Editor's note: This is the sixth in a series of local profiles highlighting Active Aging Week, which started Sunday and runs through Saturday.
TUSCOLA — She may be 84, but that doesn't stop Patti Waters from pedaling her bike through Ervin Park a few times a week, volunteering around town and mowing the grass.
"John Deere and I," she says.
A member of Tuscola High's Class of 1949 and a member of its Hall of Fame since 2009, Waters remains a local legend in Douglas County, where she's spent nearly her entire life.
"Patti is special in every way," says her friend, Jeanine Dietrich of Tuscola.
The older sister of retired Circuit Judge Frank Lincoln, Waters was ready to settle down as a homemaker when her husband's sudden death thrust upon her a new career in the insurance business in 1967.
While she has since retired from writing policies for much of Tuscola, she remains active in the community, whether it's serving on the high school alumni association's Hall of Fame Committee or attending Warrior basketball games.
"Patti doesn't sit down," Dietrich says. "She is always on the go."
Yes, that includes weekly mowing.
"The only parts I don't mow are the hills," she said. "But I'm lucky: the superintendent of schools, Michael Smith, mows my hills.
"He used to be my neighbor, and every year I tell him, 'Mike, you don't need to mow any more.' It has nothing to do with my school work. But when he is over here, I get to visit with him some, too."
Waters grew up in Tuscola, where her parents, Harold and Alliece Lincoln, operated the Warren Motor Company, the Buick and Chevrolet dealership in town.
"The showroom was where Kelsey's Furniture is today," she said.
One of Harold's car salesmen turned out to be Patti's high school sweetheart, Cork Waters.
While Cork competed for the Warrior football, basketball and track teams, Patti was often in the stands, playing the fight song on her beloved saxophone in the school band.
Waters kept that saxophone all these years until she found somebody else who needed it as much as she did when she was young.
"Earlier this year, I gave my saxophone to a young man who wanted to get into band in Champaign," she said. "I told him, I don't know what kind of shape that saxophone is in, but you can take it."
'A 36-year-old widow'
Cork and Patti went to the high school prom together as part of the Class of '49.
"I remember that dance like it was yesterday," she said. "I wore a powder blue dress, and Cork had on a suit. Nobody wore a tuxedo in those days. Of course, back then the big fun for us high school students was getting the gym decorated for the prom."
While still in high school, Waters got a clerical job sorting checks at the Tuscola National Bank.
"That was back when banks did everything by hand, and you had to know who was related to who in order to get them in the right families," she said.
Shortly after graduating from Tuscola High, the couple got married and had four children: Mike (currently the guidance counselor and athletic director at Westville High School); twins John (a CPA) and Jean (who sells clothing to raise money for charities); and Philip (now VP of the Tuscola National Bank).
In the late 1950s, Cork bought an insurance agency by the railroad tracks in town and renamed it the Waters Insurance Agency.
The Waterses were getting ready to celebrate Mike's 16th birthday in February 1967 when the family's world turned upside down.
"Cork had a heart attack," she said. "He was here at home, and he died in bed. I found him in the morning. It was a hard thing to adjust to. He was 36 years old."
At the urging of her friends, Patti decided to take over the agency.
"I got my license for insurance, and the insurance companies sent representatives to Tuscola to help me learn the business," she said. "I was a 36-year-old widow, and I was starting a new career."
When somebody called the Waters house on the weekend, Patti's children soon learned to write down a car's make, model and identification number.
"Patti was a true businessperson," said Helen Sanderson of Tuscola. "But she was also a true friend. We would often go out for a drive and get some ice cream once a week. She is a very good person."
'A pioneer of the era'
In the ensuing decades, many in Tuscola made it a point to stop by Patti's office to have her write their policies.
"In many ways, the people of Tuscola became like family to me," she said. "It was nice having people coming in and out all day long. I went to people's weddings and children's birthday parties."
When Patti turned 74, she sold her insurance business to the Hillard Agency.
"It got to the point where I was tired of doing this," she said. "I was ready to quit."
But getting out of the insurance business was no excuse for Waters to slow down. Not long after, she became a volunteer at Carle's Guest House in Urbana.
"The Guest House is where people from out of town can come and stay when they have somebody in the hospital," she said. "They can stay all night and have a chance to clean up and rest. My job was making beds and doing laundry. I volunteered every Thursday."
Six years ago, she was inducted into Tuscola High's Hall of Fame. Her nominator, Susie Harbaugh, wrote of her legacy: "She would prove to be a pioneer of the era of the working mother and she accomplished both tasks as if she had drawn the blueprint for success with her own pen."
"She's been highly visible in her hometown, and always spirited about any task put before her," the announcement of her induction went on to say.
These days — at least when the weather's good — you're likely to spot Waters riding her bike to and around Ervin Park.
Her secret to staying active at 84?
"You've got to have a good attitude and not feel sorry for yourself," she said.