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Turning 90 not a stretch for teacher

Students and YMCA staff help the fitness instructor from Monrovia celebrate becoming a nonagenarian.

January 31, 2007|Angie Green | Times Staff Writer

Clare Morvay bustled around her YMCA exercise room in Monrovia doling out hugs, grins and enthusiasm. Her eyes lighted up with each arrival, and she was eager to start on time.

But among the sweat pants and T-shirts on Tuesday were tailored shirts, cameras and microphones. Still, she kept her focus on her 16 students rather than the media.

"Squeeze. Give yourself a hug! You are going to look good," she instructed.

She didn't know what all the fuss was about. She was only turning 90.

After her 9:15 a.m. class, about 50 staff members and students gathered at the Santa Anita Family YMCA to celebrate Morvay's birthday and her service to the nonprofit group. News crews snapped photos and held out microphones as partygoers ate chocolate cake and gave Morvay cards, presents and flowers.

"I can't believe it," Morvay said. "I don't think I'm worthy of all this."

YMCA staff, many of whom regard Morvay as a friend, choked up when they spoke of her.

"Everybody in the class loves her," said Cheryl Reynolds, the center's program director. "She's incredible to still be teaching at 90."

Morvay, who stands 5 feet, 1 inch tall, started teaching the YMCA's total body stretch class 20 years ago. By combining stretches from yoga, Army calisthenics, ballet and tai chi, Morvay has helped her students improve their quality of life. She was often referred to as an inspiration.

"We've had people that can barely walk and then can play golf in 30 days" after taking her class, said Damon Colaluca, the center's chief executive.

"She can do everything better than anyone in the class," said Lois Baerwald, 78, who uses the sessions to keep in shape for ski trips.

Many of Morvay's students are 20 to 40 years younger than her. They said her sense of humor and energy make the class a delight to attend. But it's Morvay's caring spirit that keeps them coming back.

"She doesn't seem like a teacher. She seems like a friend," said Amelia Odell, 69.

Mort Scribner, 76, started taking Morvay's class eight years ago. The retired dermatologist said he was at a loss for what to do with his free time. Morvay's class gave him a reason to get out of the house.

"If I make it to 90 and [am] doing that good," Scribner said, "I'll get down on my knees and thank God."

Morvay, who moved to Monrovia from Chicago 45 years ago, said she doesn't think about her age. Her focus is on the days ahead. She is constantly thinking about her students and how she can help them have a better life.

"I try to encourage them," she said as she glanced at an 85-year-old woman who has suffered several strokes. "Instead of sitting at home, she can come to the community center. The stimulation of people is good for her."

Morvay, who began as a student in the class she now teaches, is passionate about fitness and has the routine for her hourlong class memorized. She stretches and strengthens her students' muscles from head to toe.

But she also teaches her students, many of whom are elderly and live alone, practical survival skills.

"I teach them how to get up when they fall," she said. She tells them to roll to the nearest step, bedpost or coffee table and use that as a boost. Otherwise, "they may spend the whole night there."

As her birthday party came to a close, Morvay was bustling around the exercise room, picking up her music tapes and gifts.

But her mind was on one of her students whose husband had recently died. Morvay needed to get to the funeral service in Pasadena.

And just like that, she was off.

*

angie.green@latimes.com

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