Faith and Gratitude Fuel Clearwater Nonagenarian
By June C. Hussey
Many know Paul Eckley as the artist with the white ponytail. At 90, he may be the only male matching that description in residence at Regency Oaks, where he keeps his home and studio in Clearwater. But he’s one of many who are living each day to its fullest. What’s their secret to aging well? For starters, they find ways to stay active and engaged.
Being active and engaged is nothing new to Eckley. He’s led a rich and rewarding life fueled by hard work, faith, humor and gratitude.
“God has been awful good to me,” explains Eckley.
Secondly, aging well involves having purpose in life. Even though his life has been full, Eckley admits he has more he’d like to accomplish in his lifetime, God willing: More paintings to start--and finish--for example; more churches to help grow; and more stories to exchange over dinner with friends. Having worthwhile goals helps successful seniors like Eckley stay active and engaged at every age.
Third Rule: Find and follow your passions. Throughout Eckley’s full and fascinating life he has always managed to combine his love of art with his love of flying. He attended Pratt, the art college in Brooklyn. Then, graduating from flying school five days after Pearl Harbor, he was commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant and pilot. Less than a month later, he was a co-pilot on a B17 E on a journey that, in many ways, has never ended.
Today, he is an active member of the American Society of Aviation Artists and one of the most prolific WWII aviation artists working in the U.S. Every one of his paintings tells a story in rich, vivid detail. His work, featured in Regency Oaks’ 2009 resident art calendar, has been shown at the Museum of Naval Aviation at Pensacola as well as published in "Bomber Missions: Aviation Art of World War II." (To view some of his work on line, visit www.EckleyAviationArt.com.)
Even though he doesn’t fly bombers anymore, Eckley’s worldly adventures continue to provide him subject matter for his art. His early days in the military included more than a few narrow escapes from death, some of which, though serious, seem almost comical to him today when he looks back. Take, for example, the time he was sleeping on a cot under a mosquito net, buck naked, when Japanese bombs started flying. He remembers running into the jungle, away from the burning planes, with nothing on but his canteen, his tin helmet and his gun belt.
That scene is one of several from 1942 which he depicted in a self portrait completed about a decade ago. Other scenes include his plane being towed out of a rut by an elephant in India, and himself posing with Helen, his beautiful art school sweetheart, whom he married later that same year.
Paul and Helen raised three children during their marriage of 64 years. Paul continued his work in the military for 24 of those years, moving his family from place to place. When he retired from the Communications Satellite Corporation in 1975, the two traveled the U.S. in a 32-foot travel trailer, eventually settling in Clearwater where they built a home. Together with a Pastor named John Lloyd, they started a church in their living room. Today, Eckley proudly points out, the Countryside Christian Center is one of the largest interdenominational congregations in Clearwater.
Eckley says, after Helen “went home to be with the Lord,” he lived alone for a year before moving to Regency Oaks, where his life has been further enriched with new friends. He continues his work helping pastors start new congregations, and of course, painting.
One key to aging well that Eckley learned only recently is total acceptance of the aging process.
“I used to not be able to see beyond a walker or a wheelchair. I just never took the time to get to know older people. All my life, our close friends were always a generation younger,” he explained.
He has since discovered what he had been missing.
“Living at Regency Oaks has completely changed my whole attitude about aging,” he said. “I’ve met so many beautiful and wonderful friends who’ve led such interesting lives. I don’t merely eat anymore; I dine with people and listen to stories about their lives. If they happen to use a walker, I don’t even notice.”
Paul Eckley has certainly discovered a winning formula for aging well: Appreciate your past, embrace your present, and look forward to your future, whatever it may hold. Life is a gift.
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