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Student of Life

Giving / A life of helping people and learning new
things

The years haven't dimmed Frances Bond's innate curiosity. It's a quality that fuels her desire to serve others and stay active.

December 01, 1998|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One of Frances Bond's first memories is being thrown into water.

"I was 3 years old and my father tossed me into Lake Manitou [in Indiana]," recalled Bond, who will be 90 in February. "Instinctively, I began to dog paddle and swim."

Bond has been throwing herself into water ever since, literally and figuratively. Her latest leap came in June when she signed up to become an educational volunteer at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, where she is its oldest volunteer.

But unlike many volunteers who've had a longtime fascination with sea life, Bond knew little about it, even admitting she's never taken a biology class. Instead, she was moved by a lifelong curiosity and a desire to serve.

"I always liked helping people and learning new things," said Bond, a Long Beach resident for 54 years. "That's what keeps me going."

Her co-workers and supervisors at the aquarium agree.

"She's amazing," said Alicia Syres, the aquarium's manager of Volunteer Resources. "She's so sharp and so enthusiastic. I was just stunned when I found out how old she was. It just shows you when you keep active, you keep young."

Active may be an understatement. The aquarium, where Bond completed a 10-week orientation course, is only the latest chapter in a life dedicated to family, work and community service. In addition to building successful careers in journalism and public relations, Bond also has thrown her energies into more than 15 organizations over the years.

The long list includes the Red Cross, United Way, Long Beach Senior Center, National Council on Aging, National Press Club, Daughters of the American Revolution and Grace United Methodist Church. She's also a member of the NAACP--an organization for which she feels a special devotion. Her great-great uncle, she says, was an abolitionist who left his farm in North Carolina to establish a safe house in Rochester, Ind., that was a stop in the Underground Railroad.

Her experiences serve her well at the aquarium, where she exhibits a talent for teaching.

"She has the ability to talk to people and make them feel comfortable," said Syres. "And that's when learning begins."

On a recent morning, Bond was busy teaching dozens of school kids about the underwater inhabitants of the northern Pacific Ocean. She was working a hands-on exhibit in which visitors can reach in the chilly waters of two desktop tanks and feel creatures such as a fist-sized sea anemone.

Most of the visitors that day were children, and they weren't shy about asking questions.

"Can we touch them?" asked one.

"Yes," said Bond, wearing her volunteer uniform of khaki pants and light blue polo shirt. "Just touch them around the edges with two fingers. They breathe through the small hole in the center."

"Do they bite?" asked another.

"No," said Bond, who has four grandchildren.

"Can we pick them up?" asked still another.

"No," said Bond with a smile.

"How cold is that water? It feels like Titanic water," shouted out a young student.

"It's 48 degrees, the same as the waters in the northern Pacific," replied Bond patiently.

"Why are they different colors?" asked another student of the anemones, which are green and rust-colored.

"Why are people different colors?" answered Bond. "It's the color they are born with."

The hands-on exhibit isn't the only place visitors can bump into Bond, who works every Monday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.--and is on her feet nearly the entire time. She also works shifts at a playground area for kids, at a discovery lab and at several of the aquarium's huge tanks.

"I love the fish in the tropical Pacific [tank]," said Bond. "There are so many kinds and they come in so many pretty colors."

Bond says she has a rich and fulfilling life, and sees her grandchildren often. But recent years have held their share of grief. Within the past five years, her husband of more than 50 years and her grown son died.

Although vibrant and in good health, she doesn't drive anymore, taking the bus to her destinations, including the aquarium. Her husband's death also put an end to one of her favorite activities: swimming.

"I want to swim," she said. "But since I've become a widow, I can't find anyone to go with and I don't want to go alone."

The aquarium is as close to the water as she gets these days. And sometimes, when her slight frame pauses at one of the great aquarium tanks, she seems immersed in it and appears at home.

"It's so beautiful," she says. "So beautiful."

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