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Plant City aerobics instructor, 89, is an extraordinary inspiration

PLANT CITY

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At age 89, Clarice Stewart not only is still kickin', she can touch her toes, do the twist and wiggle to Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy the way she did when she started teaching aerobics 30 years ago.

Her energy is infectious. Members of her exercise class say the antidote to sagging motivation is keeping up with Stewart, a slender wisp of a woman at the front of the room.

"When you don't feel like doing it, and you see her doing it, you say, 'I've got to do it,"' says Olinda Green, 64.

Others in the class that meets three days a week year-round at the Winter Visitors Center echo that sentiment. Taking inspiration from Stewart's example has helped them keep their fitness resolutions year after year.

But the women, ages 55 to 90, say there's more to her secret than that.

Stewart's class of about two dozen starts with hugs all around. After the opening warm-up exercise, Stewart takes time to announce who's missing that day and why.

Class members tend to let Stewart know in advance if they're not coming. If they don't, someone in the class will be assigned to track them down.

"If you're not here, they call you and come looking for you," says Brenda Simpson, 67, who joined the class in 2005 after retiring and moving to Plant City from Tampa. She says she found instant friendship in a community where she knew no one.

"It's been great for me, the camaraderie."

Meg Scott, 67, discovered the class about two years ago, after suffering back injuries in a car wreck.

"This has done me more good than physical therapy ever did," Scott says. "I'm not sure if it's the exercises … or because I get a hug from 20 people every time I walk in."

Stewart says people tease her when she declares she has no time for "Face Page" or other social networking sites. But she's more interested in face time than Facebook.

She's not sure how to account for her high energy, except to say longevity runs in her family. She has siblings in their 90s.

"My family does just the opposite of what they're supposed to do," she says. "We eat sweets. There's not one of us that couldn't make fudge or divinity."

One of 12 children in her family, Stewart grew up in Big Stone Gap, Va., a town that shriveled when coal mining declined. She was a tomboy. Her father was a rock quarry superintendent. Her mother believed in rising early and staying busy.

"My mother was always up and had her pearl earrings on and was dressed," Stewart recalls. "You never saw her sitting around in a robe."

In 1957, Stewart, her husband W. Edward and their four children moved to Plant City. She and her husband had owned a department store in Big Stone Gap, but it couldn't stay profitable when the economy soured and townspeople had no money to spend.

The couple started a new store, Stewart's Shoes, in the shopping center a stone's throw from where Stewart now teaches aerobics. The business eventually grew to a chain of 13 locations from Palmetto in Manatee County to Auburndale in Polk to Perry in North Florida.

Stewart worked alongside her husband, doing everything from mopping floors to buying merchandise. The couple had a fifth child. Her husband died in 1982, about two years after they sold the stores, retired and she started teaching aerobics at Plant City's First United Methodist Church.

She joined the class as a participant, but the instructor taught only part of the year, she recalls. So she took a course at Hillsborough Community College to learn how to teach the class when the instructor was away and eventually took it over.

Over the years, she moved from the church to the Planteen Recreation Center and then to the Winter Visitors Center next door.

She and the center's manager, Chris Wilsman, are quick to point out that the center caters not only to snowbirds, but all community residents. Participants in Stewart's class include Etta Mae Busk, crowned Florida Strawberry Festival queen in 1950.

Stewart says she tailors exercises to the abilities of participants, many of whom are recuperating from surgery or injuries. She volunteers her time; fees pay for supplies and upkeep.

Stewart offers no prescription for a long life, but she believes she knows the secret to a better one: face-to-face connections between family and friends.

"We always sat down at the table for dinner and talked about school and work," she says. "I think that's what's missing today."

If you go

What: Clarice Stewart's Aerobics and Dance Class

Where: Plant City Winter Visitors Center, 301 Dort St.

When: 8:30 a.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays

Cost: $1 per class

Information: (813) 659-4256 or cwilsman@plantcitygov.com

Plant City aerobics instructor, 89, is an extraordinary inspiration 12/30/10 [Last modified: Friday, December 31, 2010 10:49am]
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