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Aging in great shape

An 89-year-old aerobics instructor flexes her muscle, throwing herself into exercise that chases away the blues.

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 12, 2002

FAIR OAKS -- Three times a week Thelma Donovan wades into the shallow end of a public pool in South Tampa and leads a class of 15 people through an hour of water aerobics.

"Heels, toes and stre-e-etch" she commands in a soft voice that hints of her native New England.

Her charges, mostly women in their 70s and 80s sporting pretty bathing suits and beauty shop coifs, obey without complaint.

The water is warm and silky blue, a soothing balm for stiff hips and arthritic joints. A few of the women have been taking Donovan's class for 20 years and pay little mind to the age of the tiny, snowy-haired instructor.

On June 14, Donovan will turn 90.

One might never know by watching. Lightly tanned and toned as a woman half her age, she doesn't dash for a cover-up when she climbs out of the pool. Wearing a simple, one-piece blue-and-silver tank suit that she sewed herself, she simply straps on her Tevas and strolls over to a bench to chat.

She's not looking forward to getting older.

She jokes that what she really wants is to "wake up dead" on her 90th birthday.

"But that's not going to happen," she says with a dramatic sigh, "so I guess I'm going on a cruise."

To be precise, a cruise to Key West and South America. A cruise with four students from a class she's been teaching since 1981.

During the winter months they meet in an indoor pool at the Conn Natatorium at the Jim WalterInterbay Boys and Girls Club. Summers, they gather at the Bobby Hicks pool across from Robinson High School.

Humor cements their bonds.

A hip-shimmying exercise called "the hula" they rename "dirty dancing."

If Donovan becomes too exuberant and rolls past the usual 15 counts, someone shouts for her to stop.

"She gives you that feeling that you really do want to get better," says Vivian Barstow, one of them. "And I do want to get better. I'm 81."

Another student, Andree Sherman, raves: "She never misses a class. There's nothing she can't do."

Besides good health, Donovan and her students share a common history, coming of age in a time when America was a different place.

Many women in the class are caring for sick husbands or, like Donovan, have lost their mates.

"People get married today and they don't feel like they have to stay. I don't understand it," Donovan says. "Marriage is never 50-50. To keep a marriage on an even keel, you have to work at it your whole life."

Born in 1912, she grew up in a paper mill town near the ski resorts of New Hampshire.

She became serious about staying fit when she gained weight as a teen. Her brother called her "greasy belly Mabel" until she lifted dumbbells, skipped rope and swam in a lake that was a two-mile walk from her house.

At 5-feet tall, the most she has ever weighed is 140 pounds; the least, 120 pounds. Right now, she is somewhere in between.

As a young woman, she took odd jobs to pay for nursing school.

Nursing taught her to respect good nutrition: "I always ate a lot of protein and fruit and cut back on the sugar. I exercised and ate well."

She shuns anything in excess, but confesses, "I was naughty all my life."

For example, she smoked a few cigarettes a day until she quit at 60.

She still drinks a martini on the rocks every day at 5 p.m. in a Southern cottage filled with ceramics and plants on Bettor Boulevard south of Gandy Boulevard. She lives with her only child, a 54-year-old daughter, and two mutts, Lucy and Charlie.

She lost her husband to emphysema 10 years ago, shortly before their 50th wedding anniversary.

She chased away the sadness by doing what came naturally.

She took long walks.

"If you exercise and keep fit, your thoughts will not be depressing," she advises. "Sure, you might feel sad sometimes, but exercise makes you forget."

For an hour in a pool, three times a week, she teaches others that lesson.

Thelma Donovan

  • AGE: 89.
  • HOBBIES: Quilting. Reading historical novels.
  • FAVORITE QUILT PATTERN: The log cabin.
  • CAR: A 1991 Ford Escort, "It has 50,000 miles, and it's going to last the rest of my life."
  • GREAT-GRANDCHILDREN: Zero. "I can't even get them married yet," she says of her grandchildren.
  • EXERCISE SCHEDULE: Teaches water aerobics four times a week at two locations. Takes a weekly "land" aerobics class at the YMCA. Walks regularly.
  • MOTTO: "If you can't do anything about it, why worry?"

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