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Fitness expert Betty Perkins-Carpenter knew how to move people

scottteaser-215x160I had been forewarned that this day-in-the-life assignment would be exhausting, but I paid no heed. After all, I was 24 years her junior and she was coming off hip replacement surgery. I was quite certain I’d be able to keep pace with this smiley, peripatetic 63-year-old.

Foolish me.

After trailing fitness guru Betty Perkins-Carpenter for several hours one day during the summer of 1994, I was spent.

We began early in the morning at her swim club, where she dived into the pool and splashed about with a bunch of toddlers for more than an hour. After teaching them several strokes, we headed to a home for senior citizens where she guided a group of ambitious octogenarians through a series of stretches and dances for more than an hour. Following that class, the former Air Force sergeant was off to a cross-town meeting with a group of fellow Korean War veterans to talk about how they could better meet the needs of men and women who had served in what was known as “the forgotten war.” Between munches of lunch, Perkins-Carpenter answered a bunch of my questions with insight and humor. And then it was off to a local school where she was giving a talk.

As we parted ways (hey, by that time I needed a nap), I told her I marveled at her boundless energy.

“I guess I just love what I do,’’ she said, flashing that infectious smile of hers. “I really believe it all has to do with using what you have physically and mentally. And I really believe in the saying that life is a journey, not a destination.”

Sadly, her remarkable journey came to an end Sunday, when she died at age 87 after a courageous fight against cancer. But what a journey it had been. In retrospect, it’s as if she crammed several lifetimes into one. Perkins-Carpenter’s travels took her all over the world. She lectured on fitness for the young, the old and the in-between in places as diverse as Northern Africa, Japan, Ireland and Siberia.

Perkins-Carpenter coached a men’s and women’s diving team at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, mentored Greg Louganis and Rochester’s Wendy Wyland in the formative years of diving careers that resulted in Olympic medals, and started the Fit by Five nursery schools that were franchised nationally. She also served on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, wrote two best-selling books about geriatric exercise and safety, and produced a video about teaching infants how to swim. On top of all that, she earned Small Business Person of the Year honors from the Rochester Chamber of Commerce, the Major Donald Holleder Award from the Rochester Press-Radio Club and a citation from the American Red Cross for saving a life. Perkins-Carpenter was frequently quoted in national stories about how senior citizens could improve their balance and avoid falls. She returned to college in her late 60s to earn a Ph.D., and was inducted into the New York State Veterans Hall of Fame last year.

Thousands of Rochesterians learned to swim at the place many referred to as “Betty’s pool.” That much of her life’s work would be conducted near a pool made sense because her mother, Bertha “Bert” Loeser, was a four-time U.S. and Canadian swimming and diving champion. Her uncles also distinguished themselves in swimming.

“My playpen was either by the Seneca Park pool or on a beach near Lake Ontario because my mother was a lifeguard at both places,’’ Perkins-Carpenter told me. “I guess you could say I was born into it.”

Her grandfather taught her how to swim at age 2. By age 6, she had won her first medal. Her success continued at Franklin High School, where she won city and county diving championships, and in the Air Force, where she captured an international Armed Services title.

Though not quite good enough to compete in the Olympics, she was more than good enough to help others realize their dreams. Her first classes were held in 1959 in the pool she and her first husband built in the backyard of their Penfield home. Perkins-Carpenter laughed when she recounted the story of securing the loan and signing up a contractor, only to discover that zoning laws prevented her from digging an indoor pool in a residential area. The town was willing to grant her a waiver if she received approval from her neighbors, which she did.

“It was easy,’’ she joked. “I told them they could come over and swim any time they liked. I bribed them.”

Despite some additional hiccups, they got the pool built and by the end of the first year, Perkins had a waiting list of more than 200 swimmers.

“Looking back, I had to be crazy to do what I did,’’ she said. “I didn’t have a clue.”

What she lacked in experience she made up tenfold in passion. Everything Perkins-Carpenter put her mind to went well. And that included numerous programs near and dear to her military roots.

She believed in a cradle-to-grave approach to fitness. I can still remember words of wisdom she imparted to those eightysomethings at the end of that stretching and dance class nearly a quarter of a century ago: “Keep in mind that it is harder for the devil to hit a moving target, so keep moving.”

The devil stood no chance against Betty, whose body, mind and soul were in perpetual motion. Her energy and warmth knew no bounds. She kept moving herself and others to the very end.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

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