Two cancer operations. A stroke. Arthritis. Gall bladder surgery. And most recently, legal blindness. Another litany of illnesses and obstacles in the inevitable story of getting old?
Not if your name is Lois Helbig, an 84-year-old Cheektowaga line dancer and dance instructor who has successfully battled this dizzying array of sickness over the last 20 years in an unrelenting effort to keep on keeping on. Who is the Niagara Frontier's most inspiring senior? Someone would have to endure more than most could imagine to beat out Lois Helbig.
"I just tell myself, 'Look, I've got a wonderful husband who loves me,'" she said recently in the living room of her tidy South Cheektowaga home. "'I'm still healthy enough to be able to move. Why should I be blue?'
"And, then I get up and keep moving. That's the way to overcome illness, not by sitting around but by getting up and doing things."
Standing 4 feet 10 inches tall, Lois has achieved her lifelong dream: a dancer who makes a real difference in other's lives through her high-stepping lifestyle. She teaches dance at several local senior centers and at the Cantalician Center on Hertel Avenue, where she works with physically and mentally challenged seniors. She even performs as the lead dancer for the Schiller Park Lads and Lassies and the South Park Swingers, two senior-citizen dancing groups who entertain at local nursing homes.
How does she do it? The answer, she says, is not found not in her legs or arms, but strictly in the heart.
"I simply tell myself that I can do it no matter what," she says. "It's all in the mind, you see. This is what I tell my students. It's your attitude that counts more than anything."
Proving her point, she spends much of her time as a traveling Pied Piper of senior fitness. She moves from senior centers to nursing facilities to private homes, spreading her gospel of physical movement and better health.
"Everywhere she goes, they love it," says Fred Helbig, her husband of 31 years and with her every step of the way. "Whether it is the Holy Name Nursing Home or the Cantalician Center or the South Park Senior Center or the North Buffalo Senior Center. She gets out there and does some steps herself and inspires them to think that they can do more, even if it is just moving their arms or hands to the music.
"While other people may be telling these seniors what they can't do, Lois tells them that they can. It's just a wonderful thing to see, all those smiling faces where once there was only sadness."
In 1997, Erie County named Mrs. Helbig Senior Citizen of the Year, praising her "can-do attitude" and her "special way of encouraging her students, making seniors feel really good about themselves."
Seniors like 70-year-old Freida Oley, for example. Six months ago, following a stroke, she was barely able to move. Today she is once again an important figure in Schiller Park's Tuesday and Thursday dance group. Thanks to Mrs. Helbig's dedicated help.
"I can't say enough about what Lois did for me," says Mrs. Oley. "She would come over to the house every day and get me up and moving. We started with small steps because I was a little weak at first and then worked our way up to bigger ones. She gave me confidence that I can do things again, and that's why I'm here today. She never doubted that I could do it and neither did I."
Born and raised on the upper East Side of Buffalo, Mrs. Helbig yearned to be a dancer from the start. Others discouraged her, telling her such a pursuit was inappropriate for a proper young lady like herself. So she married in 1937 instead and stayed home to raise her three children. But she never gave up her dream.
"I had two cancer operations in my early 60s and had half of my stomach taken out because of stomach cancer," she says. "So I decided it was time I did something to become more fit. I didn't want to just sit around and think about my aches and pains. I saw an advertisement for a dance class at Schiller Park and decided at the age of 68 to follow my lifelong dream of becoming a dancer."
She soon found herself in the class of well-known dance teacher Sue Webb, who recognized Mrs. Helbig's potential from the start, recruiting her to teach classes. Then Mrs. Helbig started choreographing dances for her students to tunes such as Buddy Holly's "That'll Be The Day" and Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel." After that, there was no stopping her.
"I loved dancing and being able to teach dancing," she says. "But more than that I found that, it made me feel so much better to be out there moving around to the music, I wanted to share that joy with others. That's how it all started."
She started teaching line, Hawaiian, and tap dancing at other centers. Then she started performing at nursing homes. It was here she began her trademark of mixing entertainment with inspirational doses of the Gospel According to Lois.
Mrs. Helbig starts her hour-long shows with lively dancing to tunes such as "Mack the Knife" or "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter." Then while her half-dozen cohorts take a short rest, she comes on, moving with the ease of a teen-ager. She tells a few jokes (some of them quite bawdy) and then gets down to business.
"I tell them, 'Look, I know you think you can't do anything because of the illnesses you've had, but look at me,'" she says. "'I've had two cancer operations, gall bladder surgery, arthritis, but I'm doing it and so can you. You've got to get up and fight those aches and pains. You can't give in to them. You've got to stay active in order to become healthy.'"
She doesn't just preach. She circulates around the room talking to each person in her audience. If someone can't do complete dances, she urges that person to do parts of them. If they can't stand up, they can move their arms and hands. Result: a joyous affirmation of the will to live among those who may have given up.
Suddenly, hands and feet that have been still for too long move to the beat. Smiles appear on faces that have too often and for too long been gloomy.
"Sometimes the nurses will tell me, 'Hey, you got so-and-so dancing and we haven't been able to get a reaction out of him for a long time,'" says Mrs. Helbig. "I tell them that's the power of music and positive thinking."
Others attribute the awakenings to her shining example.
"Lois does a great job with our seniors," says Tom Ciezka, director of senior services at the Cantalician Center. "Yet Lois has no problem working with each one individually and getting them to participate as much as they can. When she's done they have smiles on their faces because they know they've accomplished something and also had fun."
"A lot of people have been told that they can't do it, that it's all too much for them," says Nick Pizzuto, director of the Schiller Park Center. "They believe it until they meet Lois. They see her out there, 84 years old and still dancing to these tunes, and they think to themselves, 'Wow, maybe I'm not too old after all!' She makes everybody feel young again."
Lois is one person who definitely practices what she preaches. Even her recent gall bladder operation didn't stop her from teaching.
"I was sitting there in bed in the hospital two days after my operation and I got talking to this lady," she says. "She was asking me about my operation and what the line dancing is. ... So I got up and showed her and it felt great. So what if it was two days after my operation, I had to get up and get moving."
Glenn Gramigna writes frequently for FIRST SUNDAY's seniors pages. His last story was on two veterans' efforts to restore war monuments in Houghton Park.