Keeping fit at 100 years

Ask Laura Johnson, 100, the secret to her longevity and she’s got a no-nonsense answer: hard work.

Ask her how people stayed in shape before exercise classes became common and she’ll give a similar reply. “They worked hard.”

The same recipe for success has helped Ms. Johnson—who celebrated her centennial Monday with a vigorous workout—thrive in Mike Lepore’s circuit training class, offered through the Claremont Adult School and held 4 times a week in El Roble Intermediate School’s Fitness Center. 

Three years ago, Ms. Johnson’s twin daughters, Loretta Garcia and Lorene Kortemeier, who had been taking Mr. Lepore’s class for some time with good results, approached their instructor.

“They asked if I could set something up for Laura. I was expecting her to maybe do some light dumbbell work,” he recalled. “But she’s way beyond that.”

At her most recent session, Ms. Johnson completed her circuit with the same alacrity as the rest of the class. At the beep of a timer, she moved from exercise bike to ab slide and from lifting weights via a back-friendly hex bar to twisting on the oblique machine.

“The only thing I haven’t seen her do is the pull-up and dip,” Mr. Lepore noted.

In 1998, Ms. Johnson traded her Claremont home on Via Padova, where she had lived since 1950, for Ms. Garcia’s La Verne residence because she had begun falling. Soon after, Ms. Kortemeier, who had previously introduced her sister to the class, asked her mom if she wanted to come and watch.

“That didn’t work,” Ms. Kortemeier laughed. “She was in there doing it.”

Though Ms. Johnson was in her late 90s at the time, she didn’t feel nervous about jumping in. “I just made up my mind. I knew I should be doing exercises.”

Since taking Mr. Lepore’s class, Ms. Johnson’s health and balance have improved noticeably. “I don’t think she needs me now,” Ms. Garcia joked.

At Monday’s fitness class, participants partook of pink-and-white-frosted gingerbread cookies made by Ms. Kortemeier, some of them only the size of a quarter in case anyone was on a diet. Ms. Johnson’s classmates, who say her continuing sturdiness, mental sharpness and energy are a source of inspiration, took a moment to congratulate her on the landmark birthday.

“I hope I’m here at 100—don’t we all,” said Marcia Berry, an Azusa Pacific professor who calls Mr. Lepore’s class her de-stressor.

Ms. Johnson is wonderfully independent, Ms. Berry says, as is Betty DeJong who, at 89, is the class’s second-oldest student. Ms. DeJong was a radiologist at Pomona Valley Hospital for 37 years, and kept fit by walking the hospital’s long corridors. Now she keeps healthy and keeps her arthritis at bay with an hour of hand and back exercises each morning, followed by a half-hour walk. A few evenings a week, she gets out to Mr. Lepore’s class.

At her last check-up, Ms. DeJong’s physician marveled at her good condition.

“I told the doctor, ‘I just want to be healthy,’” she shared. “If I’m healthy, I want to be around. If I’m unhealthy, I don’t.”


A life of change

Ms. Johnson, smooth-faced, white-haired, 5 feet tall and 110 pounds, is certainly the picture of health. She is undaunted by the prospect of a gym class, considered that she’s always engaged in plenty of physical activity of one kind or another.

She was born in 1913, about 6 miles out of Sunnyside in Yakima County in Washington state. As a girl, she got plenty of exercise by helping out on the family farm. After Ms. Johnson was married, she stayed active, scuba diving, hunting, fishing and riding horseback over the years.

According to Ms. Johnson, high water rates is not a new issue. When the cost for irrigating her family’s 48-acre farm rose to $625 per year, no small amount during the Depression, Ms. Johnson’s parents decided it was time to move.

Ms. Johnson had a sister who worked for a lawyer in Los Angeles, and one of his clients was a doctor who had purchased 20 acres of land in north Pomona. The physician had contracted someone to care for the property, which included a house as well as a small farm, but the tenant was a drinking man and it wasn’t working out.

“My sister told the man, ‘I have a father wanting to move to California and he is a farmer, he’s dependable, no drinking, he’s a good Christian man,’” Ms. Johnson recalled.

The doctor paid for the family to travel south, a move that occasioned significant changes for Ms. Johnson. There was electricity in their home, a boon for a family that had previously staved off the darkness via Coleman Lantern. In another change, they traded Washington’s rainy weather for sunny southern California skies.

“Oh, that was the best thing of all,” Ms. Johnson said.

There were a number of subjects that were required before you could graduate from high school in California, many of which she hadn’t taken while in Washington. It was determined that she needed 2 more years of high school to graduate. Ms. Johnson, a mezzo-soprano singer, enjoyed her time at Pomona High School, throwing herself into music department productions.

To get to school, she took a Red Car, walking the final few blocks after the trolley dropped her off. It wasn’t a strenuous journey but it did carry one risk. In the winter, when the owners of local citrus groves were smudging their trees to keep them from freezing, the burning oil filled the air with soot.

“Walking from Garey to Pomona High School, my face was black,” Ms. Johnson said.

She cleaned up well enough that she attracted a boyfriend, Marven Johnson. There wasn’t a lot of money for dates. She and Mr. Johnson would go out in his car at night and chase rabbits. They would shoot them and, if the rabbits looked healthy enough, take them home. He would skin them and she would cook them, preparing them “just like chickens,” and the 2 would share a well-earned repast.

Occasionally the teens, who were present for the 1931 opening of the Fox Theatre in Pomona, would catch a movie. Ms. Johnson favored love stories. Their own love story continued when they got married in 1935, 3 years after Ms. Johnson graduated from high school.

She carried a gardenia bouquet, Ms. Johnson recalls. The union would last 61 years, only ending with Mr. Johnson’s death. With a little luck, Mr. Johnson fell into painting and eventually built his own business, Marven Johnson Painting Co. of Pomona. Luck also prevailed when Ms. Johnson’s first pregnancy yielded twins—“It was the surprise of my life,” she said—and when Mr. Johnson was excused from active duty in World War II due to a punctured eardrum.

While Mr. Johnson worked hard building his business, Ms. Johnson tended to the twins and a subsequent daughter, Karen, who is 6 years younger. They knew when to take a break and have some fun, though. Mr. Johnson, an avid fisherman, bought a little boat and he and his wife would use it for fishing and later as a headquarters for diving expeditions.

The Johnsons also made it to church every Sunday, acting on the board of deacons for a Baptist church in Pomona and later serving as one of the founding congregants of the Claremont Baptist Church in 1950.

The Depression was in full-bore during Ms. Johnson’s girlhood. While her family always had enough to eat, thanks in large part to their vegetable garden, they didn’t have money to send her to college. While she became a bookkeeper and a beautician, working full-time when her daughters were small, she has always regretted that she was unable to continue her education. One of the Johnsons’ greatest accomplishments was sending each of their daughters to college.

“Education comes first,” she says.

Life in itself, though, has been an education for Ms. Johnson, who has seen countless technological innovations over the years. She hasn’t embraced the Internet, but remembers the first time she experienced another groundbreaking invention. 

“The first thing that impressed me so much about changes in the world was getting a telephone. I was 5 years old. That was a marvelous thing,” she said.

She also remains impressed by the development and release in the 1960s of the Pill. “One of the best things is you don’t have to have a baby every year,” she said.

Other than that, Ms. Johnson, who was feted a day before her birthday at a dinner with 40 guests, is remarkably unruffled by the changes her century has wrought. When asked whether the world of the 21st century is the way she had envisioned it, she says yes. When asked how the area has changed, she says it’s become overpopulated.

While Ms. Johnson attributes her staying power to hard work, her daughter Loretta says, “I suspect it’s probably due to very good genes.” Ms. Johnson had an aunt who lived to 98, and her parents were well over 80 when they died.

Whatever her secret, Ms. Johnson looks healthy enough to remain part of the population for some years. She’s blithe about her prospects, though.

“I’m ready to go anytime,” she said.

In the meantime, Ms. Johnson will continue coming to her exercise class and tending to her orchids and generally keep moving.

“It’s exciting,” Ms. Garcia said about her mother reaching a healthy100. “It gives me hope.”

—Sarah Torribio


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