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Retiree takes on life full steam

She says she is just a little Polish girl who writes poetry, plays the organ, dances, does Jazzercize three times a week and walks.

"And walks and walks and walks and walks," said Mary Ann Steirer, a bubbly 65-year-old Port Richey resident whose walking accomplishments have been recognized by President Bill Clinton and Gov. Lawton Chiles.

Mrs. Steirer has walked the length of two states, Florida and Tennessee. Kansas is next.

"I hope to keep walking until I'm 90, or until I finish all 50 states, whichever comes first," she said.

Mrs. Steirer does not literally walk in each state. She is involved in a fitness program called Exercise Across America and keeps a daily log of the 100 miles or so a month she covers in her Port Richey neighborhood. Each mile is applied to the state she is walking.

For the $5 membership fee, Mrs. Steirer received a log that includes the distances of the 50 states. She completed Florida (450 miles) in November and Tennessee (500 miles) two weeks ago. Kansas is another 500 miles. She was recognized with certificates from the president and governor after completing Florida.

The certificate from the president was framed and hung in her bedroom, but the many other certificates and patches she has received for her walking accomplishments are kept in an album.

"If I put all of that stuff up on the wall it would look like a museum in here," Mrs. Steirer said.

"Oh, heavens, I'm just a little Polish girl who enjoys walking."

Walking is just one small part of Mrs. Steirer's active retirement. Besides Jazzercize, the retired nurse also dances with the Suncoast Dance Academy of Palm Harbor, and she participated in a recital Friday night at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater. She performed jazz dances to the tunes of Copacabana and Tequila.

She fretted Wednesday because she missed a step during rehearsal Tuesday. She also worried that she might look silly in her colorful Mexican-style costume if she wore it for a newspaper photograph.

"Can you picture me? I'm a 65-year-old grandmother of six wearing something like this," Mrs. Steirer said, holding up her ruffled costume.

A reporter and photographer urged her to try it on for a picture.

"Oh, you guys are awful," Mrs. Steirer said as she reluctantly went to a bedroom to change out of her workout clothes into the costume. "I can't believe you guys are making me do this. I could just die. I'll look so silly."

She looked anything but silly as she posed for a photograph by her pool.

"You better make me look good or I'm going to hunt you down and get you," she said to the photographer.

"And you better write a good story, or I'll get you, too," she said to the reporter.

Mrs. Steirer would know good writing. She has had 37 poems published in annuals and magazines since 1972 and is listed in the Who's Who of Poetry in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Her poetry reflects her serious, religious side. She began writing in 1971 to help deal with the death of her first husband, Harry Wagner, who was killed in an industrial accident. The poem Recovery Within Reach was published in the Massachusetts and Delaware Poetry Society's 1972 collection of poems.

"I had these suicidal thoughts, and rather than acting them out I put my thoughts on paper," Mrs. Steirer said. "It was about my tragedy and my life, and it helped me survive."

She has written hundreds of poems that have dealt with her spirituality and views on life. But not all of them have inspired poetry editors.

"Oh, I could paper the walls with the rejection slips," Mrs. Steirer said. "But I have also won my share of awards."

Mrs. Steirer's next published poem, Reborn, about her fulfilling life, will appear Oct. 15 in the Sparrow Grass Poetry Forum.

But her concentration last week was on Friday's dance recital. Friends from Massachusetts were visiting.

"I just hope I don't goof again," Mrs. Steirer said Wednesday. "I missed a left step in Copacabana during rehearsal Tuesday. So I've been practicing in front of the mirror in my room for hours going "Left, left, left.' "

Mrs. Steirer wanted to do her dances just right for her friends, although she was not sure if they cared.

"I don't know if they come because they like to see me dance, or if it's just that they like Florida."

She has a couple of other interests: her organ music and giraffe figurine collection. Her music has been recorded, and she has played at the Eastern States Exposition.

"And I'm still taking lessons after 20 years," Mrs. Steirer said as she played a recording of her bouncy music for visitors Wednesday.

Her giraffe figures numbered more than 600 in her Westfield, Mass., home. She now keeps more than 200 in her roomy Fox Hollow home, where she has lived with her husband, Al, for the past four years.

"I got giraffes all over the place," she said. "I feel like I'm at Bush Gardens."

But Mrs. Steirer's main interest is walking and the spirituality it provides.

"I love to walk because I come into contact with nature," she said. "I love to hear the birds sing and to smell the grass and the flowers. It puts me close to nature, and I never knew how much I would enjoy it until I started this."

Mrs. Steirer also enjoys the health benefits.

"They say you are as young as you feel. I was going to send my Medicare card back when I turned 65. I just wasn't ready for that.

"You always assume that when you turn 65 and go on Medicare you can't do the things I'm doing now. Well, I know I'll be going full steam way past 65."