Leisure: Cathy Rigby, Peter Pan, and Herb

“As we get older, we tend to put restrictions on ourselves … But I don’t believe that anymore. I still believe that anything is possible, and that’s a very Peter Pan kind of wishful thinking.”

by Dave Riley

At sixty-four, former Olympic gymnast Cathy Rigby isn’t a geezer but neither is she a kid. Ms. Rigby was the first American woman gymnast to win a medal in international competition, and more than anyone she popularized the sport in the U.S. When she was twenty, she officially “retired,” if you’ll excuse the word, from competitive gymnastics

Much of the time since then, she has been playing the title role in Peter Pan in venues across the country. This isn’t just a rehearse-the-lines and Cathy Rigbylearn-the-blocking kind of role. Pan literally flies through the air, engages in sword fights with Captain Hook and is hyper-athletic throughout most of the performance.

In 2005, at the age of fifty-one and after an estimated 2,500 performances as Pan, she decided it was time to call it quits, so she mounted one final farewell tour across the country, culminating in a New York City run during the Christmas season. News reports say the 4’11” Rigby was still in great shape thanks to a heavy workout regimen with a personal trainer. But she said that at her age it was getting harder to fly. (Think about that sentence for a moment.)

The sword fights with Capt. Hook also took their toll, including one that resulted in a stab wound in the leg on opening night. She finished the tour, not without a few farewell tears, and returned to her home in La Habra Heights (CA).

But wait! There’s more!!!

Several years ago she did a special performance in Missouri and decided she missed the role. So in 2011 she mounted a new tour, this one again ending in New York at Christmastime. At the time, Michael Schulman had a Talk of the Town piece in the New Yorker about Ms. Rigby in which she indicates that she didn’t want any physical limitations to be a factor in her performance. The part, after all, is relentlessly physical. “You’re running around like a small child for the entire first act,” she told Schulman. “I thought, O.K., how can I be a better flyer, a better little boy, and how can I not get injured?”

All of this was interesting to me, but not nearly as interesting as the philosophy with which she approached preparing for the role. “As we get older, we tend to put restrictions on ourselves,” she said. “But I don’t believe that anymore. I still believe that anything is possible, and that’s a very Peter Pan kind of wishful thinking.”

Ms. Rigby’s comment brought to mind my friend Herb who passed away at age ninety-two just a couple of months ago. Herb was a doer. During his working years — during his Act I, if you will — Herb was a CPA and a partner in a successful accountancy in New York. He was also an accomplished centerfielder, good enough to get a tryout with his beloved New York Giants even though he was probably the smallest player on the field.

When his number-crunching days were over — when his Act II began — he and his wife moved to Florida. “The heat was terrible!” he told me, so they moved to California, where they remained for the rest of Herb’s life.

Retirement is when some people, to use the words of an acquaintance, begin to “sit by the window.” But not Herb. More often than not, when I phoned him, his wife would answer and say, ‘You just missed him, Dave. He went to the gym.” Or to the putting green. Or to the library. Or somewhere.

The two of them seldom missed a showing at the local foreign film series. Every few months they would go to Laughlin, Nevada, an entertainment and gambling spot.   “I’m going to visit my money,” he would tell us, meaning the money he lost last time he was there.

We played golf every Friday in a regular foursome, and Herb was the CEO. As we left the 18th green he reminded us of next week’s starting time, and announced whose turn it was to get the starting time for the week after that. He organized monthly dinners at a local restaurant for the golf buddies and our wives. He loved silly jokes and arrived each Friday with a new one.

“A penguin walked into a bar ,” he told us one day. “He said to the bartender, ‘I can’t find my brother. Have you seen him?’”

“’I don’t know,’ the bartender said. ‘What does he look like?’”

All those Fridays while Herb was on the golf course, his wife, an immensely talented water colorist, was teaching classes to many others who were just beginning their Act II and wanted to improve their painting skills.

At his eighty-fifth birthday party, he gave us his formula for a long life. “Good genes, good luck, and a good wife,” he said.

Herb was hardly the only go-getter in our community. He was just the one I knew best. At the pool I see people who are clearly well older than I do two laps in the time it takes me to do one. Our gyms and art classes and woodworking shops are populated with people expanding their strength and their creativity. We have Herbs all around us.

Unfortunately, we also have those who just sit by the window.

But that will never be Ms. Rigby.  “We’re going to do another tour in ten years,” her husband Tom McCoy joked to Schulman.  “She’ll be flying in with a walker! I’m telling you, AARP should do a big thing about you.”

Ms. Rigby laughed this off. I get the feeling there will be no Act II for her. Her life will be one super-long, joyous, high-energy Act I.

If you know many seniors you undoubtedly know some who in later life became, with varying degrees of success, artists, musicians, writers, poets, and actors. They did so because they never gave in to the demon that whispered in their ears, “You’re too old for that.” They are senior Peter Pans, people who never want to grow up in a metaphorical sense, but rather want to continue to explore life with a child’s curiosity. They believe what Peter says to Wendy and the Lost Boys when they want to leave Neverland, “Go on! Go back and grow up. But I’m warning you, once you’re grown-up you can never come back. Never!”

Photo: McCoy Rigby Entertainment


Dave Riley

About Dave Riley

Growing Old Isn’t For Sissies is about aging. It’s stories of how some older people achieve remarkable successes, how some people make the lives of others better, and how all seniors have hurdles to face — maladies, loss of loved ones and more.