|Living the Good Life...at Any Age|
By Ryan G. Van Cleave
Meet four retirees who do much more than pass time at the beautiful Sarasota Bay Club. They’re all living life to the fullest – teaching, studying, dancing and thriving.
Ursula Pearson doesn’t act her age. She loves to dance. She participates in a poetry club. She writes short memoir-like essays. She’s quick-witted, spry, and a dazzling conversationalist (in multiple languages). Imagine how surprised people are to learn that she’ll turn 101 just before Christmas.
Sarasota has been attracting active, aging people like Pearson from all over the world for decades. The draw? The beaches. The weather. The art and cultural climate. The lack of traffic. The people. And just when you think you’ve identified all the reasons retirees love our area, you hear another one and think, “Yes, that’s a terrific thing about our city, too.”
Pearson came to Miami with her physician husband in 1936. “We watched that little city grow and grow,” she says. That’s the same potential she sensed about Sarasota, too, when a physician friend urged them to come visit in 1967 for the 4th of July weekend. They immediately fell in love with the area, and not just because they realized how many people they already knew. It wasn’t long before they divested themselves of her husband’s Miami practice and moved to Longboat Key.
“There was art and culture,” Pearson says about that time. “It was maybe embryonic, but it was there. And we knew it’d grow like Miami did.” She took courses at New College and wrote for the newspaper of the Jewish Community Council. They both kept busy, until her husband passed away on Easter Sunday in 2004. But the loss didn’t slow Pearson – it’s not in her character to succumb to hardship or setbacks. She has a graduate degree in romance languages from Yale University and studied abroad in Paris. During WWII, she taught American History in a high school in Mississippi; after her husband shipped out, she taught Latin at a prep school in New Haven, Connecticut, where she’s originally from. She even managed the office for her husband’s practice. In short, she’s a “make the most of what you’ve got” kind of person and always has been.
It’s no shock, then, that Pearson isn’t just surviving at her impressive age but seems to be thriving. It’d be hard to name a group at Sarasota Bay Club that she doesn’t belong to. She seems to know everyone by name. She reads, writes, and loves music. And she even finds time to volunteer at Designing Women Boutique, which is located just across the street.
These days, Pearson uses a walker, but she’s quick to point out that she doesn’t need it. The only reason she has it? “For security.” Not so long ago, she stepped in something sticky and it held the bottom of her shoe to the floor. The result was a faceplant into the ground. But don’t be fooled by the glasses – she made it some nine decades without them and still sees well enough now to know what’s what.
“I watched the telephone go from being a novelty to a necessity, and I remember when my father got his first car and his father said, ‘You can drive it, but don’t take the children in it!’” she says. Give her a little time, and she can tell stories like nobody’s business: even after 100 years of living life to the fullest.
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Also living the good life at Sarasota Bay Club is Bob Wagner, who’s been in Sarasota for twenty-five years. He’s only lived at the Bay Club for a year, however. “There’s movies ever night, musical performances periodically, lots going on all the time,” he says about his new home at the Bay Club right off 41, just north of the Van Wezel and Fruitville Road.
A Chicagoan, Wagner grew up in Oak Park, Illinois – the same school Ernest Hemingway once attended. “Oak Park has more Frank Lloyd Wright buildings than anywhere else,” Wagner says, adding that it was also the largest village in the US until Skokie, Illinois grew bigger. For many years, he worked for Northern Trust Bank as a trust officer, handling investments and estate services. After so many years of shoveling snow and dealing with the Midwest cold, he jumped at the chance to start up a bank branch in a place he’d never heard of – Longboat Key. So in 1987, he came down to Florida with his wife and never left.
Wagner kept working for Northern Trust Bank well past 65, but eventually decided it was finally time to retire. The idea of leaving the Sarasota area never crossed his mind. “The word is pretty good about Sarasota,” he says. “The weather, the cultural events, the facilities. It’s a great place.”
One of the things Wagner likes most about living at Sarasota Bay Club is the beautiful view of the Gulf. “Just like what I had on Longboat Key,” he adds. He’s a big fan of the swimming pool, plus the five-day-a-week exercise program run by a professional instructor. While nobody is as active with local groups and organizations as Pearson, Wagner does keep pretty busy socially.
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Rhoda Roth lives her life a little differently from most retirees. While she thinks it’s terrific to have so many groups and things to do right there at Sarasota Bay Club, she likes to get out. And get out she does. For one thing, she’s a huge fan of golf. She’s got a membership at the Bobby Jones Golf Club, where she plays regularly with two different groups. She even got a hole-in-one ten years ago at Venice Golf Club, she’s eager to point out. Roth also likes to be out just doing stuff, whether it’s attending a lecture, looking at art, playing bridge, or visiting friends.
Art has been a big theme in Roth’s life. She taught advertising at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, and visited Paris many times over a 12-year period to photograph French fashion collections and lecture about them. She was even commissioned by the French government to write a book on the history of French fashion – she‘s got terrific pictures of the French embassy, “a champagne glass always in hand.” She’s also responsible for bringing the first French haute couture show to the Fashion Institute of Technology in the 1980s. “In that era, French menswear was first coming to Lord & Taylor and stores like that.” It was a different time and Roth was at the forefront of her industry, pushing ahead, wanting to do more.
Even today, Roth doesn’t want to stay with the status quo. She’s a doer, and one of the things she does is educate herself. “If you’re going to do something, take the time to do it right,” she says. And that’s why when she was first going to France, she went to the International Center of Photography in New York City to learn how to use her new Nikon. And years later, she went back to school at age 40 to get all the degrees needed to be able to teach. A professor who took interest in her gave her this wise advice about keeping busy and doing things well: “Time passes. Do something with it.”
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A fourth retiree living the good life at Sarasota Bay Club is New York native Harvey Rothenberg, whose name you might recognize for a variety of reasons:
1) He served in a number of capacities with John Lindsey (New York City mayor from 1966-1973).
2) He spoke out in the McCarthy era and gained some notoriety.
3) He was one of the founding members of the Van Wezel Foundation.
4) He served on the board of Sarasota Memorial Healthcare Foundation (1992-1995).
Add in that he’s been to Israel 49 times; served as CEO for an apparel company; got a business degree at night school; served in WWII as a skipper of a landing craft; and was a gun runner for some Jewish Palestinians (“I brought money to Hotel 14, right next to the Copacabana in NY, and we’d get guns from Czechoslovakians that I’d send to the Middle East”), and it’s clear why he felt the need to write his own memoir. He only printed a limited number of copies so it’s hard to find now, but the black-and-white pictures of his days in politics alone are worth the trouble of seeking out a copy.
These days, Rothenberg devotes a lot of his time to helping others. Specifically, the kids at Bay Haven School. It started ten years ago when he showed up and said, “I’ll literally do anything. Take out the trash. Make copies. Whatever.” Now he assists in a range of areas from grading tests, helping with fourth grade special education, and working with fifth graders on their math. “I’ve learned a lot!” he jokes about his experiences there. For his efforts, he was named “Outstanding Senior Volunteer in Sarasota County,” which is an honor he’s extremely proud of.
His daughter-in-law keeps asking for Rothenberg and his wife to come live near them in Boston. They’re proud great-grandparents, after all. But they like it here. “Come visit us,” is their response every time.
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Take any four local retirees and you’ll find four different but equally interesting stories. This isn’t a place where people go to huddle in front of a TV and waste away the years. We’ve got a vibrant, cosmopolitan community here with lots of opportunities for people of all ages. But from what we’re seeing from the likes of these four, it might be retirees who are enjoying our fair city to the max. Here’s to the good life!