Keen On Life, Crazy About Isle Of Palms
Meet the Keenagers, one of Isle of Palms’ oldest, most active groups. By Mimi Wood Photos by Steve Rosamilia
A Blue Zone is a community identified throughout the world where the residents live “vibrant, healthy, amazingly long lives.” Despite geographic differences, residents in Blue Zones share commonalities of lifestyles that include physical activity, a philosophy of “family first,” and a deep faith. In visiting with e Keenagers on Isle of Palms, it appears many here are embracing the principles of Blue Zones intuitively.
The Keenagers are a social group of seniors who meet regularly at the IOP Rec Center. Not even e Rec’s Director, the venerable Norma Jean Page, can remember when the group first started. “They pre-date me,” she states. “We love them dearly. They just want to socialize and have fun!”
The first Wednesday of most months ends approximately 75 bright-eyed and bushy-tailed long-timers arriving for their monthly meeting and potluck lunch. While e Rec provides the staples of the noon-time meal, it’s the homemade pies, cakes and cookies that garner the most attention, adorning the end of the serving table.
“You have to do what you enjoy, otherwise why do it?” asks Inge Baechler, rhetorically. Baechler, 93, has more energy than many halves her age. Prior to e Rec taking over organizational responsibilities for e Keenagers, Baechler was the coordinator for a few years. She’s a member of e East Cooper Newcomers, a welcome-wagon sort of club; the Coastal Belles, a choral group; and she organized First United Methodist Church’s summertime Loaves and Fishes program, wherein outgoing vacationers donate unused, unopened food on their way out of town. “My problem,” she jokes, “is whatever I join, it seems I end up in charge.”
Baechler’s bio includes six children. She moved to Isle of Palms from Illinois in 1998, after her car was hit for the third time, parked on the icy street front of her home. Of her 60-something daughter and son-in-law, with whom she lives, she states, “We live our own separate lives … but I am still the chief cook and bottle-washer!”
Alma Kiser, a close friend of Baechler’s through the Keenagers and church, has lived on IOP since 1962, save for a brief stint upstate. Originally from Rock Hill, she’s one of just a handful of Keenagers native to South Carolina. Kiser and her husband raised a daughter who became an attorney, and a son who followed in his mother’s footsteps, and is a nurse. Kiser spent 15 years at Roper, 10 of them in oncology. “I did pretty well for a girl from a small town,” she says, her enviable blue eyes twinkling. In 1960, “while in nurses’ training, I was ‘Miss York County Hospital.’ I rode in the Christmas Parade, on the back of a convertible! I started out to be a stewardess,” reminisces the spritely 79-year old. “But at the end of two weeks, when they started to train us how to serve drinks, I figured it was time to come home.”
Even without his stovepipe hat, 80-year old Charlie Dieckmann bears an amazing likeness to Abe Lincoln. Dieckmann began his second career as a reenactor shortly after a teacher-friend remarked on his resemblance to our 16th president. Growing up on an Indiana farm, he never fulfilled his teenage dreams of playing football and basketball. “My dad was not a sports fan. I played in two football games in high school, and then it was corn-picking time.” With 850 acres of his own to farm, he, his wife Martha, and their two daughters never once took a vacation, until his youngest, about to enter her senior year of college, coaxed her parents into a family trip.
Although Dieckmann “always hated history,” he simultaneously “always wanted to see Ft. Sumter.” us, their first family vacation brought them to Charleston, where “I approached a group of cops downtown, asking ‘Where’s the beach?’” Once they regained their composure, the officers explained to the naive Hoosier that “Charleston has a harbor, no beach. They pointed me in the direction of Folly and Isle of Palms.” IOP won out, and the Dieckmanns bought a house on the island the following March, in 1996. Although they’ve been snowbirds ever since, they’ve only been members of The Keenagers for the past four or five years. “We didn’t know about it!” the gregarious Dieckmann laments.
Originally from Illinois, Ed Greiman, 89, remembers the Depression like it was yesterday. “I grew up on a farm, and it took a long time to recover,” he says. Greiman served in the United States Air Force in 1947, and was stationed near Tokyo, Japan. Upon his return home to Belleville, he married Eunice, and entered the civil service. However, he remained active military on the week - ends, as a reservist at Scott Air Force Base. As such, Greiman spent three weeks every summer on active duty in Charleston, bringing Eunice and their three children along to enjoy the nearby beaches. Perhaps because of his exposure to the Lowcountry as a child, the couple’s son fell in love with the area, and purchased a home on IOP in 1997. The Greimans began wintering at their son’s home, until he retired himself in 2010, and moved down permanently. “Homeless,” Ed and Eunice purchased a convenient condo just off the Connector in 2011 and are now full-timers.
“We started with The Keenagers in 1997, joining neighbors on our son’s street. We’ve lost a lot of people, and there aren’t a lot of new people coming in,” Greiman says. “The potluck is still well-attended, but the lunch bunch is dwindling,” he observes, referring to the second Wednesday of the month, when the group meets at a local restaurant for lunch. “It’s getting harder logistically, with driving and parking, and having to navigate the stairs of various eateries. Plus,” he grins, “it’s hard to get everyone to agree on one place!”
Laura McMaster coyly hints to her husband John’s familial relationship to South Carolina’s Governor, remarking that “all the McMasters in South Carolina are related.” Originally from Springfield, Kentucky, Laura met John, from Winnsboro, South Carolina, and the two married in 1965. While living in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1978, the McMasters bought an infamous “red cinder block house, with asbestos shingle siding and a tin roof,” on Palm Boulevard, as an investment.
Affectionately known throughout the island as “The Chicken Coop,” it was a genre of beach house known as a “Flop and Drop.” A true summer cottage, with a pot-bellied stove as the only source of heat, the Chicken Coop rented quite nicely. “This was long before Wild Dunes, mega-mansions, pools and elevators. People didn’t require all that they do now,” says John. “We didn’t even need air conditioning, we just threw up the windows, and went to the beach.” After extensive remodeling in 1987, Laura teased that they had upgraded the Chicken Coop to “‑ e Poulet Coupé.” Sadly, they had to re-remodel two years later, after Hugo destroyed much of their property.
The McMasters moved to IOP permanently in 1992, and Laura’s love of, and eye for, antiques is evident throughout their home, which resembles nothing close a chicken coop. Laura and John, in their mid-70’s, join other Keenagers at the Rec twice weekly for “Old People Exercises,” thus named “because we’re old!” laughs Laura.
There are typically a dozen door prizes at the monthly potluck; undeniably, artist Bonnie Holden’s prints are the most coveted. Professionally trained at New York City’s Traphaven School of Fashion Design, the first thing Holden painted upon her arrival on IOP in 1967 was the Nativity that still graces the lawn of the First United Methodist Church every Christmas. Once her son entered high school, she resumed painting diligently, and her realistic and extremely detailed paintings of Charleston were an instant hit. But, “there’s a limit as to how many Charleston scenes people will buy.”
Consequently, she developed her “Gi Giving” series: Victorian scenes with an accompanying story, such as A Time with Father and A Mother’s Love. ‑ e prints from these paintings sold like hotcakes, available in over 1,800 shops and galleries nationwide. “You have to be the best, or you have to be different. My Gi Giving series was different from what anyone else was painting. ‑ e stories meant something to people.” Indeed, she became the second-highest seller at the Grand Floridian in Disney World.
Holden’s other commissions have included work for Avon Cosmetics, Bonwit Teller, Saks Fi h Avenue, Lord and Taylor, Nordstrom and QVC. Her wildly successful gallery on King Street, ‑ e Victorian Collection, started almost by accident; working out of their home, with people coming and going at all hours to retrieve commissioned paintings, she mentioned to Harry, her husband, she thought she needed “a little place where I can work, and people can come pick up their pieces.” Over the years, diabetes stole the vision in her le eye; she credits MUSC’s Storm Institute with restoring her right eye to 20/20.
Looking back at her extensive body of work, the gifted 84-year old marvels, “I’m amazed at what I did. I don’t think I could do it now.” She and Harry joined ‑ e Keenagers sometime around 2000, upon closing their King Street gallery.
“The Keenagers are a wonderful resource for people in the community,” concludes Inge Baechler. “We all look out for each other.” It seems that Blue Zone philosophy may be derived from Blue Hair common sense: Faith. Family. Friends. Exercise. Passion for your vocation. “Whatever you do, do it with your whole heart and soul. Don’t let anything come between what you love,” proclaims Holden.