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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Master of his craft
At 100, John Donnelly keeps plugging along, thanks to table tennis.
By JOEY KNIGHT
Published June 25, 2007
SUN CITY CENTER
Pneumonia had set in on his centenarian body. Days in the hospital segued into weeks. Hospice was paged. Doctors even asked his wife about her thoughts on removing life support, if it came to that. Forget it, Marian Donnelly said. If those doctors really knew her spouse of six years, they'd understand it didn't matter how medically far up the creek he was. John Donnelly possessed an abundance of paddles. Many people suggest they've kept him going for years.
They've navigated him to Pittsburgh, San Antonio, Texas, Kansas City, Mo., even to Jay Leno's sofa. Today, five months after his extended hospitalization, they've led him to Kentucky.
"I'm not so good anymore, " said Donnelly, thought to be the nation's oldest table tennis aficionado. "But I'm pretty good for my age."
Fact is, the Iowa native is in a league of his own - albeit by default. Donnelly is the lone table tennis competitor in the 100-to-150-plus age bracket at the 2007 Summer National Senior Games, which started Friday in Louisville and continue this week.
"The last time (2005) it was in Pittsburgh, and nobody was in my age bracket then, either, " said Donnelly, who turns 101 on Sept. 23. "The nearest age bracket that had anybody in it was 80-85, and I came in second."
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Anyone who wields a paddle against Donnelly, as Leno did on The Tonight Show last year, quickly discovers this retired stockbroker is more than an antiquated novelty act.
The guy can still play - and does two or three times a week. His reflexes are crisp, his backhand steady. When the need arises, he still can summon a dash of English on his serve.
"He puts all kinds of spin on it, " said Armin Furrer, 82, a member of the Sun City Center table tennis club formed 27 years ago by Donnelly and ultimately named after him.
"He's got pretty quick reflexes, I would think, for his age. And his legs are quite good. He moves around quite well."
Gets around, too. He met Marian in the waiting room of an eye doctor's office and married her shortly thereafter - June 10, 2001, 12 years after the death of his first wife.
He was 94. She was 69.
Friends and relatives "thought I was crazy, " Marian said. "Little did they know what a party I was going to have."
Six years later, the Donnellys' social life still stretches far beyond the celadon walls of their two-bedroom, fourth-floor apartment in Sun City Center's Freedom Plaza.
A lover of fine arts (his first wife, Cathrean, was an accomplished violinist), John and Marian take in virtually every symphony or opera staged in the bay area. He has a weekly full-body massage, an occasional margarita and a valid driver's license for his bright-red '06 Subaru Impreza.
"His license was renewed until 2011, " Carol Donnelly, oldest of his three children, said with a laugh.
"It's hard to keep that man home, " said Marian, a widow for about two decades when she met Donnelly. "I don't think he likes to stay home."
That zest for a prolonged life was essential. Donnelly certainly didn't have the genes for it. His mother died at 40 from appendicitis complications, a time when such surgery was still risky. His father succumbed to a brain tumor at 60. And both his sisters are deceased.
By contrast, Donnelly shrugs off mortality with a dismissive wave of his backhand.
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John Ware Donnelly was introduced to table tennis while growing up along the banks of the Mississippi River in Burlington, Iowa.
He played through high school and while studying at the University of Iowa, then quit for decades. He took it up again when he discovered a co-worker in his Cedar Rapids brokerage firm loved to play.
"We'd go up to the YMCA every night and hit balls for a half-hour or so, " Donnelly recalled.
He has been playing ever since, acquiring a celebrity status and noticeable reverence for the sport. Not once during a recent 21/2-hour visit from a reporter did Donnelly use the term Ping-Pong.
"He tries to educate people to the fact the generic name is table tennis, " Furrer said.
His influence reached a national audience last year, when Leno's producers heard of Donnelly after a local TV news station aired a segment on him.
Donnelly appeared on The Tonight Show on May 8, 2006, smacking a few table tennis balls with the host and engaging fellow guest, director Ron Howard, with his saucy wit.
"All my children were born in December, " Donnelly said from a bench outside his apartment complex last week. "That shows you how fertile I was in March."
This past weekend's Summer National Senior Games marked the ninth time he has participated in the biannual event since 1991. He has competed extensively in state and regional competitions and seemingly has acquired more medals than birthday candles.
Another gold awaits him in Louisville. Oh, sure, he may swat with the kids in the 80-85 division for fun, but he will find no peers in his own ageless bracket.
"He has such a great attitude, " said Carol Donnelly, who turns 70 in December. "I'm so proud I'm related to him."