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How to reach 95 with a smile on your face

Posted: December 2, 2012 - 1:01am
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Dean Williams, 95, out for a walk earlier this month says staying active is a big part of his staying healthy.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Dean Williams, 95, out for a walk earlier this month says staying active is a big part of his staying healthy.

When you meet someone in their mid-90s who’s got plentiful laugh wrinkles, sparkling blue eyes and a spring in his step, it’s worth finding out more about how he’s chosen to live his life.

Dean Williams, who celebrated his 95th birthday earlier this month, doesn’t present his approach to life as a model for others, but in listening to his stories about his experiences, certain common elements become clear, attitudes that seem to have helped him garner happy memories and few regrets.

Here are four unsanctioned pieces of wisdom gleaned from a recent conversation.

Do many things, and do them well.

One recurring theme in Williams’ life is something that also underpins most sound investment advice: Diversify.

Williams’ natural curiosity and sense of adventure have led him to pursue many interests, from ham radios to aviation to tennis. Rather than becoming a jack of all trades, however, Williams set himself the high goal of excelling at each thing he became passionate about pursuing. He was not a half way kind of guy.

And because he grew up in Alaska in the 1920s and 1930s, he had the opportunity to blaze some new paths.

For example, Williams, an avid outdoorsman, was one of three men to cross the Juneau Icefield on skis for the first time in 1949. Like most facts about Williams life, this becomes even more interesting when you hear him flesh it out with details.

“When we set out the weather looked good, it looked like we could cross all the way and come down by Salmon Creek. But when we got about halfway, boy, I could see these big dark grey clouds coming in. Within an hour we had a blizzard up there. it was blowing 50 or 60 miles an hour.”

The men successfully pitched their tent in the howling wind and set up a ham radio. They eventually reached someone at Taku Lodge, who came up with a good way to help the three men make it through the night. Buffeted around inside their tent by the icefield winds, the men were given an intimate concert by the lodge’s two musicians.

“For about a half hour they serenaded us,” Williams said. “That was quite an experience.”

Though harrowing, seeing the icefield made a huge impression on Williams.

“When it clears off over there it’s really out of this world. ... I had to come back here and tell the Juneau people what was up there. A lot of them didn’t know. Right in the back yard and they didn’t realize it.”

Later in his life, after he’d started his own airline company, Williams helped to organize the first flightseeing tours to the icefield, a business that continues to thrive to this day.

Williams’ work in aviation included a long stretch at Pan American World Airways and co-ownership of Southeast Airways, which later became Wings.

In addition to his work in the field of aviation, Williams was also avidly interested in radio. He became the youngest licensed radio amateur in the Territory in 1931, and later used his code operating skills during his military service in Attu and Adak during WWII, as part of the U.S. Army Signal Corps.

Williams was also active in city government, serving as chairman of the first Docks and Harbors Committee and as chairman of Parks and Recreation committee. Through the latter, he helped set up parks and playgrounds for kids all around town, including Cope Park.

But that’s not why the tennis courts at Cope Park are named for him; that honor stems from the fact that he was a remarkable tennis player, one who continued to garner gold medals and trophies well into his senior years.

“I’ve played tennis in 14 countries and eight states, now that’s a lot of tennis!” Williams said.

Even as an athlete, he made a point of being good at more than one thing; he was also an avid skier.

“That was my ambition. When I was a little boy I dreamt of being good at two sports, skiing and tennis. And it works out well because you can switch off seasons.”

At a time when Juneau’s ski community was based at Dan Moller, Williams taught half the town to ski, sometimes continuing his lessons down at Cope Park in the evenings for those just getting their bearings.

“Two or three nights a week I’d rush in from Pan American out at the airport, grab a quick lunch or dinner and then head for the ski hill,” Williams recalled. “When we’d get enough snow I’d just tell people, ‘Hey I’m going to be down there in the evenings, and if you want to come down I’ll give you tips.”

For awhile, Williams and his son Gordy rented skis out of the family’s basement and mounted bindings for people. Their house, where Williams has lived since the 1940s, is located right around the corner from Cope Park.

 Get outside, every day

Williams was raised by an avid outdoorsman, Jay Williams, who worked for the U.S. Forest Service. Jay Williams is remembered for many accomplishments, one of which was his completion of the first-ever bear census on Admiralty Island.

Getting out with his dad was part of Dean Williams childhood, and became an important part of his adulthood as well. Williams still makes a point of taking a walk every day in his neighborhood. He credits his dad with instilling this love in him.

“My dad was a real outdoorsman. I helped him survey the trails up to Lake Hasselberg and things like that,” Williams said.

The family’s first home was on 12th Street, at the corner of B Street. Cope Park, which at that time was just called the Evergreen Bowl, was his early stomping grounds. As a boy, Williams and his good friend Tom Stewart (later Judge Stewart) would build rafts and small boats to float on the lake that at that time took up most of the flat area of the bowl.

“I grew up there. I learned to swim down there, I learned to do everything,” Williams said. “I loved it down there. It’s always been my favorite spot.”

When he wasn’t down in the bowl, he was usually up in the mountains. His son Gordy said his dad was always taking him and his sister Janice on some kind of outdoor adventure on the weekends.

“We were always out hiking or hunting or fishing, doing something outside,” Gordy Williams said.

The mountains of Southeast Alaska have always drawn Dean Williams’ interest.

“Mountains were a dream to me. I love mountains, still do. They’ve been a big part of my life.”

There is even a Williams Mountain, named for Jay Williams, located near Taku Inlet, 15 miles southeast of Juneau, which Dean and Gordy Williams climbed in 1967.

Not surprisingly, Dean Williams has had many mountain adventures, including one in high school that might have cut his outdoor career very short had he lost his head.

One weekend he went ptarmigan hunting with two friends. On their way back they decided to go home a different way, up and over Mount Juneau. Williams soon realized they were going to have to hurry if they were going to make it down the mountain before it got dark.

“When we got over there I said ‘Hey, we’re going to be pushing nightfall,’ — this was September — ‘we’d better make tracks.’ But they’d been drinking this darn water in the little puddles when they got thirsty. I told them, ‘That water is contaminated.’ And they soon found out. They were throwing up all over the place and they got so weak too they wanted to sleep, and lay down.”

Williams waited for their condition to improve but it soon became clear that they were in no shape to make the descent of Mount Juneau, a very steep slope.

“After about half an hour of that, I though there’s no way I want to be responsible for their lives coming down that mountain. I knew I had my hands full. We had no candles, no flashlight. So I built a little fire and gave them some leftover sandwiches and said ‘You guys stay put here, I’m going down to get some help to get you down, because I’m going to be lucky if I can do it myself!’”

When he got down and told the authorities what had happened, they were shocked he’d made it down Mount Juneau in the dark on his own. When they asked him if he’d like to accompany them on the return trip, Williams politely declined.

Toss in a bit of luck

Though harrowing, neither of these experiences make Williams’ list of close brushes with death. There have been three times, Williams said, that he almost didn’t make it.

“The first one was when I was 8 years old an I had pneumonia, that’s when we lived on Starr Hill. ... the doctor told my mother and my dad, ‘Dean will not be alive tomorrow morning.’ I was that bad from pneumonia. Well, here I am. And the doctor’s been dead for many years.“

The second close brush came when Williams was working as “whistle punk” for a logging outfit down on Prince of Wales island (a whistle punk operates the whistle or horn that allows the team to communicate in the woods). As he was sitting on a stump, a tree began falling right toward him. Trying to avoid getting hit, he jumped down into a hole.

“That thing broke off right where I’d been sitting, and a big chunk of it about 20 feet long came down into the hole ... I was pinned down there pretty well. I couldn’t move. In those days they didn’t have chain saws or anything like that, they used a hand saw to get me out, it took an hour and half.”

Williams emerged from the hole with many cuts and a pair of badly ripped pants, but all in one piece.

His third narrow escape was when a driver plowed him over with her car right in front of his house while trying to clear her windshield with her arm. Williams was knocked off his feet.

“I was just a lucky guy. That could have killed me. That was the third time. So I said to myself, God has taken care of me but he wants me to be a little more careful.”

Pick the right partner

The last strong thread that is easily traced through Williams’ stories is his relationship with his wife, Edna. Williams married Edna Linnea Almquist in 1943, and the couple were married 72 years.

“You’d have to go a long way to see a smile like she had,” Williams said.

According to an article by Richard Stokes, published in the Alaskan Southeaster in 1995, the couple met at a skating party at the Mendenhall Lake Skater’s Cabin and were married at Northern Light Church. Their reception was at the Baranof Hotel, where they continued to celebrate every anniversary thereafter save one, when Dean Williams was serving in the Army.

Edna Williams died in April 2011, at the age of 90.

Williams said soon afterward, he had a message from her.

“I was taking a sunbath, I do that on real nice days because it gets real warm in front of the house, and all of the sudden as I was sleeping I heard ‘Dean!’ just the one word, my name, real loud. And I thought, ‘Who in the world?’ and I started looking around. I peeked over at the neighbors, but there wasn’t anybody. Of course I recognized that voice. We were married 72 years and I knew her voice, naturally. And it was her voice. And that was God’s way of letting me know that she’s all right. I felt so much better. I still feel better now, because she said my name to me. I’m almost ready to join her.”

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