Mike Tharp: 90 years of high adventure

Nonagenerian has no intentions of calling it quits

October 22, 2011 

This summer, when the raft she was riding in approached some of the roughest rapids on the Colorado River, Marie Wilburn was sitting in her customary place -- right at the bow of the craft.

One of the guides gently suggested she might fare better if she were to sit amidships, where the whitewater's rock and roll might be a little less bumpy. Marie agreed, especially after she saw her companion up front, a 200-pound 18-year-old young man, pitched and tossed as if he were riding a bucking bronco.

That was the only concession Marie made, her second week-long raft trip down the Colorado, one with a longtime friend, D.J. Rigg. Concessions just aren't part of this 90-year-old's makeup or mindset. From finding her way back from a "freedom store" in Beijing to her hotel after her tour group had left to running down a band of teenaged female pickpockets in Rome, the native Ohioan has lived a life of adventure.

She credits her terrific health to that willingness to travel and experience the unknown and unexpected. "Be active," she says, perched in a pants suit on the couch in her immaculate home in Merced. "That's most important. I don't take any medication, and I rarely take aspirin. I just don't sit down."

She sees so many of her friends plopped in front of a television when they could be out doing what she does: seeing the world, working every day in her vegetable and flower garden, driving herself to the First Baptist Church in Atwater, helping the needy at food banks, sewing (well, she does sit down to do that). She used to prepare her friends' income tax returns, until the process became computerized.

Not that she's shy around newfangled things. Just recently she texted her grandson in Stockton, congratulating him on a recent promotion at the University of the Pacific. "Grandma," he texted back, "I am really impressed with you."

She moved to Merced in 1980, after decades living with her late husband in the Bay Area. They had one daughter, Lisa, and over the years she worked for the Southern Pacific, Standard Oil and, for 10 years, as a counselor to special ed children in Novato, "my most enjoyable job."

But it was after she met Jerry Clark, a retired teacher in Merced, that she began her serious globetrotting. And Betty Mancebo, Jerry's daughter, became, in effect, Marie's second daughter. "I've never seen anyone so interested in just about everything and willing to try just about anything," Betty says. "Her mind is active and always willing to give it a try."

For 16 years Marie and Jerry traveled. Sometimes it was for months around the U.S., hauling a "fifth wheel" trailer to sleep and cook in. They square-danced all across America and into Canada. In Yosemite, they rode horses and camped out.

They took cruises to the Mediterranean, Scandinavia, Alaska, Baja. They toured Israel and Egypt, most Western European countries, Russia, Australia, New Zealand. It was in Rome where several teenaged girls jostled Jerry in a public square and took his wallet. Marie, usually even-tempered, chased them down and, with the help of some local residents, got the wallet back.

Jerry died in 1998, but Marie continued to march.

She still hankers to see South America and Japan.

"I love traveling," she understates. "I love to see things I've never seen before. Then I come home and read all about them."

She rode horses until recently, adding one more concession to a short list. "I figured I was too old for that," she sighs.

Her other activities include drawing in pencil and chalk, reading and cooking, especially scrumptious desserts. She also plays cards once a week with a group of friends -- a game called "Oh Hell" which gives them plenty of time to "sit and chat and tell jokes and have fun."

Marie's outlook and attitude keep her moving like a hummingbird year in and year out. "I always thought you can either make it fun or miserable," she says. "If something isn't exactly what you expected, you can still enjoy it. You can be happy if you put your mind to it. There's always something to enjoy. People are surprised I'm 90. I never even think about it."

Well said, Marie. And hope you get to South America and Japan.

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or mtharp@mercedsunstar.com

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