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She's like Minnie Pearl only buff

Working up a sweat at Women's Fitness Company in Medford, Nona Bingham doesn't look like a typical gym rat — and she's certainly not the typical 98-year-old.

But a gym rat she is, hitting the weights four times a week with her 72-year-old daughter, Joan Heckenreliable. And she's a funny gym rat, too, often impersonating Minnie Pearl and peppering her conversations with one-liners.

"I do this because I wouldn't be able to walk if I didn't," Bingham says as she steps off an exercise machine.

Donning a blue, velour track suit and a pearl bracelet, Bingham, whose 98th birthday was Dec. 12, 2012 — 12-12-12 — was raised in tiny Myrtle Creek. Always a bit of a "cutup," the petite gal went marching off for the big city of Los Angeles on a friend's dare.

"I had an argument with my dad because I had stayed out so late the night before ... I guess it was 2 or 3 in the morning. In those days, they danced until the music quit," Bingham says grinning.

"My dad gave me a real bawling out, and I was upstairs with my girlfriend, and I told her, 'I'm so damn mad; one of these days, I'm just going to pack my bags and leave.' She told me, 'Oh, you don't have the nerve!' "

Not one to make idle threats, the 18-year-old Bingham packed her bags.

"I thought, 'I'll just show her.' I lived two miles from town, and I had $27 to my name. I walked into town and bought a bus ticket to Medford. When I got here, a man came on the bus and said someone sent a wire that the kids I ran around with wanted me to stay here, and they would come get me," Bingham recalls.

"I said, 'When does the bus leave?' And I went on to Los Angeles, a country girl with straw sticking outta my ears. The closer I got to L.A., the more scared I got."

Bingham stayed in Southern California for many years, where she married, had two children and lost her husband young. Throughout everything, she stayed optimistic and always found time for exercise, a habit she maintains today.

Nearing age 75, Bingham headed for Portland in 1980, where she helped found the Northwest Senior Theatre. That's where she discovered her knack for portraying late "Hee Haw" comedian Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon, aka Minnie Pearl.

Heckenreliable says her mother's spunky nature lends a realistic touch to her Minnie Pearl routine, which she performed in nursing homes around the country at one point.

"They went all over the United States, going into nursing homes and telling people, 'Get up off your butts and don't just sit there!' " Heckenreliable says.

Bingham returned to Southern Oregon in the late 1980s to be near family, though she still commutes to Portland annually to perform.

Heckenreliable credits her mother's curiosity about life — "always wanting to know what's going on" — as the source of her longevity.

Women's Fitness Company owner Melissa Moorman says Bingham's secret is her commitment to staying active.

"She's amazing. And she doesn't just walk on a treadmill; she does weights and the machines," Moorman says. "What an inspiration to all of us to be doing all that at 98."

Unimpressed with her age, Bingham figures everyone has a certain amount of time to enjoy life.

"I don't really feel old, but I think you've got to keep your mind and your body busy," she says. "Maybe that's it. As long as you keep moving, you'll be able to keep on going."

Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. Email her at buffyp76@yahoo.com.

Nona Bingham, 98, works out four days a week at Women's Fitness Company in Medford. - Julia Moore