Talking with Jack Wilson, one could easily wonder whether the number of physical activities he has engaged in might equal his 87 years.
He’s run track; played basketball, tennis and golf; won medals in ice skating – an interest he took up at age 64; sailed; canoed through white water rapids; and enjoyed ballroom dancing, square dancing and, of all things, mountain-style clogging.
He’s had a triple bypass and a hip and knee replacement. He can’t see in one eye or hear in one ear.
But every day, Jack works out for an hour and a half at the Nutcracker Golf Club at Pecan Plantation. He utilizes 12 machines, and his workout routine involves alternating aerobic exercise with weight lifting.
“He really is a hard worker,” said trainer Guy Owen, who teaches classes on health and fitness at Weatherford College and has worked in the fitness field for 50 years.
Jack began the fitness regime in February after having knee replacement surgery. Although he felt that he was overweight, he was actually dangerously underweight, according to Owen. His calves were so small, it was “just about time for a wheelchair,” Owen said.
Since that time, Jack has gained 12 pounds – and nine of it has been bone and muscle, Owen said.
The fitness expert, who helped open the Nutcracker facility in 1996, said that Wilson is actually one of a number of Nutcracker members of advanced age who have proven they’re not ready for a rocking chair.
“There are 15 or 20 people right at 80 years old, and they’re in unbelievable shape,” he said.
jack of all trades
Jack remembers the moment he first realized that he loves to be physically competitive.
He was 12, and he and his brother, Gene, were heading out to milk cows on the family’s farm in Georgia.
The day before, Gene had ordered his younger brother to close the gate that he – Gene – had left open. On this particular day, Jack ran ahead of his brother, leaped over the gate and said, “Now, you close it.”
That leap landed him in another world – a world of track and basketball and, well, you know the rest. He was voted Most Athletic Boy at school.
But life in those days wasn’t all sports and letter jackets. A war was raging. After each finished the 11th grade – considered senior year for boys going into the military – Gene went into the Army and Jack went into the Navy.
Jack’s ship was on its way to Okinawa, playing cat and mouse with a Japanese sub, when peace was declared. World War II was over.
Jack went home, “goofed off for several months,” then enrolled at the University of Georgia.
During a trip home for Christmas, a childhood friend invited him to a “pre-New Year’s Eve” party on Dec. 28 – four days after Jack’s birthday.
It was at that party that Jack first laid eyes on Bernice Hunnicutt. And she got his heart racing faster than any sport ever could.
There is an old song sung by Garth Brooks called “The Dance.”
“I could have missed the pain,” the lyrics go, “but I’d have had to miss the dance.”
It was while dancing to a jukebox tune, just a couple of weeks after they had met, that Jack flippantly said to Bernice: “Wanna get married?”
“Yeah!” she saucily replied.
A few minutes later, after they had returned to their table, Jack told her: “I meant what I said about getting married.”
“She said, ‘I did, too,’” recalled Jack. “Well, we were locked in.”
Five weeks later, they tied the knot. All around them, friends and family members were whispering that the young couple would last six months, tops.
They lasted 62 1/2 years, until Bernice died three years ago. Her memory is precious. Jack can’t speak of her without becoming emotional.
“We didn’t hardly know each other when we got married; we just fell in love after we got married,” he said. “We square danced for 30 years together. We worked as directors for youth programs at church. We did a lot of things together. We fussed and we fought a lot, too. But we loved an awful lot more.”
So often with love, comes loss. Jack and Bernice endured the greatest loss a couple can experience. Their only child, Jack Jr., a student at the University of Texas, was killed in a plane crash at age 21.
“Bernice and I both died for about two years. We were just dead people walking around,” Jack said.
Day after day, Jack somehow mustered the strength to go into the office. He worked for what was then the Insurance Company of North America.
His assistant eventually grew accustomed to his changed, withdrawn personality.
But then one day, as she was walking away, Jack suddenly made a light-hearted remark.
“She wheeled around and she ran to me and hugged me and kissed me and she said, ‘You’re back, Mr. Wilson, you’re back!’”
Jack Wilson was back. And he was going to make up for lost time.
no couch potato
During his career with the insurance company, Jack and Bernice lived in Macon, Austin, Houston and Fort Worth.
The couple had a bay house in Galveston, and Jack loved to go sailing there.
“Every weekend we would go down there,” he said. “Friday, after work, I’d get the sailboat out and put it in the water. My wife would sit and watch TV. I sailed all over Galveston Bay.”
Two years ago, Jack gave the sailboat to a local boy scout troop after taking their scout master out in it to teach him how to sail.
It was when he was working in Fort Worth that Jack had an opportunity to accept an early retirement package.
He and Bernice retired to Pecan Plantation.
At age 64, Jack took up ice skating after seeing an ad in a newspaper.
“I signed on for ice skating lessons,” he said. “I caught onto it – not fast – but I caught onto it.”
That’s an understatement.
Jack’s instructor began entering him in state and national competitions. Kids liked him so much that they would shout “Grandpa Jack! Grandpa Jack!” when it would be his turn to perform. Judges, he said, threatened to disqualify him if the youngsters didn’t pipe down.
“I really loved ice skating, and I loved those kids,” Jack said.
He and Scott Hamilton once competed in the same event, though at different levels, he said. The two of them compared their gold medals.
It was great for seven or eight years, until a hip replacement ended Jack’s ice skating career.
Sad, but there were plenty of other things to do.
At 87, Jack is dealing with significant health issues, just as most people do as they get older.
He faces each day without his beloved Bernice. There are no grandchildren or great-grandchildren. The plane crash took that dream away.
His parents are long gone, as are his seven brothers and sisters.
But Jack does not sit at home surrounded by loneliness and memories. He’s too busy pumping iron and enjoying the people he encounters each day at the Nutcracker.
It was those people, he said, who helped him develop the discipline and willpower to work out seven days a week.
“A lot of people came over and gave me encouragement,” he said. “I’ve made a lot of really, really close acquaintances there, and they have been wonderful to me. I go up there because I enjoy it so much.”
If he finally gets to where he just can’t do it anymore, Jack will be able to look back on a life that has been full, with scarcely a moment wasted.
“I’ve done,” he said, “most everything you can do.”
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