August 27, 2022 7 min read 7 Comments
By Ray Glier
Every other day, Joyce Tobias, 84, swims 56 lengths of the pool, which is almost a mile. She has looked at her lap times and figured she is too slow for a competition like the National Senior Games. On the days she is not swimming, Joyce bikes about 12 miles. She reckons she would not be any more competitive nationally in a race on dry land than in the water.
So why are we here? Joyce, who lives in Haymarket, Va., is not a Geezer Jock to be exalted for a haul of medals. End of story, right?
This woman’s story is every bit as worthwhile as an athlete who earns a truckload of national gold medals. I listen to her biography and realize there are some remarkable people, like Joyce, walking by us on the street every day and we don’t know it. Joyce’s story puts her on a medal stand and the best way I can describe her persona is that she is a living, breathing Bucket List.
The Bucket List for most of us is the end game, the last hurrah, things you were meant to do and are finally getting around to because, well, time is short. It is a series of epic moments. The Bucket List is the fulfillment of an ultimate quest.
Joyce has a Bucket and she fills it with a steady cadence of causes, perseverance, extraordinary gift-giving, life-saving deeds, and noble quests. Most of us cross things off a Bucket List to beat an improvised deadline. Joyce adds to her Bucket List, as if she has a duty to the rest of us. She has no deadline.
“I’m different,” Joyce said. “I don’t follow the usual.”
I’ll hit the highlights. You will be impressed.
She started her Bucket List 63 years ago with a preposterous bike trip around Europe, which young women did not do in 1959. You cannot be risk averse and galivant around foreign countries as a 21-year old woman. But her mother, Sydella, taught her to jump into things with two feet, no sticking your toe in to judge the temperature. Be bold. She went from England to Austria and many other places and made it back ok.
Her mom was one of 10 children. They lived on a farm in South Dakota. When Sydella’s father, Joyce’s grandfather, died the week of the stock market crash (late October, 1929), and left behind those 10 kids ages 2-20, the family became “very poor”, Joyce said.
Sydella survived and became a nurse. She and Herb Geiger had seven children, Joyce was the oldest.
“My parents were very open and honest and not ashamed of family secrets. e.g. they were pregnant with me when they got married—at the time very scandalous. It wasn't broadcasted, but it was by no means secret. It gave me courage to go public with our kids' drug problems. We were not ousted from the neighborhood. My mother always accepted the lonely little next-door Jewish girl into our home while other neighbors would not allow her on their grass. My father hired immigrant German Jews during and after the war. I can remember him telling us their stories.”
Joyce’s father, Herb, had an eighth-grade education. He became a millionaire in the vending machine business.
“The word can't was not in either of my parents' vocabulary,” Joyce said. “If they didn't know how to do something they got a book or went to a class or designed it themselves.”
Joyce became a nurse. It came in handy for her next epic bike trip.
She was 59 when her husband, Tom, was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and decided to reach for his Bucket List. First up, a bike trip across country. I know people who have biked across the country, but they were much younger than 59 and 63. Joyce and Tom started on the west coast because the theory is the wind at your back is best for these journeys.
They didn’t get very far.
On the second day, in Bellingham, Wa., Tom crashed going down a hill pulling a trailer. He was in the hospital two weeks and surely could have died, or been permanently disabled, from his injuries. His wife helped save him.
“He was a Zombie,” Joyce said. “He didn’t have any balance. I had to bring him home on the plane. He was in memory therapy for six months.”
Two years later, undeterred, they tried again. It took 87 days, which included climbing and winding through 14 mountain passes. Joyce and Tom started from the east this time and the muscles and endurance they built through the Ohio Valley and Midwest gave them the strength to conquer the Rockies. They had it backwards the first try, disproving the idea of the Jetstream at your back as the best aid.
And there’s this story of giving:
In 1980, after catching one of her seven children trying to hide a “bong” for marijuana under the bed, Joyce and her family had a reckoning. They took it public and they forced the same reckoning on the Fairfax County (Va.) school system, one of the largest and richest school systems in the country.
“There was a drug problem in the schools,” Joyce said.
The first administrator who tried to help them was put on sabatical, essentially pushed aside, and reassigned. Joyce persisted. She rallied parents with a newsletter for a new group, PANDAA, Parents' Association to Neutralize Drug and Alcohol Abuse.
PANDAA stuck around 25 years. Did it solve the problem? No, not completely, but it saved countless families from the despair of alcoholism and addiction. It was the willpower and resolve of Joyce Tobias that fueled PANDAA, which was noticed by the White House in a ceremony. Of course, the caretakers of the Fairfax County school system took the credit.
Tom Tobias is his own story. No wonder they found each other, he and Joyce.
He was the only white kid growing up on Native American reservations in the Dakotas and upper Midwest where he played high school football at 5-foot-6. His graduating class had 16 kids.
Tom died once, and nearly died three other times.
Competing in a mini-triathlon with his daughter, he suddenly sank in the water. “He drowned,” Joyce said. His daughter fished him out and called for help. CPR brought him back to life.
Then there was the time Tom the Beekeeper got stung in his back yard. He collapsed unconscious on the kitchen floor from an allergic reaction. Joyce, the nurse, rushed to the medicine cabinet for adrenaline and brought him back. People can die from such things. Tom got rid of the bees.
Tom’s most recent brush with mortality was on a simple bike ride near their retirement community. Two women found him laying on the ground toppled over from the bike. He had to be airlifted to a major hospital. Tobias walked away from that, too.
The man needs a nickname. Tom-cat. That will do it. Nine lives.
When he race walks in Pittsburgh in 2023 at The National Senior Games at 90 years old, I’ll be there.
Back to Joyce.
For 10 years Tobias aided a woman with multiple sclerosis helping her to get to a pool for regular exercise. The walks in the water were life-saving and life-giving to this woman named Peggy. It was a lot of work to get her in and out of the car because she needed to use a wheelchair.
“In the water,” Joyce said, “she felt like a normal person. She was so cheerful, so much fun. She would tell me ‘Joyce, I look at what I have, what I don’t have’.
“Her attitude had an impact on me as far as positivity.”
Joyce is the Mermaid of pools. Here to serve. She had another friend, stricken with polio in one leg years ago before the vaccine came out, who had a fall and it was going to keep her from the pool. Joyce and a friend helped her get to a pool. Out of the pool, the woman refused to buy a motorized wheelchair to help with the bad leg.
“I’ll never buy a wheelchair,” she told Tobias. “I only rent them, if I need one. I know if I buy one, I will give in and use it all the time and then it’s downhill from there.”
It’s a lesson for all of us. Don’t give in.
Joyce’s and Tom’s fathers were both alcoholics. She understands the destruction it can cause.
These days, grandma Joyce tries to be a moral model to 14 grandchildren. She counsels them on sobriety and getting high on life with letters to them on their birthdays filled with encouragement and resolve. At family gatherings there is no alcohol, just games. It’s not just dogma. Joyce’s only addiction is swimming and exercise, in general. She went into labor with one of her seven children while swimming.
The medals in the family belong to Tom who won silver medals in Race Walking at The National Senior Games in 2015. Joyce may not be a medal winner, but she is a worthwhile Geezer Jock because she proves we are not grounded by gravity alone. We are grounded by a level of physical and emotional balance, and conviction in our values and in what we live by. Grounded people like Joyce do not play by everyone else’s rules.
What she creates from her deep Bucket of giving is compendium of acts of grace. And she creates something else, too, which is the wonder about somebody who walks by us on the street. What’s their story? We keep to ourselves too much and tend to our own Bucket List and, more and more, people fail to ask of our neighbors What’s their story?
My sister, Joan Hughes, introduced me to Joyce because neighbors talked about this remarkable woman swimming lap after lap at 7 a.m. We should all learn that “Mind my own business” is no way to discover people like Joyce Tobias.
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