James and Betty Mason - Three-quarters of a century later
When you’ve been married just shy of three-quarters of a century, you tend to know each other pretty well and come pretty darn close to reading each other’s minds.
So it was that James and Betty Mason knew when it was time to move away from their Dallas residence and to the Conservatory at Keller Town Center.
“Our son and daughter live in Keller and we lived in Dallas which is 55 miles away,” James Mason says. “They said they wanted us over here so they could watch over us.”
It’s never easy for an adult to be told by his or her own child that it’s time to be taken care of, but that’s what happens every day at retirement homes across the country.
Childhood sweethearts who met and were married on the east side of Dallas when James was 19 and Betty was 18, the Masons are lifetime Texans. Just how long is the stretch of time since they said their “I do’s?” It was July of 1942 when they tied the knot. Franklin Delanor Roosevelt was in the White House, Anne Frank and her family first went into hiding above her father’s office at a Amsterdam warehouse; and the Ford family welcomed a baby boy named Harrison who would grow up to play Jack Ryan, Indiana Jones, and Han Solo.
Their marriage has lasted through 14 Presidents, 19 Summer Olympics, and all 17,950 and counting episodes of “Meet the Press” - the longest-running TV show in United States history.
James went to work for Southwestern Bell and spent 40 years doing various administrative and engineering jobs. The company is one of the only things that actually predates the Masons, dating back to the early 1880s.
Back when he was helping expand Southwestern Bell’s network across the nation, 55 miles’ distance seemed trivial, but when you’re 94 and your health isn’t what it used to be, that distance can be monumental, even more so when driving it either way means going through Dallas-Fort Worth’s never-ending rush-hour traffic.
While Keller is still part of the Metroplex, it’s tucked away north of Fort Worth and west of Dallas, avoiding the traffic nightmares of both. Like the rest of the Discovery Senior LIving facilities dotting the US, Keller offered the Masons its 90-day guarantee that if they weren’t completely satisfied, they would get their community fee refunded and not be held to the terms of their lease.
That was a perfect incentive to retirement community neophytes like the Masons, who were slow to warm up to the change.
“We’ve been here right about a year,” James says. “We’re beginning to like the place pretty well. We had to get rid of a lot things that were important to us that we didn’t have room for in the apartment, so that was tough. But we’ve met a lot of people and we’re starting to do some of the activities here, especially the exercises.”
Now one year on the other side of their transition to the Conservatory, James has some sound advice for anyone in their previous position of not knowing whether to stay in their home or make the move to a retirement community. It doesn’t take computer software or statistics, just good old common sense.
“You get a spiral notebook and drew a line right down the middle of it,” James explains. “You define the left as ‘for’ and the right as ‘against’ and you head round your house listing the pros and cons of a move. Weigh them out and then decide which one you think will benefit you the most down the road. Do what’s best for you and yours.”
Jerrel Isbell - Spoiling the Child
He might be nearly 85 years old, but Jerrell Isbell has a very specific, very important job that he’s been working on.
“I am in the process of completely spoiling my great-grandson,” he says with as close to a straight face as he can manage. “He’ll be 3 in May and I think I’ll have him completely spoiled by then; nobody can stand him but me.”
This job has a considerably better upside and a lot less stress than what Isbell did before retirement. He spent 40 years working for the Department of Public Safety as a state trooper.
Isbell was born in Hockley County, out in the Texas panhandle one square away from New Mexico. Hockley County is an area of 909 square miles with a population of 22,000 people. A bit different from his current home in Keller, where twice is many people occupy just 18 square miles.
In the 1930s, Isbell’s father was a cowboy, but his profession went extinct when President Roosevelt passed the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, forcing farmers to sell excess livestock, namely cows and pigs, to the government. All of the “excess” were then killed and buried, forcing Isbell’s family to move twice as his father looked for work.
Isbell graduated high school in Wolfforth, near Lubbock, and was drafted into the Army and sent to the Korean War. When he returned, he headed for Austin to join the DPS as a highway patrolman, and was assigned to El Paso.
It might have seemed like the middle of nowhere to some - located all the way out on Interstate 10, a 9-hour drive from Dallas and 10-½ hours from Houston - but it quickly became home for Isbell and his wife, who lived there for 40 years.
Being in law enforcement had its ups and downs, and plenty of crazy stories that are unfit for print in this publication. But Isbell said he kept one lesson in his pocket the whole time, and it’s one he wishes law officers today would be more aware of.
“I learned early in life that when you’re dealing with people in the public, you’ll meet a lot of nice people and meet a lot of people who are just taking up space,” Isbell said. “We want to remember the nice ones and forget the others, otherwise you’ll adopt the attitude that it’s the world against us. That’s why we have a lot of policemen today who shouldn’t be policemen. They think it’s them against everyone else.”
In 1997, Isbell retired, and he and his wife moved to a retirement community in San Angelo. They had just celebrated 17 years there when Isbell’s wife passed on, an event he recalls with some heartbreaking humor.
“I haven’t forgiven my wife for dying on me,” Isbell says. “Every plan we made about our later years had me dying first; then she went and died first and left me with all those plans changed.”
Despite vehement protests from his daughter and granddaughter, Isbell lived alone at the community in San Angelo for another year, but when he had surgery on his carotid artery, the hospital staff wouldn’t let him go home without someone to care for him.
“I had to call my daughter from the hospital, and she said, ‘That’s it! You’re moving to the DFW metroplex!” Isbell recalls. “She said you can come down here and decide on a place or I’ll decide for you, so I thought I’d better come down and decide on a place!”
In the eight months since, Isbell has really enjoyed his new digs, with one small problem which he blames squarely on the management.
“I’m basically very happy here, but my one problem with the management is that everytime I go down to eat something, they have all of my favorite foods here and I end up making a pig of myself and having to fight against my belt buckle,” he joked.
Isbell refers to himself as someone who has tried every hobby under the sun, from stained glass to woodworking. He hasn’t let his current situation keep him from expanding his horizons.
“Now I’m into needlework,” He says. “We have a group that meets every Thursday and makes stuff that they give to nursing homes.”
He also has great access to his family.
“It was a culture shock moving to Dallas, to put it mildly, but the kids have helped a lot,” he says. “I love living here, I get to see my grandchildren 2-3 times a week, plus my great grandchild. Things are going really good."
Gerry Bortko - A Women of Adventure
Gerry Bortko knows a bit about being a stranger in a strange land. She lived in a Chicago orphanage for nine years as a child. That’s one of the reasons she opted to volunteer as an ambassador when she moved to the Conservatory at Keller Town Center some 11 years ago.
“I love meeting new people and I love telling them how good life can be here,” the 88-year-old Bortko says. “I like eating with people, I like to hear them talk and see where they are from. My proof is that I’m still living here, and I plan to be here for a long time.”
Being self-sufficient and helping others learn those skills in a new environment is one of Bortko’s calling cards. She dropped out of high school after three years to help her parents pay the mortgage on their home. Born in 1929, she grew up in one of the most economically depressed era the country has ever seen.
By age 18, she had two jobs, working in a chicken store during the day and as a dice girl at night. Preparing chickens all day long was about as glamorous as it sounds, so Bortko decided to improve her station at the operation.
“I had a friend who knew an auditor, and he taught me bookkeeping,” she says. “I became the bookkeeper for the chicken store during the day, and I became a bookkeeper all my life.”
With her personality and knack for numbers, Bortko was able to move up the food chain in Chicago, working at a hamburger and sweet shoppe as a bartender, then as the bookkeeper for a bowling alley, then for a company that made jukeboxes.
She met her husband, a career Air Force man, during that time frame at O’Hare Airfield in the years before it became an international airport. They got married and their son was born in Illinois; their daughter after a transfer to Michigan.
His next transfer was to Turkey, but with two young children, Bortko opted to stay home. A few years later, her husband retired and went to work for Kitchenaid dishwashers while Bortko stayed at home.
As they moved further into retirement, Bortko’s husband began getting ill. Her daughter lived in Keller and had noted construction of a retirement community taking place.
“I wasn’t happy moving there,” Bortko admits. “My husband at that time was already not doing too well. He was using a walker and we needed help. But my husband always made the right choices for us, and that turned out to be true once again.”
Bortko’s husband passed away just 1-½ years after they moved into the brand-new Conservatory at Keller Town Center. The couple were among the facility’s initial residents, and Bortko has been remained one of its most active.
“I love to line dance, I play all kinds of card, and I teach pinochle,” she says. “I’ve been here 10 years without my husband and I realized I didn’t like being alone. I love being around people.”