older. Today, that number has doubled. Officials project that the number of Americans over 85 will increase six-fold over the next 50 years -- from 3.3 million today to 18.9 million by 2050.

Medical advances are enabling more people to live longer and lead healthier, more active lifestyles. Recently, The Augusta Chronicle asked readers to tell the newspaper about senior citizens they knew who led exceptionally active lives. We got about 25 responses introducing us to seniors who are forgoing retirement, volunteering, traveling, building houses, running companies, farming and lobbying the state legislature.

Age doesn't keep them from doing the things they enjoy, these seniors say. Their vivacious lifestyles and upbeat attitudes are an inspiration not only to other seniors, but to the younger people in their lives as well.

  • An abiding love for children has kept Helen Moncrief working ineducation for more than 45 years.
  • She's the owner of Wee Wisdom Christian School on Peach Orchard Road, which has pupils from age 2 through sixth grade. Mrs. Moncrief's affection for the children -- and theirs for her -- is evident. They wave and grin when she enters the classroom, and sometimes offer a hug.

    When Mrs. Moncrief, 82, started the school in 1952, she had less than a ninth-grade education. A child of the Depression, she dropped out of school to work at a dime store in downtown Augusta.

    "Back then, working was more important than education," she said.

    But she soon realized that to be an effective teacher, she would have to further her own education. She obtained a general equivalency diploma, then went to Augusta College at night for 12 years to earn a bachelor's degree in education. She later earned a master's degree from the University of Georgia.

    Today, she spends three days a week at the school. Almost every Tuesday for 20 years, she has driven to Atlanta to volunteer with her son's ministry to inner-city children. She stays there on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, tutoring, talking and listening.

    After so many years as an educator, the mother of three and grandmother of five gets a lot of repeat business. She often has pupils who are children of former pupils. Once, on a hospital visit, she found four former pupils working in the emergency room. It's rewarding, she says, to keep up with the children she has taught and watch them grow into adults.

    She enjoys her life so much -- both the school and the volunteer work -- that she doesn't view it as work.

    "I just love it," she says. "I don't want to stop. Sometimes I think about it, but it would be very difficult. I'd miss it too much."

  • At 75, Brian Mulherin shows no signs of slowing down. He has been the human resources director at Georgia Regional Hospital for 30 years. He occasionally thinks of retirement -- his wife Neita recently retired -- but he enjoys his work. "It keeps me healthy," he said.
  • When he's not at the hospital, Mr. Mulherin stays busy with volunteer work. He's the disaster chairman for the Augusta chapter of the American Red Cross and was most recently involved in the collection of canned goods, bottled water and other items for victims of Hurricane Georges.

    One of his favorite pastimes is riding his 1983 Harley Davidson around Thurmond Lake. He owned a Harley in the 1940s and had thought about getting another one for a long time.

    Two years ago, "I finally decided to just quit thinking about it and do it," he said.

    He's a member of the local Harley Owners Group, which makes him a card-carrying HOG, but he hasn't participated in many club functions. He's too busy with other activities.

    A retired Army reservist, Mr. Mulherin is also a member of several military organizations and volunteers with the ROTC programs at several area schools.

    He also has a 20-year-old fishing boat, which he docks at the Fort Gordon Recreation Area at Thurmond Lake.

    "If I don't catch anything after about 10 minutes, I just give up," he says.

    With his warm demeanor and outgoing personality, Mr. Mulherin is a natural helper for the jolly man in the red suit. For the past 10 Christmases he has played Santa Claus at Sacred Heart's Christmas Afternoon in Augusta. He also plays Santa for a number of civic groups during the holiday season.

    The Mulherins like to stay informed, as evidenced by the wall-to-wall bookshelf that covers one side of their den and the magazines on the coffee table: The New Yorker, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, Kiplinger's Personal Finance, National Geographic, Southern Living, and Forbes.

    When they have time, the Mulherins enjoy traveling. They've been to Italy and Ireland in the past two years and are preparing for a trip to Turkey and the Greek Isles.

    And although they'd probably have more time for travel if Mr. Mulherin retired, he says he doesn't anticipate that happening any time soon.

    "It keeps me young," he says of his work. "I work around a lot of young people, and that keeps me mentally alert."

  • For Alan Wood, age is a state of mind.
  • "You're as old as you feel," says the 73-year old. "I don't see age as any barrier to doing what you enjoy, if you have good health and all your faculties."

    Mr. Wood, who was born in England, has lived in India, Singapore, Malaysia and the United States. Now he lives in Aiken with his wife, Marjorie. He's co-founder and chief operating officer of Malwood Global Inc., a home-based consulting firm that helps small and midsize businesses establish overseas markets.

    Mr. Wood also teaches executives about the cultures and customs of the countries where they want to do business. Understanding the business practices of their foreign counterparts can help them avoid embarrassing blunders, he says.

    Keeping up with world affairs is essential to his work, and Mr. Wood is a frequent surfer on the Internet, where he reads international newspapers every day. Because he's almost totally blind, he depends on a magnification program that enlarges the type.

    Mr. Wood, an avid tennis player until an apparent embolism took most of his sight a year and a half ago, was instrumental in starting a wheelchair tennis program in Aiken in 1993. He had seen wheelchair tennis in Hilton Head and was fascinated by it.

    "I thought if I could get something going here, it would be a wonderful way that I could provide something for people less fortunate than me," he says.

    Kalmia Wheelchair Tennis now has six students, one of whom recently played in a tournament in Hilton Head.

    "You really never give a thought to the fact that they're in a wheelchair," Mr. Wood says. "They have such joy -- there's always a smile on their faces. And it's good for them to get out and do something active. They play a most aggressive game. ... They can do everything on those chairs except somersault. A word of advice: Never arm wrestle with a wheelchair athlete!"

    Although he's no longer able to play, Mr. Wood can still see well enough to impart the game's basics to his students, demonstrate strokes and show them how they can improve their own movements.

    "It's no fun if you can't win a point," he says.

    Mr. Wood is a frequent lecturer at the University of South Carolina Aiken, where he presents intercultural programs for business students. He also serves on the Export Development Subcommittee of the Aiken Chamber of Commerce, with the mission of attracting more globally minded businesses to the local market.

    "Alan is an inspiration," Mrs. Wood says. "He proves that being a senior with disabilities should not keep someone from doing things they like and helping others."


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