Sportingly Yours – Don Hoeppner, 85, Whitewater, Wisconsin
Will Rogers famously said “I never met a man I didn’t like.” In the case of Don Hoeppner, you could say he never met a sport he didn’t like. In fact, he often writes the closing line “Sportingly Yours” in his letters and emails.
The retired CPA has always loved to run, jump, hit, catch, bounce and throw, and has made good on his goal to remain active throughout his life. Baseball was one of his earliest loves, and when his father gave him a right-handed glove, the natural left-hander adapted and learned to throw righty. As time progressed, Don learned to adapt and do most things from the right side, including writing.
Don lettered in tennis and played football in high school, and then contributed to the success of a championship intramurals basketball team at the University of Wisconsin. Once he launched into an accounting career, he avoided the sedentary life by playing sports with his church and in adult baseball and basketball leagues. Like many others in Wisconsin, Don also enjoyed outdoor activities with his family at their lake camp, and actively participated in Boy Scout activities with his sons.
Entering his 50s, Don joined a new senior softball league and they decided to get into the Wisconsin Senior Olympics. He has since participated annually in all of his state games, and in all but one National Senior Games since 1989 when he first became eligible to compete. With each new year, Don would thumb through the state games event guide and select a new sport to try. You name it, he’s probably done it. This year, Don is entered into eight different sports at the Wisconsin games. He still does shuffleboard, horseshoes and lawn bowling with Nancy, his wife of 61 years. The Games have become his adult playground for 29 years and counting.
At National Senior Games, Don has focused on his best sports, including softball and volleyball, and in recent years, basketball, tennis and track and field events. Not making the national medal stand very often has not diminished his enjoyment of being part of the action with thousands of other like-minded active people. He cherishes the gold medals he earned playing softball in 1997 and with his Wisconsin 80s basketball team in 2013.
Don Hoeppner is a great example for how you can achieve your own Personal Best of optimum health and contentment through sports and regular activity. Another way to recognize a Personal Best athlete is by how he or she inspires and helps show the way to others. Don has always been in the middle of recruiting and organizing teams, and is always telling others to “get into the game” to enjoy the same benefits he is deriving. Wisconsin Senior Olympics has recognized his contributions by inducting him into their Hall of Fame.
As Don relates in the following conversation, he realizes he is not a naturally gifted athlete, but he enjoys the challenge a nd work required to learn and become better at what he sets his mind to. Winning medals has never been the biggest motivator. What drives him (and most senior athletes) is maintaining his best health, enjoying social connections, testing his own limits, and sharing experiences in a team environment.
To listen to you speak, Don, there’s no doubt you are from Wisconsin.
Oh yeah, I always played basketball and regular baseball up until I was 62. Then I played softball. When I was in my 30s, I played basketball in the church league and helped coach them too. I’ve always enjoyed swimming. Being in Wisconsin, we had a lake cottage for quite a few years and the family did waterskiing, swimming, tag and dodgeball in the water, those kinds of things, you know.
I was also the founder of the Tosa Little League for Wauwatosa. There’s about 600 in it now. My players who were in it at the beginning are now running it. [Chuckles] One thing that made it sorta neat was that we didn’t organize teams by schools or areas, they came from around the city. So the ball players got to be friends with people from the other school.
Right now I’m organizing two teams that are playing in the Wisconsin Senior Olympics, and I’ll be playing on one of them.
Doing accounting work can be a sedentary job. Did you work out or play sports as a younger adult?
I was born in Milwaukee, and have lived in different places in mostly southern Wisconsin. I was a CPA and owned my own accounting business in Wauwatosa for many years. I lived there most of my adult life, and I’ve been in Whitewater for seven years now.
We’ll get back to your senior sports, and you do a ton of them. Have you always been a sports nut?
Oh yeah. I lettered in tennis on a pretty good team in high school. I also played football, but I was not good enough for the varsity, so I concentrated on other things like being a cheerleader. I did some intramurals when I was at the University of Wisconsin. My basketball team was the league and campus champion. I belonged to a fraternity but was not on their team. We were very happy to beat all the fraternities, you know. [Laugh]
What has been your biggest challenge in sports?
Well, you just have to work at it. I’ll tell you one big thing, though. When I was about seven years old, my father bought me a baseball glove. I was left handed, and asked if it was a left-handed glove. He said, “Yes, it’s on the left hand, isn’t it?” [Laughs] So, I turned into a right-handed baseball player.
At Thanksgiving dinner, they were always worried about having me in the left corner of the table so I wouldn’t be bothering everyone else with me eating left-handed. When I was 15 I said to myself, “Gosh, I can learn to do this right handed.” Now I eat right handed. I do all sports right-handed now, like golf or tennis or whatever.
It’s a brain-teaser to “change your wiring,” so to speak.
After I finished college at the University of Wisconsin, I was drafted into the US Army and sent to North Carolina. I was going to be an accountant, so I decided at that time to learn to write using my right hand too. I’ve been doing it that way ever since. But now, still, sometimes I find myself doing some things the other way. Like shoveling snow. People don’t think you can do things one way or the other, you know? I can do many things with either hand.
So, let’s hear about your long career as a senior athlete.
When I was 55, a client told me about a softball league they were organizing. There was a team from Briggs and Stratton, which I had done work for earlier in my career. So went out to practice, and there’s all my buddies that I hadn’t seen for years and years, and they’re all trying to play ball. When I came home from practice I told my wife Nancy, “Aw, you’ve got to come see this. This is softball in slow motion.” [Laughs] Well, we went undefeated for about three years in that league.
The league was in the summer, and the Wisconsin Senior Olympics was in the fall, so we did that too. I played softball and also did some track that first time. This year I’m doing eight sports. I can’t get enough of it.
They tell me you’ve done just about every sport over the years at the Wisconsin games.
Yeah, I guess it just came about gradually. I just saw all of the things listed in the book you could do, and I’d pick something else to do along the way. I’ve just always participated in a lot of different things. As the season came up I’d just start pl aying the sport and did more and more and more.
I think over the years I’ve probably gotten 400 medals in the Wisconsin Senior Olympics. But when you get to the national level, boy that’s pretty competitive. I think I’ve won three medals in all my years there, and none of them as an individual.
Nancy does some sports, but she’s more into sewing and collecting. I call it shopping. [Laugh] She does have about 40 medals in shuffleboard, horseshoes and lawn bowling. We do those three sports together in the Wisconsin Senior Olympics. She’s only competed at the Nationals once. We don’t have that much money to stay longer. I tell people she lets me do all this sports stuff. [Laugh]
I guess I’ve been in every one of the Wisconsin games since I started up. I talk it up wherever I go. I give out booklets and flyers, and in the past I was on the phone a lot organizing the softball teams and basketball teams.
You’ve been a regular at the National Senior Games too.
I started when I could. You had to be 55 to get in back then; it’s 50 now. I wasn’t old enough for the first one, so I started in 1989 in St. Louis, and I’ve made every one since except in California in 2009. I just didn’t have the money to go that far at that time. I wish I could have.
Next year in Birmingham, I hear they’re adding an 85+ basketball group if they get enough teams. If they do, I’ll be on one of them. Otherwise I’ll be in the 80+ group. Basketball is very special to me at Nationals, because my team took the gold in Cleveland [in 2013]. It was special to win it all there.
Now, in Minnesota last year, we only had three players because Ken Head, our fourth guy, had a death in the family and couldn’t make it. So we all played every minute of our games. We won the first four, but lost to the eventual gold winners and ended up in fourth place. The team we lost to had a guy who was seven feet tall! Our center is only six foot three. [Laughs]
So I’ll be there next year for basketball, and will also do some track like I’ve been doing for the past few Nationals. Last time, I got 8th in two events, in long jump and the 50 meter. For me, that’s very, very good.
So you’re not discouraged about not winning many medals at Nationals?
So I’m not a superstar. [Chuckles] But I consider myself fortunate to be able to do what I can do. It’s also interesting to compare yourself to see what you can do against the world. Some of those guys are naturals who really have it going for them. I probably work at it harder than some of them. I’ve always thought that what makes a pro is to be a natural who works hard at it.
Another thing about going to Nationals is to just be there for all of the excitement, meeting people and seeing the ones you’ve competed against before.
It’s nice to visit different places too.
Oh yeah. I think we do more sightseeing than most of the athletes. We go to the zoo, the theater, parks and so forth. We like to look around at the shops too. The River Walk in San Antonio was really neat. Stuff like that, you know.
One of the other big things I enjoy is just getting together with other fellows who have the same ideas, doing things together and so forth. And the effort and goal to keep in shape is really the big reason.
Obviously, your sports activity has contributed to the great physical shape you’re in today, right?
Oh sure. It really helps mentally too. I keep pretty healthy. I’ve had a few crashes in sports, you know. I’ve been laid up for awhile, but it didn’t affect me for too long. I tore my Achilles practicing basketball once. That happened right before the National Senior Games that were down in Orlando [in 1999]. I was in a cast and couldn’t do anything, but I had organized a team playing volleyball. So I went anyway, and I also helped coach third base for my softball team.
I’ve always been very active in the Boy Scouts, doing a lot of hiking and camping and sports with my three sons. I was a Scoutmaster for many years. These days, I follow my grandchildren around. The next generation, you know. I was just out there with them for a week at scout camp. There was a group doing pushups for a fitness merit badge and some of them were lucky to be doing four of them. One of my boys says, “Oh, Mr. Hoeppner can do 20 pushups!” So I had to come over and show them how to do it. [Laughs] I still sort of astonish the kids when I can keep up with them.
You have always been in the middle of the action, and it has inspired many others. Do you have a favorite piece of advice to help encourage people to stay active?
You got to pray a lot, eat good and exercise daily.
I play tennis once a week when it’s nice out this time of year. I mostly play with people in their 50s and 60s and I hear them say, “Boy, I sure hope I can do that when I’m 80.” I tell them you’ve got to work at it.
I guess my number one tip is “Don’t eat too much.” When you eat out, they just pile it on you. They want to charge you more for it. So when the meal comes, divide it so you can eat half there, and take home half.
Another thing I hear people saying is “I’ll get around to it.” You’ve got to set a better priority. You can find a way. You’ve got to work at it.