Onlookers at Ashland Family YMCA could smile in mild amusement at the sight of Molly Gruber bench-pressing 15 pounds, her effort never marring perfectly coiffed hair nor moistening her pearl necklace with a bead of sweat.
In the context of Gruber's 99 years, other YMCA members smile in amazement.
"Just about everybody in the gym is a fan," says Laurie Evans, the Y's health enhancement and older adult director. "She's just an amazing role model for our members."
The Y's oldest, active member, Gruber lends new meaning to the latter term. The resident of Mountain View Senior Living Community lifts weights for about an hour every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at the Y. Although her grandson, 56-year-old Mark Ursetta, drives Gruber there, she refuses any weight-room assistance, preferring her solo circuit of about 20 machines.
"I sit down in the Jacuzzi and think about how hard she's working," says Ursetta. "She loves lifting those weights."
While fondness for fitness is commendable at any stage in life, Gruber came of age before the concept existed. Born March 23, 1911, in St. Paul, Minn., Gruber went to school through eighth grade but had to relinquish dreams of being a teacher to help support her parents, five brothers and two sisters.
"When I was young, there was no such thing as gyms," says Gruber. "We didn't even know exercise was good for us."
At age 15, Gruber rented a typewriter and purchased shorthand and spelling books to learn the secretary's trade. After her introduction to the workaday world at a funeral parlor, Gruber went on to work for credit unions and government entities before retiring to Seal Beach, Calif., where she learned to swim in her 50s at a YWCA club.
Gruber brought her love of swimming to Ashland about a decade ago and joined the town's YMCA shortly after. She faithfully attended the club's deep-water exercise class until she grew tired of asking fellow participants to repeat the teacher's instructions. Difficulty hearing is perhaps Gruber's only health complaint.
"I have no arthritis at all," she says.
Pushing a walker around the Y, primarily as a precaution, Gruber could use the club's "senior circuit" facility, which includes machines needing no manual adjustment. Instead, she chose to work out alongside members of all ages and fitness levels, but not before Evans tried to discourage her from learning to lift weights at age 95.
"I realized if Molly wants to do it, I better let her do it," says Evans, adding that she monitored Gruber closely for her first few months in the weight room.
"I've never heard her say, 'I can't.' "
Four years later, Gruber accepts assistance only when she needs to calibrate the "total hip" machine's platform to her height of about 5 feet. Draping her knee over the padded bar at a 90-degree angle to her body, Gruber presses the bar down in one gentle motion until it's parallel to her other leg.
"I feel that I exercise my whole body," she says.
Pearl earrings swaying, Gruber steps off the foot-high platform with an agility that belies her next step, toward the metallic-green walker that serves as coat rack for her denim jacket. Just as nimbly, Gruber kicks the walker out of her way while posing for photos on her 99th birthday at the Y.
"I have more people come up to me and say 'Is it true you are 99 years old? I just want to be like you when I get old,' " says Gruber.
When asked the secret to her longevity, Gruber can only remark that she wishes she knew. A doctor once told her she apparently was born without tonsils, a peculiarity that may explain why she's never suffered a sore throat. Nor can she ever remember having a headache.
While Gruber enjoys candy, a plate of six confections may last a week in her refrigerator, says Ursetta. The Ashland resident says he believes a positive outlook, more than diet, has kept his grandmother fit and engaged in everyday life.
"She doesn't like depressing things at all," says Ursetta, adding that he often finds Gruber in her Mountain View apartment, dancing and singing to big-band standards and other music of her era.
Gruber exhibits that engaging personality every time she visits the Y, where staff point to her as a model, not only for fitness in old age, but for her confidence that inspires new members nervous about lifting weights for the first time, says Evans.
"I feel she's a wonderful ambassador for a YMCA."