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SENIORS : Her Life Is a Real Exercise in Enthusiasm

January 02, 1994|LINDA FELDMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Janet Patey grew up in the no-nonsense America of Will Rogers. When she celebrated her 89th birthday last year, her church congregation stood up and applauded, and she pledged to be back this year.

She was.

Her Christmas card list has 300 names, even though she has no relatives living in the United States. No one in Patey's life doubts she will be back next year--or that she will continue to teach her special brand of physical exercise.

Until a few months ago, when a heart ailment interrupted her schedule, Patey taught an exercise class at the Beverly Hills Women's Club. She led the class for nearly four decades.

Her students miss her and often call to plead for her return. One gave her a deadline of mid-January. She wants to meet it. She already knows what she's going to say when she comes back: "Well, what do you know? Here I am, thanks to God and all your good wishes."

Patey doesn't fit a mold. If ever there were a candidate for Renaissance woman, she'd be a contender. She paints, makes her own stationery, travels and is a perennial teacher. She's not guided by any grand philosophies, only the deep belief that she is not alone and the conviction that "you only have the things you give away."

Patey was born of British parents in Chihuahua, Mexico. The family moved to Arizona when she was 5 and left for British Columbia a few years later. They lived austere and adventurous life of pioneers. Until they moved to California, they were educated at home. Patey graduated in 1925 from a school that later became part of UCLA, with a major in physical education. She had wanted to be a doctor but instead took care of her ailing mother and worked as a physical education teacher at Beverly Hills High School. She never married because, she says, "I ran too fast."

Patey's brand of exercise is not about speed or hard bodies. "You move in your mind before you move in your body. The challenge is how slow can you do that (physical) movement. (By moving slowly) a person is working inside their body before anything happens outside of it," she said from her home in West Los Angeles. The benefit, Patey said, is control, better balance, less exertion and the feeling of renewal rather than exhaustion.

Marjorie Brock, 81, of Santa Monica has been attending Patey's class since 1956. "It changed my whole body alignment. I used to have backaches from curvature of the spine and I don't have them anymore," Brock said.

"I've taken all kinds of exercise classes from aerobics to tai chi and Janet's class is the only one I ever felt rejuvenated from. Most people don't walk right and what Janet does for you is loosen the spine, make it more pliable.

"There's nothing like her class and there is no one like Janet Patey. She doesn't take compliments well, so we gossip behind her back and say how fabulous she is."

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