Seattleites Who Have Gotten Cooler with Age

Why do people in Seattle wear their age so well?
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

Maybe it's our fantastic arts and culture scene, or all the top-flight health care, or simply the coffee, but the Emerald City is a great place to rock your 70s, 80s and 90s.

1. Patti Warashina
Artist Patti Warashina is having too good a time to focus on aging

The garden in front of the Eastlake home of Patti Warashina, 75, is packed with plants. Her strategy is simple. “The plants in my garden are pretty dense,” she says. “If there is any space, I fill it with another plant or ground cover.”

You can be forgiven for thinking horticulture is Warashina’s primary creative outlet, but that assumption is not even close. Working with clay and porcelain in her home studio, the sculptor creates sought-after figurative and narrative pieces that are contemplative, funny and otherworldly. The pieces range from tabletop miniatures of automobiles and animals to larger-than-life ceramic women with rounded bodies and limbs.

Her work has been exhibited all over the world, including two retrospective shows in the last few years, at the American Museum of Ceramic Art in California and at the Bellevue Arts Museum (BAM). Having 140 works on display that encompass 50 years is a surprising view of your life, says the artist. Her next show will be at Abmeyer + Wood fine art gallery, in downtown Seattle, next spring.

Born in Spokane in 1940, Warashina earned her MFA at the University of Washington and taught ceramic arts there for 25 years. “I was fortunate that I found something I love doing and that keeps me grounded,” she says.

When she’s not working in her garden or studio, Warashina is out on the town with friends. She travels extensively to see more art and to encounter different cultures. And she can frequently be found at any of the area’s great museums—Seattle Art Museum, BAM, Tacoma Art Museum, Tacoma’s Museum of Glass, the Frye, the Henry—or attending gallery openings and art walks all over the city. “I enjoy seeing what other artists and friends are doing.”

Does her work ever address the idea of aging? It seems 75 is still too young for that: “I think of my art as a ‘visual diary’ of what was going on in and outside my life. I can look back at a piece or series and know about the time frame that I made the work, so perhaps I will come to a juncture in my work in which aging will be the subject matter. So far, I haven’t touched on it.”

Making art, she says, “is an endless progression of learning, refining, and seeing if you can capture and complete what is in your imagination.” Perhaps the same could be said of living life to its fullest. Warashina adds: “When I was young, I used to think that my grandmother was ancient, but as I am now taking her place, I am surprised to find that life has gone too rapidly when you’re having fun. Maybe ‘old’ is when you’re not having a good time.”

2. Overton Berry
Pianist Overton Berry keeps time with elegance and grace

Jazz pianist Overton Berry at his home piano where he still creates original arrangements. Photographed August 25, 2015
It’s a Saturday night in August. The sun is out, but every chair, couch and stool in the wood-paneled Fireside Room at the Sorrento Hotel is taken. The air hums with chatter as Paco Berry helps his father out of an overstuffed seat, takes his arm and guides him toward a grand piano. There is no preamble. No call for the crowd to hush. No keyboard run-up. Seventy-nine-year-old jazz legend Overton Berry just sits down and starts into a mellow groove. Sure, smooth, elegant notes fill the space—the crowd goes silent, fully at attention.

Berry had been under the weather for the previous few days, but concerns this might affect his performance fade with each shift in the arrangement. When Berry starts singing “You say it’s only a paper moon” in a voice that goes down like hot buttered rum, it’s clear this guy could probably rule the night with flu and a fever.

Seattle jazz fans know Overton Berry—a fixture on the local scene who began playing in the black musicians union hall and sometime nightclub known as Local 493 in the early ’50s. (The black and white unions weren’t integrated until 1958.) He went on to play, lead and record in various duos, trios, quartets and ensembles, and was inducted into the Seattle Jazz Hall of Fame in 2012.

Unlike some of his talented peers, Berry stayed based in Seattle. “Seattle is a great place for musicians to get their thing together,” he says. “It will tolerate exploration.” While things have changed—the profusion of jazz clubs that kept the scene humming every night of the week when he was young are mostly gone—he’s still plugged in. He misses The New Orleans Creole Restaurant in Pioneer Square (now home to Damn the Weather), but occasionally gets out to see friends perform at Jazz Alley and Tula’s. And vice versa. On this August night, 90-something jazz singer Ruby Bishop (who regularly holds court at the piano at Vito’s across the street) is in attendance.

During a brief intermission, Berry works the room, still the center of attention, stopping to chat with fans, gallantly kissing hands and cheeks, and exuding a genial openness that is disarming. “One of the nicest things about my dad is his ability to make everyone feel welcome,” says Sean Berry, another of his four sons. “He gives you his attention and he listens without judgment.”

Listening has been the key to Berry’s life and career. “The first thing I do in the morning is put on some music. I drink it in.” He listens to all kinds—sometimes intently and other times he just lets it filter in. He’s looking and finding inspiration for new arrangements, which he works out on his home piano. (Check out his version of “Hey Jude” on YouTube for a classic sample.)

It’s the same and not the same.

“I get out of bed very slowly these days,” he says. “But I still have a sense that there is still adventure out there.”

3. Shiro Kashiba
Chef Shiro Kashiba revels in the “age value” of long experience

Shiro Kashiba photographed in his Mercer Island home kitchen, on August 25, 2015
When Shiro Kashiba opens   his new restaurant, Sushi Kashiba, at Pike Place Market this fall, the 74-year-old master chef will craft traditional Japanese sushi, but he will also serve guests at the counter—his favorite part of the job these days. He’s warm and full of gentle poise, making people feel both at ease and eager for a supreme treat.

“Serving the sushi at the counter is almost nothing—if you stand there, everyone will think you’re a good chef,” says Kashiba, who brought Seattle its first full-service sushi bar in 1970. “I have the confidence to serve sushi because I have the foundation. Otherwise, it’s no fun.”

Foundation is an understatement. The Kyoto-born Kashiba apprenticed at the Yoshino Sushi restaurant in Tokyo for six years with the legendary Jiro Ono (of the Jiro Dreams of Sushi documentary fame), before moving to Seattle in 1966 without a word of English in his vocabulary. He was 25. Since then, he’s owned three restaurants around town, including the long-running Nikko, on the corner of King and Rainier and the still popular Shiro’s in Belltown. He’s had offers to open up restaurants across the U.S., but for him, no other city compares.

“Seattle is the best place!” he says. Along with its four seasons and beautiful, local seafood, it’s a growing city, and “people’s manners are good.” Even when they have to wait in the long line in front of his restaurant.

The son of an elementary school principal, the chef has always had the same goal: to teach guests about traditional Japanese sushi, which he says you find at fewer than 5 percent of the 200 sushi restaurants in the greater Seattle area. “I’m very lucky people have wanted to learn,” he says.

As he’s gotten older, it’s also become important to Kashiba to teach younger chefs the craft, which, he says, is his main motivation for opening Sushi Kashiba now.

When he’s not working—or studying sushi and other cuisines, or traveling to Japan—Kashiba plays badminton and golf, and he and his wife visit his son in Los Angeles. He also enjoys music. “I like to sing songs in my car by myself, so no one is bothered,” he says. And, about twice a year, you might spy him on Broadway doing karaoke.

Is there an age at which he thinks he’ll retire? Kashiba smiles. “I’d rather not think about it. It’s the worst if I have to do nothing! More tiring than working.”

Plus, “Jiro is 89, [and] still there doing it!” His mentor has an “age value” that comes from his very strong foundation and very long experience, Kashiba says—not just with sushi, but with customers. “Young people can’t be like Jiro-san. It takes time.”

4. Georgie Kunkel
West Seattle’s Georgie Kunkel finds the funny in her 90s

Georgie Kunkel works the crowd. Photographed at the Columbia City Theater on August 13, 2015
It’s not every day you get to see a comedy lineup featuring a host, a drag queen, a magician and a nonagenarian. That was the scene at Columbia City Theater in August, when Georgie Kunkel, who turned 95 later that month, stepped into the spotlight. “I go on the stage to feel better,” says Kunkel, who has been doing comedy gigs around the city ever since she was young—that is, since she was 80.

Her go-to for audience laughs? A self-published book called My Sex Secrets, by Grandma, which includes hand-drawn how-to guides and other witticisms, playing off her audience’s squeamishness about senior sex.

Kunkel, whose maiden name is Bright and who jokes she was “bright” until she got married, was born in Chehalis, the youngest of 11 children. “I always had a sense of humor,” says the West Seattle comedienne. “If I have any kind of secret to living, well, it’s that you can’t take anything too seriously.”

Kunkel, who doesn’t practice her jokes beforehand and often plays off of those who go on stage before her, is hesitant to say what makes a good joke, but quick to insist that a bad joke will make fun of people’s religions or the way they look: “Meanness is never funny.”

When she’s not making audiences laugh, Kunkel writes a regular column for The Westside Weekly, sings in the choir at Westside Unitarian Universalist Congregation, dances at the SeaTac Senior Program luncheons—preferably alone—plays bridge and swims regularly at the West Seattle YMCA. “I used to bicycle, but my kids took it away,” she laments. She loves watching stand-up comics and has sent in an audition tape for America’s Got Talent—she’s already been on The Oprah Show and Antiques Roadshow, and is hungry for more. “I’m trying to stay active and engaged in the world. I don’t want to be put on a shelf.”
She also dates. Her “present guy” lives just 2 miles from her, though she says she’d never want to live together. Each has their own family, and it would be too much work to try to mingle them. She adds that dating when you’re older has its benefits: Namely, you don’t need birth control.

A natural extrovert, Kunkel goes all over the city to give public talks and reads her poetry at an open-mic event once a month at C&P Coffee Company in West Seattle. (She’s been writing ever since her kids were little.) “It’s important to use your talents and intellect all the time,” she says.

Back at Columbia City Theater, Kunkel gives her younger fellow entertainers a run for their money. “Old is a state of mind, and I hope I never get there.” 

5. Stu Fitelson
North Seattleite Stu Fitelson takes life at a gallop

Stu Fitelson goes for a three-pointer in the Washington Athletic Club gym. Photographed on August 10, 2015
On a Monday night, Capitol Cider, a popular Pike Street bar and music venue, is packed full of people. It’s a young crowd. The 20- and 30-somethings have come to listen or dance to the Latin music, sample the selection of hard ciders or simply hang out. Stu Fitelson is there, too.

Fitelson is drawn to the vibrant atmosphere, inhaling it like oxygen. He hopes to sit in with the band, offering an easy drumbeat. He might ask someone for a dance, demonstrating graceful steps. He’ll be 83 in November.

Even as the years pile up, Fitelson never thinks about dying—he’s far more interested in living. No one does it with more energy or purpose. No one thumbs his or her nose at the aging process quite like he does.

“There’s no end with me,” the North Seattle man said.

It’s a little ironic that Fitelson works as a life insurance salesman. He still puts in six hours a day trying to sell term policies out of a cluttered Third Avenue office. He spends the rest of his time showing people why they don’t need one. Music and insurance are just a small part of this man’s regular routine. A former college basketball player and touring tennis pro, the man who calls himself “Seattle Stu” still plays five different sports without interruption.

He spent the summer competing for a 35-and-older baseball team and 60-and-older soccer team. He won a pair of gold medals in an all-comers track meet. He resumed play in the fall in a 50-and-older basketball league at the Washington Athletic Club.

“Stu is pretty amazing, to be frank,” says Jim Kristof, 62, a lawyer, basketball teammate and former University of Washington football player. “Will I still be playing at 82? I don’t think so, but I hope so. I’ve got to make it to 82 first.”

Fitelson gets up late and works late. On the way home from his office, he often stops for a workout at Green Lake’s outdoor parks and recreation facilities, located in the middle of the urban hustle and bustle. He runs 100-yard sprints. He trades tennis strokes with whoever is willing.

After workouts, he frequently holds court downtown, dining at Wild Ginger or Roberto’s; he picks his spots to indulge himself. He might order the occasional steak and a Scotch, but not every day. It works for him.

Fitelson prefers to stay relevant in a world that rewards youth rather than old age. And if for some reason he can’t get into Capitol Cider, he might end up at the Highway 99 Blues Club, another pulsating, well-attended nightspot. 

6. Shirley Morrison
Nonagenarian Shirley Morrison wields knitting needles for justice 

Activist Shirley Morrison shows her mettle, on her street in the Ravenna-Bryant neighborhood. Photographed on August  7, 2015
She caused a stir in June as the oldest person arrested while protesting the presence of Shell’s oil drilling rig in Seattle’s harbor—knitting and singing self-penned anticapitalist ditties in a rocking chair on the port tracks—but #ShellNo wasn’t this granny’s first rodeo.

Shirley Morrison has been arrested during a protest against nuclear facilities, been tear-gassed for protesting the WTO (when she was almost 80) and refused to pay a portion of her taxes to the IRS for years, arguing that until the U.S. government developed a “Department of Peace” she wasn’t going to fund its military industrial complex.

Born in Tacoma, Morrison moved to Seattle when she was 2 and currently lives in the Ravenna-Bryant neighborhood, where she grew up. She has volunteered with many organizations over the years, starting with her church, but also with others that include UNICEF and Seattle Peace Chorus. That was in the 1980s, until the Seattle Peace Chorus started holding singing auditions. “I knew I didn’t have the voice and wasn’t going to be grandmothered in.” Now, she spends most of her time working with the international activist group Raging Grannies; she helped found the Seattle chapter.

“Seattle is a great place to be an activist,” says the now 93-year-old, who starred with her longtime friend and fellow rager, Hinda Kipnis, in a 2013 film about the global economic crisis, Two Raging Grannies. The film made its international premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival last year, and opened in Tokyo and 12 other cities this fall. At press time, Morrison was being filmed—along with two of her great-grandchildren—for another documentary being shot in Seattle, this one about climate change.

These days, when not chaining herself to public structures, she stays close to home—she has macular degeneration and is legally blind—walking around her block for exercise and trying not to burn too many pots in the kitchen. She says the most important thing when getting older is to stave off complacency and to keep an open mind.

And, yes, she naps. All that raging tires a granny out.

What does she still want to accomplish? Only “to change the world.” Morrison points out that while all Raging Grannies are for peace, justice and equal pay for equal work, they each have issues that speak to them personally. Hers are finding alternatives to nuclear energy and—especially in Seattle—the battle for affordable housing, the latter of which is close to her heart because she has a son and a granddaughter who are both homeless.

Whatever the issue, she says it’s important to speak up—at any age. “You have to protest to be heard. No one is going to let you speak,” she says.

Does she plan to protest again if the oil rig is allowed to return? “If something’s going on, I’ll be there.”

7. Latte Posse
There is no better city for a coffee klatch

Several but not all of the Cafe Bambino klatch regulars, from left: Jim Wedin, Pete Francis, Mike Goodreau, Gary Hardy, Dick Kraske, Jim Munkers and Rick Mead. Photographed on August 14, 2015
On Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings, a group of men gathers for coffee and conversation on the deck at Cafe Bambino on the eastern edge of Ballard. They are graying and mostly retired from all walks, including law enforcement, insurance, government, finance, electrical engineering. The oldest is 93; he was an air traffic controller.

Members of a barebones gym down the street (think of the training gym in the original Rocky), they started meeting for coffee after morning workouts a few years back. They talk about current events and books, but mostly joke around. A thick skin is suggested. They say no topic is off limits, even though their political inclinations cover the spectrum. Sometimes conversations about home repair challenges inspire reconnaissance missions to a member’s home. And on occasional Friday evenings, the crew convenes for stronger stuff at the 418 Public House across the street.

One of the joys of being retired, semiretired or just experiencing the shift in priorities that comes with late middle age and beyond is meeting friends for coffee on a regular basis. This isn’t the furtive 7:30 a.m. get-together that takes 10 emails to set up. The klatch is a standing coffee date—time and location set, attendance fluid. The result: a community bound by caffeine and consistency, which is a balm at any age.