Two days before her 100th birthday, Teresa Schmierer bobbed in the pool at Everett’s 24 Hour Fitness, all smiles and cheerful energy. Balanced on a foam swim noodle, she kept the pace in her water aerobics class to the brassy 1940s beat of Glenn Miller’s “American Patrol.”
“Years ago, I started calling her ‘Mother Teresa.’ She’s such an inspiration,” said Melodie Nelson, who teaches the Aqua Class at the fitness center near Silver Lake.
If the thought of Schmierer in a pool rings a bell, you’re right. She was featured in this column in 2009, when I thought it notable that a 90-year-old would be doing water aerobics. That’s true enough.
But Schmierer, a World War II Navy nurse who turned 100 Wednesday, is an example of so much more than being an active centenarian. There’s a reason this undaunted Everett woman got in that pool at an age when most people are slowing down. It’s how she dealt with the crushing sorrow of losing a son.
Kurt Schmierer, a 38-year-old Seattle geologist, was on a climbing expedition in Nepal when he died in December 1994. He fell into a crevasse on 22,987-foot Mount Dorje Lakpa in the Himalayas. His legacy lives on through a Kurt Schmierer Memorial Scholarship, awarded to geology students at Western Washington University.
On Friday, Schmierer’s loved ones and friends gathered at 24 Hour Fitness, in an exercise studio turned party room, to sing “Happy Birthday” and celebrate a remarkable woman whose nickname is Tess.
“Aren’t my children great?” said Schmierer when I mentioned I’d been talking to her sons Jerry and Mike Schmierer, ages 72 and 70, and daughter Ann Schmierer, 59.
“I really take lessons from my mom,” Ann Schmierer said. “Of course she was sad when my brother died, and when my dad passed. But she is so resilient. She has that inner joy.”
She was born Teresa Walsh, the youngest of nine, on June 26, 1919, in Riverside, Iowa. She studied nursing at Mercy Hospital in Davenport, Iowa, and took state board exams the October before Japan’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
After joining the Navy with a friend, she served aboard the USS Repose, a hospital ship. She and Clifford Schmierer were naval officers when they met in Shanghai, China, during the war. Both in uniform, they married in 1946 in Phoenix. Her husband, who taught wood shop and mechanical drawing in the Everett School District, was 93 when he died in 2014.
With microphone in hand, Schmierer shared with party guests some memories of her long life. She recalled her first Navy voyage, from Chesapeake Bay through the Panama Canal to the Pacific Ocean. “We got in the eye of a typhoon,” she said, adding that she was one of “several who didn’t get seasick.”
Christie Hoban, a U.S. Navy clinic manager, and other uniformed service members from Naval Station Everett were at Friday’s party to hear Schmierer’s recollections and honor her service.
Schmierer let friends in on the happy memory of meeting her husband. He was “a tall guy” who invited her to dinner while she was out with friends in Shanghai after a shipboard surgical shift. “The rest is history,” she quipped with a knowing smile.
She also shared her sadness — why, decades after the war, she joined the exercise class. “I lost my son Kurt in the Himalayas — he is still there in Nepal,” she said. “I heard about water aerobics. I was 76 when I started. Kurt died when I was 75.”
Longevity runs in the family. At 102, Schmierer’s sister Mary couldn’t make it to the party. When she turned 100, she told people at the Iowa assisted living facility where she lives that she’d no longer be teaching an exercise class there.
With Schmierer in the pool Monday was Kim Pontrello, who joins Schmierer in Aqua Class twice a week. Pontrello, 60, knew Kurt Schmierer at Cascade High School. Now his mother’s close friend, she drives Schmierer from the senior community where she lives to 24 Hour Fitness.
When Pontrello isn’t available, water aerobics classmate Mabrouk Freed Salla, 76, brings Schmierer to the pool.
Ann Schmierer said her mother worked as a nurse at what was then Everett General Hospital and in doctors’ offices into her 70s. Her daughter said, “One doctor would ask her, ‘So Tess, how did you do this in the Civil War?’”
Nelson, the water aerobics teacher, sees Schmierer as a cheerleader for others. “In this class, everyone has gone through different things,” said Nelson, who recently lost her husband.
At the party, Schmierer’s children reconnected with friends. Mike Schmierer chatted with Phyllis Montgomery-Lavalle about their years at Cascade High, where they graduated in 1967, and memories of South Junior High. Well-wishers took their time sitting and chatting with the 100-year-old birthday girl.
At last, it was Montgomery-Lavalle’s turn to wish Schmierer a happy birthday.
“Tess is a walking miracle,” she said.