UMPQUA — Every year on her birthday Helen Fischer goes to her aerobics class, gets on her back, does a backward roll and touches her toes to the floor, just to prove she can still do it. Last Thursday, she performed the flexibility maneuver at her regular YMCA aerobics class, on her 99th birthday, at the Umpqua Community Center in Umpqua.
Fischer has been attending aerobics classes twice a week at the former school ever since Rikke Stromberg started it 24 years ago.
“They conned me into coming down to do it and I didn’t really want to,” Fischer said. “I had my dad and my husband to take care of, but I said I’ll go until you get it started. But apparently, they haven’t got it started yet, because I’m still going.”
She likes the people in the class and likes the socializing, and at 99, she still drives herself to the class.
“Yes, they haven’t taken my driver’s license away from me yet, but I am very careful. I did get a ticket once,” she admitted, “for going too fast in a little town down in California. Nobody was on the road, I was only a few miles over the limit. I think somebody needed to fill their quota.”
Fischer has missed very few classes in those 24 years — she missed one when she was out of town for a few days — and she rarely gets sick. And, she’s proud to say, she still has all of her original parts. So, to what does she attribute that good health?
“Staying away from doctors and taking no medicine, and also we had good pure water and ate from our own garden,” she said. “And Rikke keeps me moving.”
Stromburg, who started the YMCA aerobics class at the old Umpqua School building in 1995, says Fischer is an inspiration to all the women who attend the class.
Fischer’s “younger” classmate, 86-year-old Jayne Freadman, who has been coming to the class since the second meeting in 1995 says Fischer sets a high standard for everybody.
“I can’t give up because she’s doing it, she’s one tough little old gal,” Freadman said. “You gotta keep moving or you won’t be moving.”
Another classmate Kathy Warner credits the class and Fischer for her quick return to the class just three days after major surgery.
“If it wasn’t for this class, I don’t think I would be doing so well,” Warner said. “She is my inspiration.”
“She’s amazing,” Stromburg said. “She’s always upbeat and so friendly and never sick and she always has garden produce for us every year. She’s got her mind set that she might be 99 today, but she’s not old, and stays physically active.”
Fischer is a native Oregonian, born in Albany on Oct. 17, 1920, at her parents’ friend’s house, and lived in the family homestead near Yachats on the Oregon coast. The family moved around during the depression while her dad looked for work. She attended school in Cottage Grove and Tangent before they moved back to the homestead at Yachats. Her last two years of high school were spent at Sutherlin High.
Fischer was mostly a housewife but worked outside the home when she moved to California. She worked in a grape yard and did some cooking and when she’d raised enough money to go to Alaska, she moved there and went to work in a fish cannery until World War II started. Fischer spent four years in Alaska and that’s where she met and married her husband, when she was working at the Yakitat Army base in southeastern Alaska.
Fischer has seen some big changes in life since she was a child.
“Electronics, I guess is the biggest difference, and the grocery stores because we just didn’t have all that stuff then,” she said. “We grew as a garden and a certain amount of stuff that we saved all winter, and if we didn’t have it, you did without.”
Fischer had two boys — one is on the east coach and the other in Seattle — and even with the prolific use of cell phones, it’s hard to stay in touch.
“They (cell phones) don’t work where I am, so I don’t even have one,” Fischer said.
She has seen 18 presidents in her 99 years.
“Hoover was not one of my favorite ones,” she said of the president who took office at the onset of the Great Depression in 1931.
Fischer said her goal when she was growing up was to be able to have what she needed and not have to worry about that.
“I just wanted to not have to do without everything, I wanted to be able to have things that I wanted,” she said.
Fischer has done just about everything she ever wanted to do. She has traveled to Hawaii, the Philippines and Australia. And if she had it to do over again, there’s not much she would change.
“I think most everything worked out pretty well, I can’t think that it’s been all that bad,” she said. “I could’ve used a little more brains, but they didn’t pass those out.”
Fischer figures on having a celebration next year for the 100th birthday but she’s not sure what she will do.
“I gotta figure something out, that’s coming up in only a year,” she said.
Meanwhile she keeps busy with her garden, crocheting, meeting with friends and, of course, aerobics.