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Walt WestermanMythbuster: Walt Westerman

Nonagenarian & Athlete

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Interview date: September 2012

Since he turned 80, in 1994, Walt Westerman has been competing in state Senior Olympics and the National Senior Games and, more often than not, "driving" and "putting" his way to senior gold on the golf course.

On a brisk fall afternoon he shared his winning golf strategy — he plays to win and enjoy the camaraderie, he says — as well as his thoughts on what it means to age well and successfully: Attitude and gratitude are the keys, to a life well lived, he says.

When were you born, where are you in the sibling line-up, and where were you raised?
I'm the youngest of three sons and I was born in June of 1914. I was raised on a farm in St. Mathews, Kentucky, which is east of Louisville. Now it's a suburb of Louisville.

In high school, what were you good at and not so good at — both book-wise and sports-wise?
I went to high school in Anchorage, Kentucky, which was a little ways out from St. Matthews. It was a bedroom community, mostly lawyers and doctors and rather affluent business men. My best subject was mathematics and my poorest subject was Latin. The only sport I did was in my senior year, and that was football. At my high school — it was a country high school — we didn't have lots of sports. In fact it was just football, basketball and track, until my senior year, when they brought in baseball. For the girls, it was field hockey.

[Laughs] We learned to play tennis by going over to an insane asylum that was close to the farm. There was a fellow there — a resident — who was well enough mentally to teach neighborhood kids how to play tennis. So, almost every Sunday afternoon we'd go play tennis. And that's the way I got exposed to playing tennis.

You got interested in golf as a teen. How did that happen?
I began to go to the local country club [in Anchorage] and did some caddying. That was when I was sixteen or seventeen.

When the pro would go to a local tournament, he'd always go to the course they were going to play and practice, and he chose me to be his caddy. And as I was caddying for him I always had a five or seven iron in his bag, and he'd let me hit balls around with him.

He's the one who taught me. But I had to reverse everything he showed me: He played left handed and I played right handed.

You graduated from high school in 1932. That was still the Depression...
Yes, and because we lived on a farm we were a lot better off than a lot of people., did you go to college or did you go to work?
I stayed with my dad on the farm for two years, then I got a job in Louisville. Then I moved to Ohio, where one of my uncles was employed as an officer of a corporation. I worked there, saved money to go to college and finally started in 1938.

While you were working, you played baseball with baseball All-Star Pee Wee Reese. How did that happen?
In Louisville I played in a bank league and I played in a church league, too. He played in the church league. He was a shortstop and I was a short stop, too. I can't say we became friends, then, but we did know each other.

A couple of years later I got into a commercial league he was in, on one of the teams sponsored by Louisville Gas and Electric. That's when we sealed our friendship. That's when he was scouted by the Louisville Colonels, which was a minor league team in the American Association [a minor league baseball league at the Triple-A level]. They scouted him because he was a really class act. He played with them for about 3 or 4 seasons, then he went to Brooklyn [to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers and was also the team's captain].

Did you ever think about playing pro-ball?
Yes, I was a good defensive player, but I wasn't a strong hitter. And I didn't get much encouragement, or exposure to the avenues where you'd get into it [pro baseball], so I just didn't feel I'd be successful in the majors.

But I kept playing...I was 10 years old when I played my first baseball game — in the league we had there in St. Matthews — and I played all four years I was in college, too. I was 49 when quit playing.

You said you started college in 1938. Where'd you go?
I went Elmhurst College, west of Chicago, in Illinois. I picked Elmhurst because it was my church's school, and I had the idea that I wanted to be a minister. But [in 1942] Uncle Sam threw a monkey wrench into that.

Where did you serve and what did you do?
I went into the Air Force right after graduation and was in for four years. I didn't leave the US, and was stationed in various places up and down the coast.

First I was in radio communication school in Sioux Falls [South Dakota], then did some more training in Boca Raton, Florida. Then I went into OCS [Officer Candidate School] for advanced training in the use of radar. Eventually, I supervised all the coastal artillery search light and gunnery batteries. We tracked planes, using the search light, at night.

You spent your professional career — both before and after the War — in banking. What did you learn from banking that carried over into sports. And what did you learn from sports that carried over into banking?
Probably the same thing. It went both ways, but it was more what I learned from sports [influencing] banking than the other way round. And it's that in all your activities — sports and work and just about everything you are involved in — you are never doing anything by yourself. It's a team proposition, a team effort.

I worked for National City Bank in Cleveland for 30 years — I was manager of three different branches — and one of the things that I tried to impress on the staff was that those were not "my" branches, there were "our" branches and that they [the staff] were as much responsible for the success of the branch as I was.

...[G]ood players and good staff realize that everything they do is for the benefit of the team. But they also realize that when they follow through — play their part — that they realize all the benefits, both the team benefits and the individual benefits.

When did you start competing in the Senior Games? And what got you started?
The first year I was "in" the Senior Games was in 1994. That was when we [wife Janet, a former science teacher, and he] were living in Hendersonville, North Carolina...And I was 80.

[Laughs] They'd been having them [Senior Games] for years, and I'd wanted to participate, but we always got back from our Florida home after registration had closed, I didn't realize you could register by mail, so I missed all those other games.

The Ohio Senior Olympics was in Cleveland this year. What events did you compete in, and how did you do?
I competed in golf and shuffle board and table tennis. I'd have competed in horseshoes — because I wanted to compete in four different events — but there was a scheduling conflict: I couldn't be in two places at the same time.

In each sport I came out with a gold medal. [Laughs] I'm 98, so in one [event] I was unopposed.

All the people who medal at their state's games automatically qualify for the National Senior Games which will be held in Cleveland next year. [Laughs] Right now, I'm planning on going, but you never know.

At 98, you're in tremendous physical shape. What do you do to stay in shape?
[Laughs] I don't do anything that's harmful. I exercise, but I don't go overboard. I'm not a running nut. I'm not an exercise nut. I'm not a bicycling nut. But I do enough to keep myself in shape….I do everything in moderation.

And I think that I've been lucky, too: All my life I've always been in pretty good shape.

Diet is definitely one of the mainstays of a healthy lifestyle. What are you eating to stay healthy and trim?
I don't have a special diet. I don't really pay a lot of attention to diet, but I do make the effort to include as much fruit as possible.

I think my health status has a lot to do with the fact that I do everything in moderation. For example, I don't drink a lot, but I do drink a little.

Most people think competing in sports and competitions is "all about the win." What do you think? In other words, why are you involved in competitive sports?
I can't say that I don't strive to win, because I do. But more than that, I try to do the best I can, in everything that I try. And if that's good enough to win, that's good, but I'm not going to commit suicide if I didn't win, didn't get a gold medal.

In 1999, when I won the gold medal in golf at the National Senior Games, we were playing in a foursome and we were pulling for each other to make good shots – and we cheered when they did – but we were competing, too.

My attitude isn't that I'm in it just to win, it's that I'm in it to compete and for the exercise and for the camaraderie and...well, there are lots of reasons for participating.

Myth Busters is all about aging well, positive aging, successful aging. But that means different thing to different people. At 98, what's your definition of successful aging?
I suppose I'd have to go back to what I said before: It's living life in moderation.

I feel that I've lived for 98 years, but I'm not 98 years old. I don't worry about aging. I know that someday I'm not going to be able to do – 100% -- some of the things I do now. And I know that I can't do the things I'm doing now the way that I used to do them. And that doesn't bother me.

I've never been concerned about getting old. That's part of life, part of the program. I don't worry about things that I don't have the power to do anything about. I've always been the kind of person who says: Today was a good day, and I hope that tomorrow is a better one, but I'm not going to lose any sleep over worrying about whether it will be better or not.

I'm proud of the life that I've lived and feel that I have been blessed. As a result, I have always been more positive about life than negative.

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