When the YMCA of the Northwoods in Rhinelander first opened its doors in May 2004, those who signed up for the 9 a.m. water aerobics class had been meeting for several years already – at the Holiday Inn, at Holiday Acres and at the Claridge, if memory serves right.
There was never a shower area that could accommodate everyone, and stories of several women trying to change in a room meant for one or two bring back smiles at the telling.
The locker room at the new building, however, provided plenty of room for showering, changing and conversation.
“When you’re naked three times a week with the same people, you can’t help but become good friends,” jokes Linda Davidson, a longtime class member, who, along with her husband Mel, helped make the YMCA of the Northwoods a reality.
In the locker room after one of the first classes, someone suggested they go out for coffee.
What started with that one-table conversation over warm mugs of coffee has mushroomed into activity and travel no one could have predicted. Cards are circulated for those who are ill, celebrations planned for birthdays.
“The class has grown to the point where we’ve have had to cap enrollment at 30 for some sessions,” says Karen Fiocchi, head swim instructor at the YMCA and Monday’s instructor. The group is known for socializing during class, which can make it difficult for the instructor to be heard. Karen has come to terms with it.
“If they’re over by the lane line, talking about a mutual friend’s health, who’s to say that isn’t good for them? I think it’s a fine, healthy thing. The important part is they are here. They’re not sitting at home,” she says.
Sitting at home is one thing the group could not be accused of. From manicures and pedicures at Nicolet College followed by lunch, to trips abroad, the group has grown together, enjoying the variety of experiences each brings to the table.
June Lego, originally from England, came to Rhinelander when she was in her 20s after her husband lost his job. They stayed in his parents’ cabin until cold weather helped them realize it was not insulated. They found warmer housing and jobs and eventually raised two children here. She hasn’t cut her family ties back in England.
“I was going every other year. When my dad turned 85 years old, I started going every year. I said goodbye and cried every year, thinking it was the last time I would see him. That devil lived to be 100.”
She fits that in with the traveling she does with friends from the class.
June and classmate Connie Anderson recently took a bus tour down to Panama City Beach, Fla. When Connie realized she had agreed to babysit for her son and daughter-in-law for part of that time, she arranged to fly back for that week. Classmate Norma Frankenberg flew down to take her spot at the condo during the time Connie was gone.
Friendship alone might be enough, but the class has other benefits.
Evelyn Platek moved with her family to Rhinelander in 1979 from Illinois. Their neighborhood was going bad, she said, and her kids were being harassed in school. So they were going to make a change: either move to another area locally, or move to their summer house in Rhinelander. They came north. Her neighbor, class member Helen Creglow, mentioned the water class to her, inviting her to come once she retired from her accounts payable job at the hospital.
Now, after six years in the class, Evelyn credits the water exercises with speeding her recovery after back surgery, and increasing her range of motion after knee issues and arthritis.
She returned to class after open-heart surgery a year and a half ago. “They say I have a zipper now,” Evelyn said, smiling, referring to the scar.
While physical issues may keep members out of the water for a time, most are quick to return.
When Helen Creglow broke her finger, she wrapped it in a plastic bag and held it above the water during class. When she had surgery on her nose, one of the members with the most decades behind her, June Urquhart, jokingly suggested that she do the same: tie a plastic bag over her head to keep her nose dry.
Helen and her husband came from St. Louis to Rhinelander 35 years ago. She worked for the Rhinelander School District as a band teacher for many years before retiring. She says the most beneficial thing she gleans from the water class is her sanity.
Others feel the same. “This is the group that, if I’m having a bad day, I don’t want to miss,” says member Jackie Boyer.
“If you don’t show up, someone is looking for you,” Connie says.
Failing health, cancer or other diagnoses are common topics and occurrences among the group. Members are quick to parachute in with support during the dark hours. When one member’s husband died and she had no church affiliation, another member stepped in. “Have the funeral at my church,” she offered. She also helped conduct the funeral. They are now both members.
Joyce Palm has survived colon cancer and most recently, a leg that broke twice in a matter of months. She spent time in a nursing home, then went to a wheelchair at home, and has had to take several months off from the class. This Christmas, she was surprised and delighted when 14 class members showed up at her door bearing food. “It was the best Christmas present I could have gotten,” she says.
Originally from Rhinelander, Joyce left after high school, eventually working as a fashion merchandiser for Jack Winter and Jantzen. She also held public relations positions, and as social director for Squaw Valley Ski Resort in California, used to ice skate with Bing Crosby.
After retirement, when it was clear that her mother’s health was failing, Joyce followed her duty call reluctantly. “I came back to Rhinelander kicking and screaming. I didn’t want to leave Southern California,” she says.
It has been 10 years since her mother passed away, and Joyce remains in Rhinelander. “When you get older, it’s nice to be with family. And I have many, many, many friends here. They have all taken care of me. It’s so wonderful.”
Anyone who happens to wander into a local coffee shop at 10:30 on a Monday, Wednesday or Friday morning might find five tables pulled together, with some of the ladies checking over their shoulders, hoping the jokes they printed off the Internet won’t offend anyone in the room.
The group extends an open invitation to anyone in the class to join them.
Jill Olson is a freelance writer who lives in Rhinelander.