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Gray Area: Cast of characters

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Read the entire “Gray Area: Utah as it ages” series of reports here.

Mary Jane Lyons reinvented her old age, after her husband, Joseph, died. She movedfrom their home into a senior apartment in 2000, then lived with her son and his wife for five years, until they retired. In March, 2007, she went to assisted living at Christus St. Joseph Villa.

After his death, she trained to be a home health aide, but found it was just too soon, his memory too fresh for that kind of work. Instead, she got a job at a bakery in a grocery store. She's a doer, always busy, and says she is saved from boredom by crossword puzzles and the hoop hats she makes. One of her sons takes them downtown and distributes them to homeless men.

Jack Aoyagi grew up in West Hiawatha in Carbon County, and has lived in the same house in West Valley City for more than half a century, raising three children by himself. He retired from the Tooele Army Depot, where he worked as a foreman for four decades, then spent his days cycling, skiing, golfing, gardening and inventing. He once built a bicycle built for two with side-by-side seats. As a teenager, his youngest daughter Cindi remembers her dad jitterbugging with her and her friends, and he loved to dance at SaltAir. Now 84, he danced again last week at his granddaughter's wedding in Deer Valley.

Ellie Pasimeni

Ellie Pasimeni has always had an independent streak a mile wide, says her daughter, Jane Pasimeni Willie.

She will turn 88 in December and has only recently begun slowing down, challenged by advancing Parkinson's disease. "She keeps the bubble wrap fairies busy," Jane says.

Jane is one of three children born to Ellie and Thomas Pasimeni, who moved to Utah from New Jersey in later life to be near their grandchildren. He died in 1994.

The Pasimenis were adventurers with a heavy dose of wanderlust thrown in. After their children were grown, they sold their house and traveled the nation in a mini motorhome, the countryside their front porch.

Her room in assisted living at Christus St. Joseph Villa has hints of what she has always loved, including a bird clock that she had to mute because the tone sounds too much like the clock that chimes when it's time to take her medicine. She's always been an avid birdwatcher, she says. "As kids, we'd take a lunch and go up the hill to the only closed area you could go to and be in trees and hike in." She'd watch the birds.

Ellie always enjoyed sewing and painting, preferring oils. Finding some of her sketches, done in pens and pencils, were a "treasure" for Jane and her siblings.

When her children were young, their grandmother loved to take them on little day trips, Jane says.

"I always had itchy feet," Ellie says, who adds that she was lucky to be married 57 years to a man who liked what she liked.

Don and Barbara Rushton Willard

They met at Cyprus High School right after World War II, when he was a junior and she was a sophomore. Asked what he first liked about her, Don answers "Everything!" Don went to work for Kennecott Copper and Barbara worked for a while at the Copper Club. They have five children, and celebrated their 59th wedding anniversary last June. He took care of her for five years at home after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and placed her in Hazen Care Center in the winter of 2007 when he could no longer take care of her by himself. Although Barbara doesn't seem to recognize Don any more, and her words often come out as gibberish, he visits her every afternoon, hoping to get her to smile and laugh and "be a little bit of the old Barbara ... I kiss her hands and I kiss her forehead, and sometimes she calls me names, but that's okay," he says.

Margarete Stahl Wilkin Hicken

"Maggie," "Margie," "Mags," "Margee" — Hicken has accumulated at least as many close friends as she has years (102). And many of them have nicknames for her.

She was born in Pforzheim, Germany, in 1906 and emigrated alone to the United States as a young woman.

In 1939, she started a long career as a comptometer operator at Zions Bank in Salt Lake City, from which she retired 32 years later. A comptometer was a type of electro-mechanical adding machine in which the operator pressed the keys (depending on the machine there could be from 30 to 100 in vertical and horizontal columns, according to Wikipedia) to do large calculations in a precomputer world.

She married George Wilkin, who had a long career as a cost accountant with Utah Oil. He died in 1979. Six years later, she married Dr. N. Frederick Hicken, a surgeon. He was 84 and she was 78. He died Christmas 1998 at age 98, and she's been determinedly independent ever since, though she's surrounded herself with a whole "village" of friends and has frequent guests.

Hicken is a bright and cheerful woman who loves to watch the noon news every day but got tired of watching the national political conventions this summer because they were "tedious." She manages her own life, from doing her laundry to paying her bills, but a willing contingent of friends helps with shopping and trips to the doctor.

She has surrounded herself with friends, including members of her late husband's family, who clearly love her. At a birthday party Oct. 15, about a hundred of her nearest and dearest gathered to gently toast and roast the woman. A former swim instructor reminisced about how Hicken took up swimming as an octogenarian — she gave it up at age 99. She has always been willing to try new things.

"I don't see as well or run as fast as I used to," she jokes. But she can do a mean chicken dance, as guests at her party found out.

Lennox Tierney

At age 96, Lennox Tierney still teaches Japanese flower arranging in Utah and serves as a curator for a small Japanese museum in San Diego.

As important as Japan is to the nonagenarian, he's pretty important to Japan, as well. In November 2007, the emperor presented Tierney with the "Order of the Rising Sun," reportedly Japan's highest honor in the field of arts and crafts. The award conferred honorary citizenship.

The love affair with Japan and its arts and culture began when he was young. He earned a doctorate in art and learned Japanese, two skills that caught Gen. Douglas MacArthur's eye when Tierney was assigned to his office at the end of World War II. He asked Tierney to serve as arts and monuments commissioner, a role designed to soothe relationships after the war. The job entailed, among other things, inventorying important art that had been damaged in the war and arranging to have it restored.

That took a couple of years, then Tierney headed up the art department in America's largest school district, which happened to be in Japan at the time. The problem was, with no arts or music programs, American children were graduating from the American schools in Japan but could not get into American colleges because they lacked units in art.

Along the way, he chased and won his wife, Catherine, whom he met at a party in South Pasadena in the mid-1940s.For two-plus decades, he was professor of Japanese studies at the University of California, in both Los Angeles and San Francisco. He and Catherine had a son, and in their spare time they created their own beautiful Japanese garden.

Utah came into their lives in the form of a University of Utah dean who attended one of Tierney's Thursday night lectures while visiting a friend in California. He said the U. needed an orientalist and wooed Tierney to the U., where he became associate dean in the college of fine arts.

Long after Tierney retired, his students have continued to seek him out. A group of them meets with their former professor for monthly lunches. In the meantime, though, his wife's health declined. She died recently of Alzheimer's disease.

She spent the last few months of her life in a nursing home called Hazen, after her full-time care became too much for Tierney. She was 87. Tierney and their son, Steven, had managed her disease and cared for her for more than five years after she was diagnosed.

Tierney's health regimen is simple: a baby aspirin, a multivitamin and staying active. He shovels his own snow, teaches, drives and is generally very busy. Older men who slow down, he believes, don't do very well.

"My theory is, you should never retire. But if you have a pension, take it. My other belief is, admit your age and ask, are there any perks for the elderly? If there are, I want them right now," he jokes.