A look into life’s rearview mirror can be a fun trip, reminiscing about experiences that have marked the journey. But if you intend to stroll down memory lane with Hazel Gallagher of Kennewick, Wash., you’d better bring your running shoes.
“Hazel can outwork most people in the gym at 97 years old,” said Kennewick Hansen Park Fitness co-manager Chuck Clapper, shaking his head in admiration at the sprightly senior.
Monday through Friday, the silver-haired lady shows up mid-morning with her 86-year-old husband, Bill, to vigorously walk the treadmill and work the weight machines.
“I had the lift set at 30 pounds, but I changed it to 40,” Hazel remarked as she reset the machine for her repetitions. “It was too easy.”
Joann Monroe, who frequents the same gym, said, “I see her come in each day and Hazel’s energy is amazing.”
If this perky nonagenarian has found the fountain of youth, there are plenty of people who want to know her secret.
“Pick the right parents,” Bill quipped, while Hazel echoed the importance of good genes. Her dad lived to 108 and her mother 92.
But there are a couple of markers that stand out in Hazel’s memory — experiences that have made a difference in who she is today — and who she’ll be tomorrow.
Born at her grandmother’s home in a 1920 February winter, her earliest memories are of a hard-working family who had homesteaded in Goshen County, Wyo.
“I was the third baby of eight — four boys and four girls,” Hazel said, recalling the single room cabin her dad first built before moving into her grandmother’s two-story home on land she homesteaded too. “Us kids had to work in the potato fields — keep the weeds out — milk the cows and feed the chickens from the time they were baby chicks.”
Those chores before and after school were a daily routine, including a walk with her siblings to and from the one-room schoolhouse down the road apiece. Farm kids only skipped school when there was extra work to do.
“You stayed out of school in the fall to help pick potatoes,” Hazel said about the 90 acres her family farmed. “My dad had to hire help, but my sister, Ethel, and I would try to beat everybody filling the bags.”
Fieldwork stopped to take a breath Sunday, but daily chores were seven days a week. Nevertheless, Hazel recalls how their country life far from the nearest town didn’t mean they’d miss church services.
“The Baptist minister would come and use the schoolhouse on Sundays,” Hazel said, thinking back to a time when distant neighbors would gather to hear the gospel — and maybe a little gossip.
That upbringing — working close to the earth and a belief in the creator — has brought her to this side of 98 with still a twinkle in her blue eyes. At times, though, there have been tears.
“Bill was my neighbor and we’d stayed friends after my husband, Thomas Brock, died in 2003, and then his wife passed away in 2007,” Hazel said, remembering the loss they both had suffered. “One day he asked me, ‘How old are you?’ and I told him I was too old for him,” she said with a chuckle about the man almost 12 years her junior whom she wed in 2008.
“She’ll outlive me,” Bill said, laughing, a guy who admits to being impressed with his wife’s get-up-and-go.
Hazel isn’t one to take a nap or pine for what couldn’t be. When she graduated from Lusk High School in a class of 38 students, some went on to college, but not Hazel.
“I worked in the fields and there was no money to go on to school,” Hazel said matter-of-factly, even though she had wanted more education.
During her career years, she never had a desk job. Instead, Hazel was constantly on the move as a meat wrapper, besides raising three children. When she retired from Waremart Foods (now WinCo Foods), she wasn’t about to sit still.
“I started walking and I’d walk about 3 miles,” Hazel said, recalling the early mornings in the wide-open spaces that once surrounded her home. “I get up later now and work the crossword puzzles and word games in the newspaper first.”
Not an idle moment at an age when most people think they’re going downhill.
“We climb Badger Mountain in the summers,” Hazel said enthusiastically about the trails to the top. “People see me and they can’t believe I’m that old.”
So what is her secret to a long good life?
“I think it’s staying active and having faith,” Hazel said thoughtfully.
And maybe a good pair of running shoes.