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A Newbie at 95

Mary Kemp, 95, Boca Raton, Florida

The National Senior Games Association has a core mission to promote health and wellness to people over 50. We are constantly reminding people to get moving and find ways to stay active, and that Senior Games offer an exciting and rewarding option to go beyond basic exercise. Our motto is “It’s never too late to get into The Games,” and Mary Kemp is living proof that the saying is true.

A diminutive woman with a big smile, Mary was an active kid but never played organized sports other than some high school volleyball. As you will read in the following conversation, she jokes that her greatest asset was her small stature because players overlooked her on the court.

Imagine her sense of awe, then, as Mary walked onto the track at the 2017 National Senior Games presented by Humana to compete for the first time at the tender age of 95. Top that off with a 50-meter dash performance that yielded a gold medal, a prize that was no “gimme” either. She had to beat two other experienced women in her age division to earn the right to stand atop the podium.

Mary says she looked around the track and couldn’t believe she was doing this and how it came about. As often happens, a family member encouraged her to get involved. Her son Glenn Kemp, now 70, competes in men’s senior basketball and informally coaches and teaches life skills with youngsters in Fairhope, Alabama. He knew that his mom exercised regularly and was in fit shape, but he told us that she craved social interaction and needed “a sense of still being relevant” that participating in The Games would provide. He eventually convinced her to try it out, and Mary was not disappointed with the attention and support that came her way. In fact, her competitive debut was made even more special when Glenn’s team also won, making for a mother and son gold medal celebration in Birmingham.

Perseverance is one characteristic of athletes selected to be featured by our Personal Best initiative, and Mary has overcome many challenges in life and bounced back every time. She was part of the generation that climbed out of the Great Depression and survived World War II. The Ohio native has the distinction of being among a relatively small number of women who served in the military during that time. She subsequently took a risk and went to California with a friend to seek her fortune. Instead, she fell into an abusive, dead-end marriage and she ended up moving into public housing with her two young children. Her kids recall the sacrifices she made to protect them and to find a way out. Mary also quit cold turkey on a two-pack-per-day smoking habit at the age of 50, a further testimony to her resolve to improve her life.

In our talk, Mary continues with her story of returning to Ohio and finding a stable job, her many moves, and how her children have helped her navigate through retirement. She now lives with her daughter and son-in-law in Boca Raton, and enjoys going to the gym five days a week for Silver Sneakers activities, made possible by her Humana membership. She still possesses a keen wit and a positive attitude, attributes that have helped her get through the rough patches in her life. Now, Mary Kemp has new goals to look forward to, and she likes the idea that telling her Personal Best story might encourage others that it truly is “never too late to get into The Games.”

Mary, it’s so great that you decided to start competing at 95. Did you ever imagine you would one day be running the 50-meter dash in your 90s?

I never did, and it’s still mind boggling that I’m here and doing this. I worked hard all my life, and I can’t believe this is happening. When I go to the gym, everybody is congratulating me. I wonder ‘What’s going on here?’ [Laugh] It’s amazing.

We’ll ask you more about that, but talk to us first about how you got to this point. Were you ever an athlete?

In school, we always had gym to go to. I played volleyball. I was so short, nobody could see me out there!

[Laugh] You were lucky, Mary. Many women your age were never allowed in sports. Where did you grow up?

I was born in Toledo, Ohio. My parents were Polish and came to America in 1914. They had six children. My Dad was very physical. He worked in a factory. My mother was a homebody and you did what she said. Both of them taught us discipline. My father was more of a silent person. His presence was enough to convince us not to fool around.

Anyway, we played outside a lot. There was a public park where we could swim in the summer, and they had basketball courts. I remember when it snowed in the winter, we kids liked to compose a pie in the snow and race to ‘cut up the pie’ and see who got around the slices first.

You really are a newbie to sports. We hear you joined the Army during World War II. How did that come about?

Well, before I did that, I took some courses to become a beautician when I graduated high school. I was kinda bored with it, and found out that the Jeep factory was hiring. So I went to work on a conveyor belt helping to build Jeeps. A young lady I worked with said, “Mary, I’m going to join the military. Why don’t you come with me?” I went home and talked with my mother. She thought about it, looked around to see six children, and decided this would be one less mouth to feed. She didn’t say that, but that’s what she was thinking. [Laugh]

We went to get tested and I weighed 98 pounds. The rule was you had to weigh 100 pounds. They told me to eat bananas and cottage cheese to put some weight on and come back. I did that, got to 100 and they signed me up. This was 1942, and I did mostly clerical work. They shipped me to Colorado, and then to Washington, DC, where they honorably discharged me to go home to Ohio in 1946.

So you were one of the women who performed important work at home.  And you were among the few who wore a uniform. You were an everyday hero.

Thank you. That’s exactly what we did. You helped any way you could.

Anyway, after I went home I met a lady who asked me to go to California. She said her aunt and uncle could help set us up. So I went out west with her. We got an attic dwelling above a garage. You had to use a ladder to get up there, and you had to go to the owner’s house to use the facilities. 

It was at that time that I met my ever-loving husband who I divorced later. We were together for five years and had two kids. He bought a business at Ocean Park near Santa Monica. It was a food concession stand at a boardwalk area where people did rides and played games and such. He worked nights, and I had to take the daytime.  

 

He left us a couple of times, and despite everything I took him back. He turned out to be a philanderer, and I found out some were teenage girls. I got a divorce in 1952.

After we split, I got one support check and received nothing after that. We had no money and had to move into a public housing project. I worked full time, and also got a associate business degree from Davis College. I had no car,  so I walked or took the bus everywhere. After a time my brother, who lived with my mother in Toledo, told me to come back and live with them. He helped me get a job at the Owens plant where he worked. That’s where they made Libby glassware. I worked for them for 25 years doing secretarial work before I retired in 1982.

My son Glenn was working for the Postal Service at that time, and he wanted to improve his position and would move from place to place over the years. Each time, I would move into the house he left behind, and whenever he transferred I would help him sell the house I was in and then take over the next house. I took care of him, and he took care of me. I went to Louisiana, Alabama, to the Florida Keys, Texas, and then to Atlanta before he retired and moved to Fairhope, Alabama. I treated those houses as my own and paid all the bills while I lived there. I enjoyed the liberty of being on my own and liked being exposed to something different at each place.

How did you land where you are now in Boca Raton?

Six years ago, Glenn hit on hard times. He had taken on too much and it all came down on him at once. He had to sell everything, and I had to move. My daughter Ann and her husband Jim came to the rescue and took me in here in Boca Raton. [Pause] I guess you could compose a book on my life. I cannot believe everything that’s happened when I stop to think about it. I didn’t have time to feel sorry for myself. I never thought about having to keep going, I don’t know how I handled it all, I just did it. I met my responsibility, and the kids were always first when they were with me.

Through years, did you exercise regularly? You look to be in pretty good shape!

I’ve always stayed active and worked hard. I always walked stairs instead of taking elevators. I cut grass, weeded, and kept a garden around the house. I also bought a Juicelator and have used it for years to improve my nutrition.

I would also usually join a facility with a pool. I liked to swim. Through Medicare and Humana, I joined Silver Sneakers here. Five days a week I go to the gym. They have group classes like Zumba and challenges like running around the gym. Your legs and arms are always going. If I didn’t have this, what would I have for exercises? I could run around the block here, but that’s not as much as I get with the groups. I’m very grateful for getting this paid for. And now look, I have a gold medal!

Come to think of it, I can tell you I was also a smoker until I was 50. The kids didn’t say anything about it, but I thought about Ann and Glenn and asked myself, ‘What are you doing?’ I decided that was it and I quit right then for my health.

Cold turkey? That’s impressive. Deciding to run track for the first time at 95 is impressive, too. You are an ambassador for fitness just doing that as an example.

If I could, I would give people a complimentary pass to the gym and ask, ‘Why don’t you come with me and just try it?’ Then, once you get going, you can deviate and find what is good for you. Just try something and stay with it.

What was it like to walk out onto that track and see all the activity at the National Senior Games?

I was in awe. I couldn’t believe I was there. There were all these people walking around with hats and their fancy exercise gear. And so friendly! They said things like “Good for you, Mary!” There wasn’t anyone there who said anything negative. Dottie Gray, she’s 92 I think, was so wonderful and pleasant to me. I watched her race and she was just prancing like a horse. She’s so amazing. We posed on the medal stand together with our arms around each other, and when they told us to say cheese, Dottie said “Squeeze!” and squeezed me. [Laugh]

 

You beat two others in your age group by nine seconds to get that gold.

You know, I wasn’t looking behind me to see who was where in the race. I’m surprised, because I’m usually a pretty nosy person. I heard people yelling “Go, Mary, Go!” and boy, did my muscles go. I wasn’t thinking about winning, I was just thinking about doing it. This is it. It was just terrific. I wouldn’t give up that feeling for anything.

Glenn is 70 years old now and retired in Alabama. He is really into basketball. He’s not only playing, he’s also teaching the game to youngsters. It’s important to him. They call him “Pops.” He’s gone to Senior Games before, and was with a team in Birmingham.

Glenn is the one who got me interested in doing this. He kept saying, “Go, Mom! You can do it. Sign up for The Games!” I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s my son? He was never this brutal to me.’ [Laugh] So I did sign up. Glenn helped get me registered. Of course, Ann and Jim were wonderful, too. They helped me with transportation and came along so I wasn’t alone.

Glenn’s basketball team won a gold medal. And you won a gold medal. How do you feel about that?

Well, in real life, he went his way and I went my way. [Pause and Laugh] No, I’m kidding! It was terrific. You know, Glenn told me something to be proud of - we are both gold medal Army veterans of two different wars. When has that happened before?

After Birmingham, Glenn also took me to the Huntsman Games in Utah. I won two gold medals there, in the 50 and the 100. I also went to the Florida Senior Games in Clearwater in December. It was colder there than in Utah, but I ran my races and met more nice people.

You now have a goal to keep going. You can qualify in 2018 to go to the National Senior Games in Albuquerque in 2019.

Albuquerque? That’s interesting. Where’s the oxygen tank?

[Laugh] You are really something, Mary! It is indeed at higher altitude, but there have been masters track events there. It hasn’t been a problem for seniors when they hydrate and get acclimated for a day before competing.

Oh, good. I’m interested then. [Pause] If I’m still here. [Laugh]

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