Shortly after creating this blog, I reached out to Mae Dean Erb to see if she’d be willing to share her story. From the beginning of this endeavor, she has been on my mind of the people I hoped to share with you.

I don’t know her well, but I am connected to her family and I have watched her from afar, with great admiration and respect. In my view, she is revolutionizing what it means to be an elder – or, at the very least, she and her other inspiring friends who are staples of the Cherokee Nation WINGS program, are adding a new dimension to the various attributes the word “elder” can encompass.

I watched on social media during the pandemic as she kept moving everyday. Every. Single. Day.

During the pandemic, so many of us were seemingly paralyzed to a full stop at times. Hostages to our couches, our screens, our houses – even when it was safe to go outside. In the meantime, she just kept moving. Moving at least a 5K distance (3.1 miles), every day, for this past year.

She (perhaps unknowingly, perhaps quite purposefully) models for all of us how to stay active, how to set goals, how to follow through, and how to show us that age is just a number.

The “wait” for her story was absolutely worth it. I treasure her words below and trust that you will, too.

Like so many Cherokee woman that I know and love, she is humble, grounded, funny. Even when she does what others would describe as “extraordinary,” she insists that she’s “nothing special.” As she sets to turn 78 this spring, she employees the perfect motivational tool to bring others along. In short: I am you. You are me. And “we” can do anything and everything. All of us.

In her own words:

“I’m nothing special.” But each time I say this out loud, am I belittling every adult, child, animal or plant who influences who I am? I have just completed a year of 5ks or more each day.

I was raised by Cherokee parents, Steve and Lois Johnson with a third and eighth grade education respectively. They instilled a love of learning of trees, plants, food preparation, formal education and yes…..walking the hills and hollers around Blackgum Mountain in Sequoyah County with family and friends.

No electricity, no running water or phones and often an old truck that would not run, stymied how quickly we could accomplish even day to day living. When our tar-paper shack-home and land were taken by eminent domain for part of Tenkiller State Park, I can still remember hearing my mother crying.

All was not lost, my dad at last, could work a construction job building that same dam and we moved into my grandparent’s old place. One of my fondest early memories was just a short distance away, Redbird Stomp grounds, the only place where I was not afraid of the dark. It was a safe place.

Being the oldest of four children, I absorbed a humble responsibility. Blackgum School (1st-8th grades) was miles away. There was no gym but softball, baseball and basketball in some form was played everyday. By ninth grade, we had buses to Vian High School. By the age of 16, my high school education was completed. Fortunately….my parents supported education…as did my grandparents.

Mother drove me to Tahlequah and parked in front of the oldest building on the Northeastern campus. She said, “Sis, I can’t help you here, just go in there and ask what you need to do.” (The only time I’ve been that scared is when I stood at the starting line of the Route 66 Marathon in Tulsa, Oklahoma.)

At NSU, there were no scholarships available but I was given a campus student job working with Obera Cude (a treasure) in the Northeastern Library. Three jobs and student loans helped me finish in three and a half years at the age of 20.

No car, but a teaching degree in Home Economics and Elementary Education…oh yes, and student loans, but no job yet. Many applications later, the first offer came from Red Rock School in Las Vegas, Nevada. I accepted.

A train and a bus trip landed me (age 20) in Las Vegas at 2:00 am where I was met by a church couple, Mom and Dad Hampton, whom I had never met. It seemed like a long “run” to that degree and teaching job in 1963-64.

Passionate about teaching, Okinawa gave me an opportunity to teach and be introduced to a third culture and language. Captain Jim Erb, my husband now of 54 years, was stationed there two years prior to serving in Vietnam in combat. Teaching in Las Vegas, Oklahoma City and now Okinawa by the age of 23 years. Returning from there, it seemed to be my destiny to settle in Oklahoma and finish a Master degree.

Teaching longest in El Reno, Oklahoma in the Gifted and Talented Program gave me an opportunity to write units consisting of Shakespeare plays, mock trials and storytelling. Students could bring these to live audiences on the Redlands College campus and Canadian County Courthouse. It was humbling to be selected as one of 12 teachers of the year for the state of Oklahoma in the early 2000s, and a Fulbright Scholar to Japan the same year. I am privileged to have seen the quality of the amazing teachers Oklahoma produces. Any change can be frightening, but I was determined to remain in education.

Wathene Young changed my life by calling and giving me the opportunity at American Indian Resource Center, assisting students that were experiencing challenges that I had faced as a young person. Retiring to return back home and the inspiring work that could be possible with a team like Marcella Morton, Linda Baker and others was the perfect challenge even at age 59. We were promised the planning of rope courses and other program possibilities in our work.

Leaving El Reno was heart wrenching, I loved my students and my work but I was running for my life to settle at home near my aging parents. Summers, I had begun doing library programs of origami/storytelling across the state for all age groups. This continued even after settling on my grandmother’s Indian allotment land in Blackgum, Oklahoma.

The Wings program sponsored by Cherokee Nation began for me at age 59.

On a Strawberry Festival weekend, I ran a 5k along with my daughter, Julie Erb and my twin sons David Erb and Joseph Erb. They finished first, but I decided then, since I had them at 27 and 30….I will stay active! Doing 3.1 miles seemed amazing. Now every Wings run or any 10k or half marathon gets me out there. Markoma Gym has helped keep me in shape and the staff there are amazing.

As my confidence increased it seemed only fair to train for more, like a marathon. Cindy Impson agreed to train with me for a four month program. We faithfully completed it. Cindy and I did the Route 66 Marathon in about 6 hours, (I was 74). After checking this off my bucket list, Sheryl Ridenhour, Cindy and I continue to do half marathons, 5ks and 10ks.

Pandemic! No gym, no Wings program! I had found ways to maintain what I had worked years to achieve, a healthy, still working lifestyle into my 70s… what can I do? We never know who will inspire or teach us something new. An entry on Facebook by a young man, Isaac Barnoskie decided he would do a 5k or more each day. It was as if the sun came up!

With this pandemic…I was 76, a dangerous age to work with the public. I am thinking I must leave my job at Webbers Falls Public Schools. No more of my Reading Classes, Chess Clubs or Origami Clubs. I retired for the third time and cried most of the way home.

I chose Isaac’s idea on March 24, 2020 and I have been fast walking/running everyday since. The treadmill is my fall back for my 5k when rain, ice or snow would hold me up. Could this possibly be the reason I have not been sick a day this year?

The medals are rewarding especially age 70s and up, but nothing compares to feeling healthy. I’m under contract with Webbers Falls Schools again working from home, doing virtual runs like Keystone Ancient Forest 10k and the Okie Half Marathon. I do not consider myself special; because many of you can do it too.“

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