Reinventing one’s self is more than just a surface makeover manipulated by rock stars to seem forever young; to Gene Finger and Chris Ellison, it’s the key to a genuinely healthy, engaged and satisfying long life.
Pick any day of the week, and you’re likely to encounter one or both at the Northfield Senior Center: It’s the symbolic hub of their well-turned wheel of activities and interests in lifelong learning.
“My ex-father-in-law retired to the sofa, and that’s where he stayed for 17 miserable years,” Finger says. “I vowed that wasn’t going to happen to me—that’s my impetus for staying mentally and physically active.”
Finger, 81, has retired as a businessman, farmer and shuttle-bus driver, but as the second-year president of the NSC board, he keeps busy at the center running board meetings, overseeing committees and volunteering as a receptionist—after his morning workout in the heated pool.
Ellison, 63, would happily retire the word “retirement.”
“I tried retirement once, and made it a whole year,” she says. “Some people just need to have their life a little more organized than retirement allows. I found myself doing a lot of volunteer work, and my life ended up being scattered—not a comfortable feeling.”
So, she reinvented her previous profession as a special education teacher.
“I saw an ad in the paper for a part-time job as a special ed paraprofessional at Prairie Creek charter school, and I thought that would be fun. That part-time job morphed into full time,” she says.
Working about 30 hours per week, she inhabits the better of two worlds at the student-directed, project-based school.
“I have all the fun of hanging around kids without the hassle of paperwork that’s required of a licensed teacher.”
Service is Key to Connection
The couple, who are not married but have been together for 16 years, came together because of their mutual interest in service to their community.
“We met via Sertoma,” says Ellison. “We both belonged to the same club, and we enjoyed each other’s company.”
“We keep each other young,” adds Finger.
Years later, their volunteer activities with Northfield’s Sertoma Clubs (Sertoma is an acronym for Service to Mankind) continues to unite the couple via their shared passion for helping young people cope with a challenging world. Both Northfield clubs are concerned with raising money to help hearing-impaired children; one has begun stalling surround-sound, voice-enhancing sound systems in local classrooms.
“We’re quite heavily involved in both Sertoma clubs here in town,” says Finger who is treasurer of one local group, where Ellison is on the board of directors.
He and Ellison have also participated in a yearly regional camping trip near Brainerd for hearing-impaired children for the last eight years, where Ellison runs the food program.
“Officially, she’s the Kitchen Nazi, and the kids have named me the Lemonade Man,” says Finger fondly. “We like kids.”
“The other great thing about our involvement with Sertoma,” he adds, is that “whether it’s on the regional or the national level, we’ve made a lot of friends.”
The Four “F's”
Friends, fun, fitness and food all figure prominently in the couple’s reinvention of the “golden years.”
“I credit this facility with keeping me in shape,” says Finger, who uses the NSC’s fitness facilities four or five times per week to keep his legs healthy and strong. “I have this sneaking suspicion that if it wasn’t for those exercises I might not be walking.”
Ellison is legendary at the NSC for transforming herself from “not much of a swimmer” to a mini-marathoner.
“When I first started swimming here, I could barely manage a length of the pool doing the side stroke,” she says. “Now I swim a mile—about 50 laps—a couple of times per week, and do water aerobics classes.”
Fitness after 50, however, goes deeper than mindless miles on a treadmill.
“I love going for walks outside in nature,” says Ellison, who walks 3 to 5 miles a day “at a good pace,” but as much to find a comfortable, contemplative zone as to hit an aerobic sweet spot. “What I appreciate about both walking and swimming is that my mind can wander.”
Ellison loves trying new things.
“Life is a learning curve,” she says. “When I get hold of something new, I grab it and go with it.”
When a friend asked her to make a cake for her wedding, she decided to channel her inner pastry chef.
“Our friends and neighbors at the Senior Center have seen cakes and cupcakes show up all summer as I tried to settle on the best cake and butter crème recipe—it’s been a lot of fun,” she says.
Both she and Finger also take courses offered by the Cannon Valley Elder Collegium when their schedules allow.
“There are so many things to learn,” says Ellison. “I want to learn how to paint. I want to learn how to take really good pictures. Then there’s the whole arts thing—we have season tickets to the Guthrie and at the Northfield Arts Guild, and we really enjoy going to plays.”
Voracious readers both, they swap books with friends, and bought a Kindle to keep up with their omnivorous tastes in reading material.
Family time is a priority.
Finger was raised near Northfield, and four of his five children live in the area. He is also a grandfather nine times over, and has several great-grandchildren. Ellison sees her son Aaron and three of her grandchildren several times a year; he lives near Washington, D.C.
Visiting Ellison’s daughter Kim and 6-year-old grandson Quinn has afforded the couple trips to Kenya, Jordan and Afghanistan; Kim is director of a nonprofit aid and development group whose work with the drought in East Africa became so intense in August, she sent Quinn for a rare visit to Northfield.
While the couple loves its adventures, Ellison said this Minnesota river town is a perfect place for her and Finger.
“Northfield is an easy place to grow old actively. If you’re involved, it’s sort of an expected thing that you keep on learning, keep on trying new things—that you keep going and growing ‘til you die.”
Editor's note: Active for Life is a regular Northfield Patch feature telling the stories of Northfielders who are active, engaged, connected and just happen to be considered seniors. Know someone who should be featured? E-mail editor Corey Butler Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org