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When You're Never Too Old : These Seniors Add Adventures to Their Experience

July 27, 1999|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Former accountant Colin "Mac" MacKay of Monarch Beach still dons a wetsuit and hits the surf at age 76. Richard Benitez of Santa Ana continues to cut hair at 85. And Helen Hannah Campbell of Fountain Valley, a retired Marine Corps Reserves master gunnery sergeant, devotes her time to volunteering--when she isn't finding new challenges for herself.

Campbell went para-sailing for the first time at age 75 and took a hot-air balloon over the Serengeti Plains in Africa when she was 78. Says the 83-year-old Campbell: "I'll try anything once; nothing frightens me."

MacKay, Benitez and Campbell are part of a wave of American senior citizens who "have a spirit that's alive," says Jessie Jones, director of the LifeSpan Wellness Clinic at the Ruby Gerontology Center at Cal State Fullerton.

"Probably the biggest predictor of people aging in a successful way has to do with their attitudes," she says. "It's really a personality issue and continuing to be enthusiastic about life."

Thanks largely to better health care and advances in technology, the average American man now lives to age 73, and the average American woman lives long enough to celebrate her 79th birthday.

Here are 15 Southern Californians, ages 71 to 98, who continue to work, serve as volunteers or simply find new ways to enjoy their lives.

Marjorie A. Johnson: Volunteering Is a Snap

Marjorie A. Johnson no longer volunteers three days a week at Saddleback Memorial Medical Center in Laguna Hills. She dropped down to one day when she gave her beloved 1967 Chevrolet Impala convertible to her grandson a year ago.

It wasn't easy for Johnson, who turned 96 in April, to give up her wheels.

"It was a beautiful car," she says. "But, you know, you get older, you have to give up a few things."

That's not to say she's given up her volunteer work at the medical center. Friends and neighbors in Leisure World drive her.

She's been a Pink Lady--as members of the hospital's Volunteer Services Department are called--since she and her late husband, John, moved to Leisure World from Laguna Beach in the mid-'70s.

In 1988, she helped start the program she's still involved in: taking photographs of newborns.

Fellow volunteer Ruth Vosburgh arranges the babies, "and I do the snapping," says Johnson. "We try to get the babies' eyes open, and most of the time we're successful."

In her early years, the Racine, Wis., native worked as a clothing buyer for stores. But she enjoys her work at the hospital.

"It's a great satisfaction to think you're doing something for somebody," says Johnson. "I try to do something good for somebody every day whether I volunteer or not."

Felix Cruz Benitos: Ice Cream and Patience for Kids

Most call him "Paletero" (Spanish for "Ice Cream Man"). Others simply refer to him as Abuelito ("Grandpa").

Felix Cruz Benitos, who has been pushing an ice cream cart on downtown Santa Ana streets for the last seven years, is always a welcome sight on his route.

Benitos, 78, says he's learned to be patient with his younger customers, who will order one type of ice cream, then, after he's dug it out of the freezer compartment, change their minds and want something else.

"The parents tell me I have too much patience with the kids," Benitos says in Spanish.

Benitos works five days a week. He begins at 8:30 a.m. when he arrives at Tropical Ice Cream on 5th Street to begin loading his push cart. He's on the street by 10:30 and doesn't return until after 6. It takes at least 45 minutes to unload the unsold items.

It's a long day on his feet, but he doesn't mind. "I'm used to it,' he says. "It's like a sport for me."

His wife, Sofia, 55, pushes an ice cream cart when she's not working in a factory.

Eight years ago, Benitos and Sofia arrived in Santa Ana from Mexico, where he labored in the fields. They came to visit their daughter and stayed.

Benitos worked for a landscaping company in Mission Viejo for a year before selling ice cream. Retire? It's not on his agenda; besides, he needs the income.

When he makes his first sale of the day, he takes the money, kisses it, and then makes the sign of the cross, asking for God's blessing for the workday.

Anita Bogan: Her Father's Lesson

Pick just about any day of the week and you'll find Anita Bogan on a golf course in California City.

The former small-business owner took up golf about 20 years ago after a course was built 10 minutes from her home in the small desert community 14 miles north of Mojave.

At 98, Bogan still plays five days a week with her 76-year-old golf partner ("She's just a pup," Bogan says with a laugh).

"I love the outdoors: I love to fish, I love to sit out at the park--anyplace," Bogan says. "But it's fascinating to get that little ball into the hole. And it's relaxing."

Bogan says age hasn't slowed her down. "I just feel the very same. I can do anything I've always done."

That includes her other favorite pastime: Going to Las Vegas with friends and playing the slot machines.

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