Virginia O'Leary: No need for stopping

At 90, teaching water fitness classes seems natural

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Editor's note: This is the first in a series of occasional columns on our Berkshire neighbors who are thriving into their later years. The writer, Virginia O'Leary, a social psychologist and professor emerita at Auburn University, holds a doctorate from Wayne State University. She lives in Pittsfield.

Having celebrated her 90th birthday last month, Theresa Tarent Tracy is still athletic, strong and slender. And she still hopes to inspire others to a life of optimum health.

Since 1989 when she was 66, an age when many retire, the well-toned and deceptively young-looking mother of four has been teaching a variety of water-borne physical fitness classes and aerobics at the Pittsfield YMCA. Many of her pupils are much younger than she.

What's more, the nonagenarian has no intention of stopping.

"I can't imagine retiring," said Tracy. "People like me, I like people and I enjoy my job."

With high cheekbones inherited from her great grandfather, Ludger Tarent, of Quebec, Ontario, who married a Seneca woman, I thought Tracy was joking when she told me she was nearing 90.

Despite her glowing health, Tracy does admit to having a bad back which slows her walk - but not enough to prevent her from jumping in a YMCA pool to teach Aqua Fit and Silver Sneakers, a national strength-training class.

She was named Employee of the Year at the Y in 2012 in recognition of her energetic commitment to teaching physical fitness.

Her Y story began in 1985 when she joined to take classes. Soon after, she became a substitute for others teaching water classes and before long she was herself an instructor.

Tracy said her athletic prowess is a gift from her father, who was an award-winning basketball player on the Boston Celtics farm team.

Her dad taught her to hunt and fish. And when she had her own family of three girls and a boy, Tracy passed on her outdoor skills to her son and husband, Bernard M. Tracy, who is now retired from his career as a civil engineer with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Tracy credits her strength and vitality to a hardscrabble life spent growing up during the Depression in West Springfield. There, she learned what it is like to be poor. Never having milk as a child contributed to her back problem, since diagnosed as scoliosis, she said. And with fresh meat in short supply to those with little money, there were some unusual meals in her family.

Tracy recalled that as a child she once complimented her aunt on her tasty spaghetti sauce.

"Then she told me that delicious meat was squirrel," Tracy said.

Hungry as the young Tracy was, "I refused to finish the meal."

"Every experience in life strengthens you and makes you a better person," she said.

Tracy was born on Jan. 30, 1928, when Calvin Coolidge was president and commercial radio was not yet invented. She shares her birth date with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a fact that pleases her.

As a young woman in 1947, Tracy left West Springfield for Pittsfield, where she enrolled in the pediatric nursing program at Henry W. Bishop III Memorial Nursing School - now Berkshire Medical Center.

Tracy continued her studies in pediatrics at the then, brand new, Children's Hospital, University of Massachusetts Medical Center, where children were cared for in groups separated by age.

Her strength is formidable. In 1998, she suffered the heart attack often referred to as the "widow maker" - or in her case, widower maker.

She was at the Y, and they rushed her to the emergency room of Pittsfield General Hospital, administered a clot busting drug and airlifted her to the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester, where she underwent surgery to insert three stents to unplug her left descending artery which was totally blocked. One stent failed, so she underwent additional surgery.

But soon, she was back at the Y teaching water classes.

Her career choice of nursing was motivated by her lifelong experience as a caretaker, having raised her two siblings, Tracy said.

"I like to think I am tough," she said. "I am not a quitter. I can't imagine retiring. People tell me I am an inspiration."

And that is a proposition that's hard to argue against.


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