July 2017

What’s Their Secret? Area residents share keys to a long, happy life

Author: Linda S. Hopkins | Photographer: M.Kat Photography

If you want to learn something about living, hang out with the people who have been doing it for a while. This month, I interviewed six area residents who have lived 80 years or more to find out their secrets to a long, happy life. Distilling their stories into a brief narrative proved to be a mission impossible, but some common threads ran through the many discussions: Yes, healthy eating matters and exercise is important, but so are dreams, values, determination, family and faith. Most expressed belief in a power greater than themselves; when it comes to longevity, the sense of being watched over and protected was a more commonly held conviction than genetic blessing or sheer luck. To reach the age of 80 and above seems also to require an ability to accept one’s self, roll with the changes and not worry too much about the future.

Staying socially active and giving back by serving others is another important key. Each of these people exudes a positivity and zest for life that transcends the challenges of aging. Here are a few pearls from the wisest among us.

Eighty-seven-year-old native islander Arthur Stewart remembers a very different culture than what we know today. As a young black man from the South, many doors were closed to him, but he managed to pry open a few—joining the military in the 1950s, undergoing training as a military policeman and serving in Germany during the Korean War.


Arthur Stewart
Age 87
“Get all the education you can, stay out of trouble, and just keep on truckin’.”

While most of his people moved to New York, Stewart returned to the Lowcountry, where his name is synonymous with the local shrimping industry. He remembers Hilton Head Island with no bridge, of course, and when what we now call Harbour Town was just a basin. He also remembers working for 50 cents a day, buying shiny black shoes for 75 cents, and being required to sit in the back of the bus. Retired now, his devoted wife Isabel by his side, their living room wall lined with family photos, Stewart maintains a positive outlook and said he’s happy that he can still drive his car around the block.


Audre Allison
Age 87
“Try not to fear rejection, forgive yourself your discrepancies, and be proud of your survival skills. Love, laugh and learn…and write to remember a life well-lived.”

Growing up in St. Louis, 87-year-old Audre Allison came up against her own set of challenges, meeting them all with both curiosity and courage. “I have always been a dreamer, wishing to go outside my boundaries, imagining myself out in the world finding wonder everywhere. I believe in pursuing knowledge of things that might open me to unknown adventure,” she said. As a young adult, Allison helped pave the way for today’s women by marching and demonstrating in Washington D.C. for the women’s Equal Rights Amendment and attending the Beijing World Conference on Women.

Meanwhile, she raised four children and enjoyed 66 years of marriage to world-renowned jazz pianist, singer and composer, Mose Allison. “I never imagined myself married to a high school or college boyfriend, staying in St. Louis, and keeping house. I knew when I met my husband that he, like me, generated his own joy. We married very young and, together, we had many adventures searching for the life we wanted. Choosing him was the most important decision of my life,” she said.

When her children were in junior high school, Allison went back to college to study law but found her passion for teaching instead. A Phi Beta Kappa honor graduate, she completed her English degree and taught high school writing classes for the next 20 years.


Mary Baumann
Age 82
“The ability to love is a gift. If you think to be loved is more important, you are depending on someone else for your happiness. But if you have a genuine gift to love, you are going to be happy.”

Like Allison, 82-year-old Mary Baumann recalls the years when the path of opportunity for women was narrow—career options mostly limited to teaching, nursing or secretarial work. She chose to hone her secretarial skills and learned a great deal about business and law along the way. She went on to enjoy a 30-year career at Nassau Community College on Long Island, teaching legal secretarial writing and business writing, finishing as the department head. She raised three children and continues to take great pleasure in her marriage and family life.


Libba Beerman
Age 91
“You are not a victim. You are in charge of yourself and you are a power within yourself.”

Ninety-one-year-old Libba Beerman (soon to be 92) found herself navigating the world solo after divorcing her husband of 24 years. Raising five children on her own, she held a variety of fascinating jobs over the years: hostessing at a church, selling real estate, managing inns, owning and managing a restaurant, owning an art gallery…. Her most “exciting and wonderful” job, she said, was working as a tech in a psychiatric ward. “I felt like I should be paying them instead of them paying me—I learned so much.” She later practiced past-life regression therapy, which not only fascinated her, but gave her a unique perspective on life’s inevitable end. Her happiest role? “Being a mom.”

Healthy habits
Born in Los Angeles, Beerman said her mother inadvertently instilled her healthy eating habits. “I thought we were poor because she never gave us candy,” she said. While not a perfect eater today (did someone say ice cream?) Beerman is a vegetarian, “for the climate and for my gut.” She does not come from a family of long-livers. “I think we are much more in charge of ourselves than genetics,” she said. Currently living in a two-story “treehouse” in Sea Pines, she will be the first to tell you that climbing stairs daily is one of the keys to a long life and that communing with nature is the best way to control your blood pressure.
Healthy eating was a way of life for Stewart, as well, living “farm-to-table” long before the term was ever coined by the culinary geniuses of today. Physical exercise was rowing a boat from Hilton Head Island to Daufuskie and back (“no electric motors back then”), and sailing to Savannah with a boatload of seafood to sell at the market.


Bill Fassnacht
Age 87
“Enjoy the moment, and always look on the bright side. Don’t be afraid to do something and don’t let negative thoughts stop you.”

Active both physically and socially, 87-year-old retired business owner Bill Fassnacht (Fass) said longevity runs in his family, and he got the fitness bug honestly. His mother was a gym teacher and his great grandfather, Friedrich Jahn, was a German gymnastics educator, widely regarded as the Father of Gymnastics. Today, Fassnacht aims to log 10,000 steps daily on his Fitbit. He’s had a kidney removed and a few parts replaced (two knees and a hip), but nothing has kept him down for long. You’re likely to see him on the golf course shooting his age, out on his three-mile walk around the neighborhood, traveling, or spending time with his vivacious lady friend, Donna Miller.


Ralph Stevens
Age 91
“Live to the fullest, and don’t envy anyone.”

Likewise, 92-year-old Ralph Stevens is not letting the grass grow under his feet. Originally from London, he served in the British Navy in WWII, later immigrating to the U.S. and enjoying an unusual and prestigious career as a scientific glass blower at Yale University before retiring to Hilton Head Island. “I’m a survivor,” he said, recalling many of his comrades who died in the war or have since passed away.

Always active, Stevens was an avid squash player and later took up racquetball. Today, you will find his Mini Cooper parked outside LAVA 24 Fitness at least four days a week, where he works out and enjoys conversation and a few laughs with his friends. “This is a discipline, not a chore for me,” he said. “You only have one body. You have to keep moving.” His greatest challenge? His memory. His greatest joy? His two-year-old grandson.

Attitudes, philosophies, and happiness
In addition to an active lifestyle that includes gardening, walking and riding her bicycle, Baumann believes her upbeat personality and positive attitude give her an edge on aging. “I have been happy at every stage of my life,” she said, much of which she attributes to being content within herself, not focusing on the shortcomings of others and looking for the good. A devout Catholic, she has no fear of death. “A baby in the womb would never choose to leave it,” she said, expressing faith that something wonderful awaits beyond life on earth.

Stewart agrees. He doesn’t worry about aging or what tomorrow might bring. “The good Lord brought me, and the good Lord will take me,” he said. Meanwhile, his family is a major source of inspiration and pride, giving him a darn good reason to stick around.

Widowed since 2009, Fassnacht’s happiness continues to revolve around the family he and his wife Paula produced. His children and grandchildren help keep him young at heart, visiting frequently and vacationing together. (They call him Bond, as in James Bond, because he’s so adventurous!) “I don’t worry about aging. I get irritated when things aren’t working the way they should,” he said, citing his greatest challenge as “the little aches and pains of daily life.”

Recently widowed, Allison continues to find joy and purpose amidst the sorrow, seeking out opportunities to learn and share her knowledge through writing, volunteering, and encouraging others. She delights in her family and treasures her friends, but it’s her overarching philosophy of life that compels her to make the most of her remaining years on earth. “What I think has driven my life and made me a happy creature most of the time are my fundamental beliefs. I believe in goodness, kindness, humility, justice, responsibility to self and to others,” she said. “I’ve tried hard to live these beliefs, and I think this has presented me with purpose and adventure, strength and pleasure. I have lived a good life with little regret and a lot of satisfaction, surviving ups and downs, disappointment and delight, still glad to be alive—tempered by acceptance of what is coming next—and with the fortitude that tells me tomorrow will be all right.”

Now you know the secret. Pass it on!

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