Don't tell Mary Thoits she can't do something.
The next thing you know she will just turn around and do it.
Like when her older brother told her that girls shouldn't drive cars. So Thoits, just 16, said the heck with cars; she instead rode her bike to the airport in Grand Rapids, Mich., took flying lessons and started flying planes.
Or, just a few years later, when she was 85 and had a crazy idea to jump out of a plane over Lake Elsinore to celebrate her birthday. Friends questioned her sanity. But she did it anyway and loved it.
But that's just Thoits, now 88, living life with gusto and inspiring others to do just the same - although maybe not jumping out of planes as an octogenarian.
Her philosophy is that you shouldn't stop learning as you grow older.
"Your mind doesn't age," she said. "You should say, `How old would I be if my mind didn't know how old I was?"'
As director of the popular Senior Studies Program at Long Beach City College for more than 30 years, Thoits has enriched the lives of thousands of older citizens.
She teaches a world affairs class with aplomb and humor. Last week she had seniors pass a ball among themselves like a hot potato while Lucy Daggett, the LBCC tour director and professional singer, sang. When Daggett stopped singing, whoever had the ball had to imagine that she was an Iranian and discuss global issues from an Iranian point of view.
Thoits also likes to dress up in costumes to bring history to life. Some of her favorite characters include Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross; Edith Wilson, wife of President Woodrow Wilson; and the Pope.
"I'm just a ham," she says with an impish grin. "But the students get more out of the class."
Thoits is now embarking on perhaps her most ambitious project in many years at LBCC. She wants to create a program in which seniors and baby boomers can improve the health of their brains to fight memory loss and improve reaction time, such as when driving a car.
"Our society has been concentrating too much on our bodies, on outward appearances," Thoits said. "It's important to be physically fit, but it's just as important, maybe more so, to work on our minds. That's what we are as people. Studies show that we don't fully use the power in our brain. My vision is to develop programs that develop that brain power."
Thoits has been working with consultant Lorraine Wicks, former director of the Senior Education Center in North Orange County, to see what would work best for LBCC. Thoits said one program conducted by Wicks elsewhere produced some remarkable changes in the lives of seniors, including improved reaction time while driving, better information retention, more confidence in using electronic gadgets and a more positive outlook on life.
Like everything else, these programs cost money. Thoits is working with a task force to focus on specific classes with costs to determine the feasibility of moving forward. She hopes to start the program by early fall.
"People are worried about losing their memory. Comedians make fun of older people and their driving. But this is not a joke," Thoits said. "In this age of information overload, I think there are ways to stimulate the brain other than sitting in front of a TV. We need a balance in our lives."
Thoits is a believer in the science of meditation and has given a class in "Four Ways to Stay Out of a Straitjacket: Exercise, Humor, Visualization and Meditation."
"Meditation is a way to quiet the mind and search for answers as to why we're on Earth," she said.
Thoits started her search during World War II when she joined the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPS), flying military aircraft to the East Coast for transport overseas.
In the early 1940s she went to DePauw University in Indiana and majored in art.
"The professor said I couldn't draw, but I could write, so I switched my major to English literature," she said. "I spent some time then in Durham University in northern England where I had an epiphany. I had been sort of a rebel and wasn't focused on education. At Durham a professor wrote on one of my papers that I should stop just parroting back what I thought he wanted to hear and that I should start thinking for myself. That was a great discovery."
Thoits also spent some time at the Sorbonne before working 13 years in Germany and two in Korea organizing social events for military personnel. Lured by the ocean and education, she earned a master's degree in public administration from Cal State Long Beach.
She was looking for a job and accidentally ran into Beverly O'Neill, then dean of student affairs at LBCC, who asked Thoits to take over the moribund Senior Center that held passive events such as card-playing and bingo.
"There's nothing wrong with cards and bingo," Thoits said. "But I discovered that many of the seniors wanted to do more with their time."
She said the Senior Center aims all of its programs at developing learning by stimulating curiosity through classes, seminars, tours, music and art.
"Curiosity keeps you young," she said.
When she was approaching her 85th birthday, Thoits had another epiphany: "A lot of people start worrying too much as they get older. I wanted to start making memories for myself, but I also wanted to let people know that if I could do these things, they could too and make a difference in their lives."
So was born the parachute jumping three years ago. At 86, Thoits went parasailing over San Diego ("A little too passive," she said, laughing); at 87, she flew a Cessna over Catalina Island and landed it at Long Beach Airport ("I hadn't landed a plane in 50 years. Lord, help us," she said. "The landing was a little hard, but I did it); at 88, she did some crewing on a dragon boat.
She turns 89 on June 3 and hasn't decided what to do yet. "I just want to make it memorable," she said.
Thoits perhaps is looking beyond 89 a little to next year when she turns 90. That should be a doozy of a birthday. If you have any ideas for Thoits on her birthday celebrations or her brain development plans, you can reach her at the LBCC Pacific Coast Campus, 1305 E. Pacific Coast Highway, 562-938-3407, or email email@example.com.