Oak Brook woman travels world, finds ways to make a difference
June Scott already has seen all 17 varieties of penguins in the world in their natural habitats.
In November, she heads to Manitoba for her first look at polar bears in the wild. But first, she'll leave Sept. 24 for a three-week trip to Central Asia to visit the countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
When she's in town, Scott, 83, of Oak Brook works out five days a week at Midtown Athletic Club in Willowbrook to be fit for her trips, because this retired teacher and elementary school counselor doesn't have any plans to slow down soon.
"Every day I try to learn something," she says. "I feel fortunate in my life to have reached this eighth decade with such good health and blessings."
Scott is part of Northwestern University's SuperAging Project that recruits participants 80 and older who have avoided the memory loss and slowdown in mental processing that so often accompanies aging. MRI scans have shown their brains to be more similar to those of people decades younger than to those of their peers. Scott, who said she heard about the project from a friend, was accepted into the study after passing a battery of tests for memory, thinking, attention and visual processing.
Of the hundreds who have applied for the study, only 10 percent qualify, said Kristen Rose Whitney, research coordinator for the SuperAging Project, led by Dr. Emily Rogalski. Sixty SuperAgers are now part of the study that started about six years ago, Whitney said.
"The majority of participants are very, very active. Difficult to schedule them to come in," she said. "June is especially amazing."
So far the study has found no common lifestyle factors among the participants, but they do lack a protein buildup in the brain that affects its functioning and have a lower incidence of the gene that increases the likelihood of Alzheimer's, Whitney said.
Brain scans also have shown that compared to other older people, SuperAgers have an unusually thick cortex -- the outer layer of the brain important for memory, attention and thinking -- and another section of the brain that is actually thicker than the norm for people ages 50 to 65. Like Scott, most have agreed to donate their brains to science.
Scott reflects that it's probably "the luck of the draw" that she has aged so well, but maintaining a positive attitude has helped, she says.
"I've always been an optimistic person," she says.
Born and raised in the near Western suburbs of Chicago, Scott says she had parents who taught her to believe in herself and to have a good work ethic. She met her late husband in college, married and raised three children before starting a career as a teacher.
Scott did her student teaching after she turned 40 and didn't retire until she was 80. She spent most of her career in Cass Elementary District 63 in Darien teaching the lower grades (her favorite was third) and later serving as school counselor after earning a master's degree.
She still substitute teaches at Concord School in Darien and Brook Forest School in Oak Brook.
"It's not the money. It's being with young people," she says. "To me, it's fun. It's exciting, and every time I leave, I'm glad I'm doing this."
It was while she was teaching that Scott became the "penguin lady." Her mother-in-law had visited Antarctica and brought back pictures of penguins. Her sister-in-law sent her clothing with penguins on it and Scott needed a theme for her classroom for the upcoming school year. She remained the penguin lady for 35 years.
Scott had an opportunity to see the penguins in Antarctica herself after her husband's death. On her second trip there aboard a Russian ice breaker, she went to the Ross Sea. She was sitting on an ice pack off the ship when an emperor penguin came up, pecked her boots and camera, and looked her in the eye.
"The penguin lady could die and go to heaven, and that's my favorite trip," she says.
But Scott has had plenty of other travels. She had visited all seven continents by the time she was 70. While her husband was living, they visited national parks in the western United States and traveled abroad to countries that included Russia, China and Egypt.
Since her husband's death 15 years ago, Scott has marked milestone birthdays with trips that have included her three children and their families -- a barge trip in France at age 70, Costa Rica at 75, and Turkey at 80.
"It's become a tradition that I enjoy," she says.
When one of her granddaughters graduated from college last year and wanted to take an exotic trip with her grandmother, they went on an African safari. Then Scott took her two grandsons white-water rafting on the Colorado River. She spent a week in Times Square, New York, with her second granddaughter, a theater minor in college, attending shows and visiting art museums.
Scott says the best part of these trips was sitting on the bed at night, talking with grandchildren and getting to know them better.
"It's different one-on-one than it is sitting around the Christmas table," she says.
Scott, who belongs to an organization called Women Welcome Women World Wide and goes on group tours, takes her camera along so she can share her travels with others. She offers programs on Antarctica, Africa, India, Costa Rica and Japan to schools, libraries and civic groups. Her program on Iraq is popular, she says.
"Not many people go there. Not many people would feel comfortable going there," she says.
Scott says her travels have broadened her understanding of people around the world.
"We're basically alike. We want the same things -- to provide for our families, to be loved, to be needed and to be safe," she says. "You have to spend three or four weeks there (in another region or country) to get a real idea."
At home, Scott's routine includes working out at a health club, walking in the forest preserve and playing tennis. She gave up jogging at age 76 to save her knees for 80.
"I think I'm probably in better shape now than I have been in the past just because I have the time," she says.
"I see many of my friends having aches and pains in getting up and not being able to move for the first five to 10 minutes. I can jump out of bed. I don't have aches and pains, so something is working."
Social contact is important too, Scott says. She volunteers at Buddy's Place, an organization that facilitates support groups for families who have lost loved ones that is based out of Pillars in Western Springs.
Scott also maintains contact with former students, meets younger people in her travels, and is writing family stories that she hopes may be of interest to her children and grandchildren.
"Keeping in touch with young people, I think that keeps me young, too," she says.
Scott recalls that shortly after she was widowed 15 years ago, a friend invited her over to play bridge. The other women in the group were lovely, but they all seemed to talk about illnesses, she says. Scott went home and resolved not to become that kind of widow.
"I don't think my husband would want me to be," she says. "I want to keep learning and growing, contributing and making a difference."