Miss Marjorie—Blossoming at Age 86

By ChadNelson – November 5, 2013

There is a famous scene in the third Godfather movie where Michael Corleone decries his inability to leave the Mafia life behind: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!” Marjorie Wilkes can relate. Eleven years ago, with her children married and raising children of their own, the widow of 30 years was suffering the effects of a lifetime of physical maladies and feeling “out” of life in every sense. Now, at 86 years of age and describing herself as the “happiest and most free [she] has ever been,” Wilkes can’t help getting reeled back in by life.

Wilkes (known as Miss Marjorie) was 75, discouraged, and falling into depression. Her doctor diagnosed that she was experiencing post-polio syndrome (PPS), a condition that affects many polio survivors and includes symptoms such as acute muscular weakness, pain, and fatigue. The assessment gave an expectation of becoming wheelchair-bound and losing independence and quality of life; her left leg was already a full inch shorter than her right because of polio, and she was more dependent than ever on her “buggy”—the wheeled walker that accompanied her everywhere. In addition to these physical issues were emotional ones. Adding to Miss Marjorie’s anxiety was a piece of land her husband had left her when he died in 1972. The land took 24 years to sell; although the sale plugged a gap financially, the relief was short-lived. The purchaser defaulted and, due to a misstep by her attorney, Miss Marjorie lost the property. She was forced to buy her family land back from the IRS on the courthouse steps.

By 2007, Miss Marjorie’s health had further deteriorated and doctors were sending her to specialists of every kind. Her children became increasingly concerned after she had two serious falls and moved her from her home in Smithville to Burnet; she was now closer to her family but farther than ever from the independence she desired. Those days, she didn’t so much look forward as try not to fall backward. Then, in January of 2012, Miss Marjorie decided to attend a senior exercise class called “Don’t Stop Moving” that was starting at her church. She hoped to improve her balance enough to stay upright. That first class, as it turned out, led to benefits beyond what she could’ve possibly imagined.
During one restless evening, Miss Marjorie heard a voice so clearly that she was sure someone was in her home. The voice said to her, “God doesn’t make mistakes.” What did that mean? She had successfully completed two senior fitness classes, lost 32 pounds, and felt like she could do more—but how much more? For weeks, she was afraid to even tell her kids about the voice because she was sure they wouldn’t believe her.

“I really think God sent her here…like an angel,” said Sonny Wilson, co-owner and trainer at Mad Dawg Fitness, the gym that provided those first senior exercise classes, as he grinned and winked at his “adopted grandmother.” “When my granny died, a huge part of me felt empty. [Miss Marjorie] has not only made me a better trainer but has made me a better man. She has made me recognize and focus on what is important (like God, family, and helping others) and less on material things.”

While Miss Marjorie and Wilson have a special relationship beyond that of the typical trainer/trainee, it is hard to find anyone who has met her that has not been inspired. She’s passionate about sharing her experience; in fact, the day before being interviewed for this article, Miss Marjorie told her story three times…at a car lot. When she does so, she talks about the lost weight, her disciplined routines, and the fact that she can now walk extended distances without assistance, giving a testimony of hope and encouragement to those who will listen. What she rarely mentions is how incredible her physical transformation has been.

“She is the most hard-headed and humble person I have ever known,” Wilson said as Miss Marjorie shook her head in mock disgust. “She has bench pressed 95 pounds and can probably do 115 if I let her. She does 15-pound dumbbell curls; she rides the elliptical machine and can row 10,000 meters on the highest setting available on the rowing machine. She is a freak of nature! There is nothing she won’t try. She’s fearless. People have joined Mad Dawg Fitness simply because she has inspired them to do something and they feel better knowing she is here.”

Will Miss Marjorie work out on her 100th birthday in September 2027? With a twinkle in her eye and a nod, she replied that she will. Wilson, glancing one more time in her direction, answered with certainty, “Absolutely!” The woman who once simply struggled to keep from falling back is definitely looking ahead to years of improved fitness—and inspiring others to do the same.


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