Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer thrills library volunteers

DOWNEY - On Saturday, the Friends of the Downey City Library held their annual Volunteer Holiday Celebration to pay formal tribute to the many contributions made quietly and mostly behind-the scenes by the members who are all practically in their 60's, 70's, and 80's. As part of the refreshments-rich pre-Christmas ritual, they invite a person or persons of note to provide a unique take on a particular topic, and hope it boosts their spirits.Saturday's speaker was Capistrano Beach-based Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Rick Rickman, who spoke of the exploits of some remarkable senior men and women he has met in the course of his two decades as the official photographer of the biennial National Senior Games, sponsor of the biennial Senior Olympics. These men and women, he said, have defied age and conventional wisdom to chase their dreams, and not slow down. Their stories, with pictures of them in action, he captured in his handsomely-printed 2009 coffee table book, "The Wonder Years," a few copies of which he brought with him. The book contains an introduction by the famous world champion skater Peggy Fleming. Because the ages of his subjects in the book and the ages of his audience coincided, getting their attention and interest was no problem. Rickman's points resonated. He said, "My belief is you don't acquire character, real character, until you reach 50." Also, "Older people are more interesting because they've been there, done that." Then he spoke of some "favorite individuals" whose inspiring stories are found in the book. There's former waitress Janet Freeman who once volunteered to hand out water at a 10K local Lions Club race. Vowing to try to take part in it someday (as a youth she ached to race but opportunities for girls were denied then), she jogged, bicycled, ran, and swam for months, then joined the race one year and won. Rickman said, "She cleaned up in races across town and across the state." She was 57 when she made her vow, and the winning just snowballed. She was still competing in the 100-meter, 200-meter-, 800-meter, 1500-meter races, "along with six swimming events, two bicycle races, and a triathlon," and winning, in the Senior Olympics, when she turned 76 in 2008. Eve Fletcher was a 30-year old animation artist at Disney Studios when she started surfing in 1957 at San Onofre Beach. Now in her late 80's and retired, she still finds time to go surfing with her men friends at her favorite beach. A "water girl" all her life, Rickman testifies she's always loved the ocean. She's become a permanent member of the San Onofre Beach Club. Rickman quotes her in the book: "When you get older, you get a bigger board. It's harder to carry but easier to paddle." Her Infinity board measures 9 feet. She is five-foot-three. She has always been known to possess nerve in riding a wave. Granville Coggs took up running in 1994 only in his seventies. He is a medical graduate of Harvard University Medical School, s former Tuskegee pilot during WWII, and a winner of a Congressional Gold Medal in 2007. A practicing radiologist (specializing in breast cancer screening) in San Antonio, Texas, he was diagnosed in 1994 with narcolepsy and, to improve his fitness, started jogging until two years later he could run a mile in under eight minutes. He was 72 when he entered the Texas Senior Games and, according to Rickman, "won first gold medal in the 1500-meter run. That victory sent him to the national games for the first time, and he enjoys going back every two years." Rickman further writes in his book: "[Coggs] says he intends to follow in the footsteps of his own extraordinary father, Tandy Washington Coggs, the son of former slaves, who grew up to be the president of Arkansas Baptist College and saw all five of his own children graduate from college with advanced degrees." "He lived to 105," Rickman quotes Coggs, "and I'm a competitor. I like to be associated with excellence. Whatever it is, I like to do it to the best of my ability." Rickman said this of Sister Madonna Buder, who among other things has run the Boston Marathon and taken part in "over 300 triathlons across the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand." She has also competed in the Hawaiian Ironman competition. Rickman quotes her, who was in her 70s at the time, as saying, "I'm going to keep trying to do the Ironman until I open a new age group." She has two master's degrees. Jane Hesselgesser, as Rickman describes her, is a "concert pianist from Baltimore, a former ballerina, and a doctor's wife who had never lifted weights and never even set in a gym until gage 52," while "Bill Cunningham is a Belfast-born soccer player turned Hollywood stuntman, a double for teen idol Frankie Avalon in those classic 1960s surf movies who became personal trainer to the stars at the Beverly Hills Health Club." Meeting in 1998, the two became fast friends and have competed together in bodybuilding contests around the world. They have won numerous weight-lifting awards, including a gold medal at the Natural Olympia competition in Greece in 2007 (Hesselgesser won a second gold medal in the division for women ages sixty to sixty-nine"). "When they're not competing together," said Rickman, "they team up as business partners, working as personal trainers in San Fernando Valley's Westlake Village. They see resistance training as an ideal activity for people over fifty, whom they encourage to start slow and gradually build up endurance and strength. To them, bodybuilding is an art.". Rickman also spoke of the Aquacadettes, whose age range is from the 50s to the 90s, whose performances have become a senior tradition in Laguna Woods; of the muscular, then 75-year old Phil Mulkey, a former high school track coach, Senior Olympics champion, and U.S. Olympic pole vaulter whom he quotes as saying, "If I'm going to live, I want to be healthy and good-looking"; Philippa Raschker, an accountant from Marietta, Georgia, who in 2007 alone was also a sprinter, jumper, and hurdler "whose feats include twelve world records, 31 American records, 10 world championship gold medals, and 27 gold medals at five U.S. national championship meets"; of Charlie Sims, the then sixty-something roper and wrangler extraordinaire who, like a basketball master, "had total control of the rope and made it sing"; of the Wild Old Women (WOW) ensemble,. the six-member group relay swim team, who, all in their 60s, "took turns in the rough and chilly 65-degree waters of the Pacific Ocean and set a world record" negotiating the Catalina Channel after ten hours and thirty-five minutes, making them the oldest to swim the distance as a relay event; and Bea Thomas, whose athletic career spanned more than 70 years, and whose accomplishments included playing as goalie for the U.S. national field hockey squad, and helped build "a powerhouse field hockey program at Moorestown High School in New Jersey, where the kids called her 'Mrs. T'" ("She lived by the three Ds-desire, determination, and dedication"). These extraordinary seniors of whom I spoke, Rickman said, "have discovered a better alternative-while they grow older, they continue to grow, to live life to its fullest, to play. They have discovered something better than a fountain of youth: they have made their later years their wonder years." As the audience stood up to go, Nora Szechy, author of "Nora," her account of her early years, turned to me and said aloud: "Now I'll start running." In jest, I asked her where, whereupon she shot back: "You're going with me!" The occasion provided a chance also for the volunteers to bid farewell to the erstwhile community services director/city librarian Thad Phillips, who announced his retirement earlier to take effect on Dec. 31. Born in Iowa, Rickman, who has a bachelor's in mass communications from New Mexico State, is half-Shawnee and half-Dutch. He says he didn't pick up a camera until he was 27, and "accidentally" at that. From that chance start, he became a globe-trotting photojournalist until he hooked up with the National Senior Games Association which is based in Baton Rouge, Lousiana. His works have been featured in Time, Newsweek, National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, Smithsonian. It was coverage of the '84 Olympics that won him and two other colleagues (they were working then for the Orange County Register) the 1985 Pulitzer Prize. He once taught photography, for five years, at the Brooks Institute. To this day, he says, he still surfs three times a week (at San Onofre State Beach), plays volleyball, rides the bike, and snow skis. "I'm exceedingly lucky," he says, "because I get to pursue a field that's so exciting. As a photographer, I meet the most amazing people."

********** Published: December 22, 2011 - Volume 10 - Issue 36