Spending the afternoon with Barbara was a memory I hold dear. This 99 year-old woman is classy, eloquent, and active as ever. We ended our interview walking through her garden and talking about politics, her chickens, the sunshine, and our dreams of "changing the world." I can't wait to show up on her doorstep with a bouquet of flowers when she turns 100.
Something I loved from our interview was when Barbara said,
"It all comes back to having confidence in ourselves. It comes back to self-esteem. We’ve got to build self-esteem because then we will have the courage to respect ourselves. I think that’s the fundamental principle we all need to have and strengthen; to feel that we have some worth and that we can do something special with what we’ve been given. Because if we don’t have that, we don’t try. And if we don’t try, we cannot change the world around us. We need strong women."
Tell me about your family.
My husband is Norman Tanner, and he passed away on February 12, 2015. He helped in the growth of the O.C. Tanner Company from its humble beginnings to now an international company. I love and miss him very much. Together we have four children. We have a son Clark who passed away years ago, and three beautiful daughters: Susan, Deon, and Deb. We also have five grandchildren and one great-grandson who is the smiliest and cutest little guy around.
And how old are you?
I am 99 years old. I’ll turn 100 on January 14th, 2017.
And from what I hear, you still love to lift weights and exercise. Is that right?
Oh yes, I go to a private trainer two times a week and we work on different things. He has me do a lot of different movements and work different muscles, as well as work on my balance.
What is a typical workout for you?
The first thing I do is stretch. I always start by stretching my back and reaching up as high as I can. My trainer pushes my shoulders back so I can get a good stretch. Then I’ll stretch my legs out and do sit-ups. I also hang from another bar to get a good stretch. I stretch my quads, and my calves, and my arms. Then usually my trainer has me do a lot of different things for my posture and back. He gives me weights for balance. It’s kind of an all-around type of exercise; a little bit of everything to supposedly work all my muscles. I go to my trainer twice a week for an hour each time. In between those sessions, I actually have a ballet bar that I keep in my bathroom at home to use for stretching. I used to take ballet when I was younger, and I’ll stretch every morning on the bar for about 10 minutes.
How much do you weigh and how much weight do you lift?
I think the last time I weighed myself, I was 109 pounds. My trainer told me the last time I was at the gym, I lifted 50 pounds and carried it across the floor. It was pretty heavy, but I did it. Don’t quote me on that, but I think that’s what he said.
What motivates you to keep lifting weights and staying active?
Oh it isn’t just the weights. I love it all. I’ve always been active in my life. When I was younger, I swam and danced, and then started playing tennis. I also have skied a lot, and skied into my 80’s. You can ski free when you’re 80, you know. I skied until I was 85, and I skied free at Alta with quite a few others who were my same age. But then my balance wasn’t too good, and that’s when I decided to quit. But oh, I loved to ski.
Health is so many things. If you want to live a good and happy life, you’ve got to be healthy. You just have to take care of yourself. I try to keep at it and I like trying new things. In fact, I would like to get a stationary bike and start getting more into that. But health is everything and that’s the reason I try to stay healthy. We are nothing without it.
I know you’ve always been conscious about your health. Do you feel like your attitude toward health and fitness has impacted your children and the way they look at health?
I hope so. I think they sort of ignored me when they were younger. I was always telling them to stand up straight and those types of things. They’d roll their eyes and say, “Oh Mom.” But I have three daughters with very different bodies. They can’t wear each other’s clothes. They’re very dissimilar but they all enjoy getting out and exercising. Healthy looks different on everybody. Both my husband and I were very active. Norm had more energy than anybody I’ve ever seen. He’d work day and night and then go for a hike. He could hike faster and longer and better than anyone I knew. And the same went for tennis or anything he did. He never got tired. His good, robust health kept me motivated to do the same. But my kids all enjoy exercise and they take care of their bodies. I think they’re all aware of eating, because I’ve always stressed eating well. So I think my attitude has helped them quite a bit.
Do you eat healthy today still?
Very much so. I think it’s terribly important. And thank goodness I’ve never smoked. I think that’s a handicap. The habit of smoking hung on for a while back in the day. When I was young, smoking was kind of a symbol of being sophisticated, but I never chose to do it. I don’t drink much either. I prefer coffee. But I try to eat a lot of vegetables throughout the day and not a whole lot of sweets. The other thing is that I don’t need to eat much these days to be full. So my diet is simple, and consists of whole and healthy foods.
What do you do for your mental and spiritual health?
I really like to read. I read books a lot. I like reading editorials and this sort of thing. I’m active in politics and very concerned with politics. I’m a good Democrat. I’m very liberal, and I stay up to date. I was state co-chairman for Citizens for Eisenhower. I used to be very busy with some of our Senators, with fundraisers and that sort of thing. I like to support people that way. Politics keep me involved and keep my mind sharp.
I’ve been very active in music. I was president of the Symphony Guild up in Symphony Hall. I used to play the piano but I recognized early that I didn’t have any great talent. So I learned to appreciate it and get involved with the symphony. And oh, I love opera. I’m sort of an opera buff. I think some of the most beautiful music is an opera. I love all of music, and I think it’s important to our spiritual health.
What’s your favorite treat today?
You know, I don’t have many treats today. I’ve learned to lick the need for sweets. It takes a while, but it’s possible. Unfortunately as you get older, your taste buds aren’t as strong too. I eat well, but in a way, I don’t enjoy eating as much as I used to because I don’t get real hungry. And when I do eat, I fill up very fast. I’m very satisfied with vegetables and a nice small meal.
What changes have you seen in women over the last 100 years?
I’ve noticed now that starting from an early age, there seems to be a lot more heavy-set women. I’m seeing more women overweight then I ever have. I don’t know if this is scientific or not, but it seems to me that women don’t stand as straight either. Their posture isn’t as good. But I also think that when people carry extra weight around, their posture gets worse and their balance isn’t the same. Maybe that’s why I see more of them out of shape. When I went to school years and years ago, there were not nearly as many women that were heavy. It was very unusual and striking to see a woman who was really overweight, and now it seems to be more common.
I’ve watched the American diet change. We eat a lot more hamburgers and that type of thing. When I was young, it was Depression days. If you got a hamburger, it cost about a dime, and it was also very small. And also, a donut was little… and cupcakes were little. I can’t believe the size of cupcakes nowadays. The portion sizes were much smaller back then. I don’t know what started it all, but we are eating more than we ever have today, and that’s a complete change from back then. I can definitely see a difference.
I also see a difference with the way that women are becoming athletes. I was living before Title IX. Women weren’t even supposed to be athletic. In gym class, you had calisthenics, and then you might play basketball or something like that. We did have basketball teams, but the women were sort of ignored. There weren’t very many girls who were athletes. I always wanted to be a ballet dancer, but I didn’t get started soon enough to do anything. My mother finally let me go and she paid for it because my dad didn’t think it was appropriate. He thought that if you were going to be a dancer, it meant you were going to be on the stage kicking your legs and all of this sort of thing. He didn’t know what dancing was really about. But I loved and wanted to be a dancer. I remember so much seeing the girls that danced. They were so much more limber and that was what I admired. But women didn’t profess to be athletes. Once in a while a girl would go out for track, but women were kind of ignored. That’s very different from today where women are shown as being strong and competitive and you see them even in the Olympics. A woman back then was considered “delicate,” and now you see women who are very strong. They are going for their dreams, working toward careers, and much stronger in the workplace.
What do you hope for, for women over the next 100 years?
Looking at my grandchildren, I think about the future for women. I feel like many mothers are keeping up a career, while still trying to be devoted mothers, and managing the family. When I was young, it was very important that we didn’t work. The men didn’t want their wives to work because they felt like it was their duty to support the family. Today, it almost seems important that you do work as a woman. It’s a different goal and attitude. I see women handle more than I would have ever thought of doing when my children were little. Women nowadays are involved in so many things, that I fear it may be too overwhelming, leaving many of them feeling defeated. I hope women in the future are able to also be okay with just being a mother, and not worrying about crowding so much into their life and not having any free time.
I think the difference is at the time I had children, I was involved in community affairs… the PTA, and many things in the community. Women today; do they have time to be in the PTA? Do they have time to get to know their neighbors? I worry that the sense of community won’t be quite as strong if everyone is trying to focus so much on their careers and keeping up with everyone around them. As a society, we aren’t going to have those women who did so much to help us with all our free non-profit institutions and volunteer work. I was always very busy in the community, but I also had more free time than the women I see today. So that will be very interesting. I guess my hope for the women of the future is that even though it’s great that women are involved in so many things, hopefully they can still balance their time in a way that involves more free time to sit down and talk with people, meet with friends, and have a social life together. I’ve seen a complete change-around over the last 99 years.
“It takes a village to raise a child.” When I was young, mothers were home. And if I did something wrong, my neighbors knew about it, and they would call my mother. As a child, if you did something wrong, the whole neighborhood knew about it. I remember several times, if another child in my neighborhood ever needed something, my mother would help them. If they needed a meal, my mother would prepare a meal. If they needed a place to stay, we’d help. There was a lot more help among neighbors. Now sometimes you don’t even know your neighbor. It’s an unhealthy shift. If we’re going to have mothers working, we’ve got to have something after school to take care of those things so those children don’t go home without some supervising.
I do have to say though, however much bad and negativity there is in the world, there is still so much good. There are so many good people. And the little people entering the world are full of hope and happiness. Here I am nearly 100 years old, and I still want to solve the problems of the world. You’d like to change the world, wouldn’t you? Especially for the children. I hope we see many more positive changes in the world over the next 100 years. That would be wonderful.
What would you say makes a strong woman?
A strong woman is a woman who has learned how to protect herself. A strong woman is someone who has learned how to say no and have enough confidence in herself that she can stand alone if she has to. This is something that I had to learn the hard way. It’s easy as a woman to feel sorry for people and want to help everyone in their problems. And sometimes that makes us vulnerable. But sometimes you’ve got to protect yourself and learn to stand up for yourself and draw lines. You have to learn how to be strong. As women we need to stand strong in what we know to be right. Because the people around us, especially the children, are watching the things we do.
It all comes back to having confidence in ourselves. It comes back to self-esteem. We’ve got to build self-esteem because then we will have the courage to respect ourselves. I think that’s the fundamental principle we all need to have and strengthen; to feel that we have some worth and that we can do something special with what we’ve been given. Because if we don’t have that, we don’t try. And if we don’t try, we cannot change the world around us. We need strong women.