Tommy Manson: At 97, She Embraces Exercise, Life and Helping Others

By Joy Conklin June 15, 2009 09:59

If you’re looking for Tommy Manson, 97-year-old Sonora exercise superstar, you’ll probably find her at the Senior Center on Greenley Road.

For 12 years she has exercised at the Sonora site for 90 minutes five days a week.  “She sets the standard,” says Krista Howell, an exercise physiologist and one of Tommy’s instructors. “Tommy’s an inspiration to everyone, including me.”

Tommy is just as attentive to nutrition. She eats fish and fruits and vegetables, and disciplines herself to just two squares of dark chocolate in the evening while she watches CNN.  “If you’re doing the things that are good for your body,” she says, “you’re doing good for your soul.”

She doesn’t own a recliner, doesn’t believe in them.  “People sit too much,” she says. “People need to move.”

On this day, chatting with a visitor, she is dressed in pink and white with a silver chain sparkling around her neck. “My uncle always called me Flower,” she recalls.  And while Tommy Manson may look like a flower, her appearance contradicts the life history she tells. “There have always been things in my life that challenged me,” she says, “and it’s been up to me to get through them.”

Lupus, five surgeries, eight fractures, recurrent bouts of rheumatic fever, and iffy vision are just the things she cares to mention. It’s taken a lot of grit and discipline to live the life she’s lived. She’s one of those flowers that burst through cement to bloom in a crack in a sidewalk.

For her 90th birthday, her son, Buk, gave her a necklace bearing the Chinese symbol of universal energy that she wears today. “You, Mom, have universal energy,” he told her. Tommy admits it’s true, “but it’s God power, whatever you want to call it.”

She was born Irene Morriss, May 26, 1912 in Eketahuna, New Zealand. Her father nicknamed his little redhead “Tommy.” He also taught her to connect with God, faith that has sustained her in the near-century since.

In 1934, at the age of 22, she married Stephen Manson, an artist and businessman. She worked as a floor nurse until a car crash in the late 1930s. Other jobs followed over the years: egg distributor, paint factory nurse and nursing home operator, to name a few. She and her husband came to the U.S. in 1949.  “We loved to travel and New Zealand just got too small for us,” Tommy explains.  “We had traveled there for so many years we were practically falling off the sides.”

One of the big challenges in Tommy’s life was a 1963 diagnosis of lupus, a chronic inflammatory disease. “When the doctor told me that I had lupus and I had two years to live, I leaned over his desk and said, I don’t know who you think you are, but you’re not going to play God with me. ‘Two years to live is just the average,’ he responded.  “How do you know I’m average? I told him.”

Clearly, Tommy wasn’t average. “I got tired of trying this and trying that. I went to live on our boat on San Diego Bay,” she says. “I didn’t take any medication and I put my hand in the hand of God. I was very sick. I couldn’t pray, couldn’t recite the Lord’s Prayer. With lupus, you have to do what you can do.”

“After six years on the boat I was much better.  I still had flare-ups but only if I let my mind play tricks on me. The way you think is so important. You have to be careful with your thoughts, because, if you let them, they can ruin your whole life.”

And watch your tongue too, says Tommy.  “It’s in a wet place, and might slip.”

And never say you can’t do something. “You can do anything you want.”

“Today when I wake up in the morning,” Tommy says, “I say, Good morning, God, I hope you can have me do something for someone today.”

She and her husband moved to Tuolumne County in 1969 after visiting friends. Tommy has been active in volunteer causes here ever since. She started the Vial for Life program, which provides paramedics with ready access to emergency information. She also volunteered as a peer counselor and parish nurse, helped at the Sonora homeless shelter, and volunteered with the Area 12 Agency on Aging. Though she’s lost count, she has at least 17 awards for community service. She doesn’t display them.

“It’s natural,” she says of her service to others. “I grew up with people who were givers.  I didn’t go out looking for things to do for others. My husband teased me about all the people I helped.  He would say, ‘If they were puppies, you’d have a kennel full of dogs.’

But, she says, “I don’t take credit for any of what I do.  I always had help and you can’t out-give God. Whatever you give comes back twofold.”

Tommy’s husband had Alzheimer’s disease and died a year ago. Her son and her daughter, Rosemary, both live a short drive away. For Tommy, every day is a good day – and it starts early. She makes herself a shake at 6:30 a.m. or so, blending banana, strawberries, blueberries, or cantaloupe with soy protein powder. Lunch is veggies and fish. In the evening she has fruit and yogurt, sometimes a rice cake, always that dark chocolate.

Her brain today is as active as her body. She loves to write. She is interested in the environment and taking care of Mother Earth. She plants pine trees in her kids’ names for Christmas. She’s up on politics. She’s interested in what a Japanese scientist has to say about changing the structure of water with thought power.

Does she worry about that carotid artery that the doctors decided was too risky to operate on?  “Never,” she says. “When I put my head on my pillow at night I hear it go ‘whoosh, whoosh, whoosh,’ and it reminds me I’m alive.  It’s all about gratitude and attitude.”

© 2009, Friends and Neighbors Magazine

By Joy Conklin June 15, 2009 09:59
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