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Mike Dees is exactly the person you’d want to show you how to perform a difficult exercise move or figure out a complicated craft step: vigorous and competent, but also friendly and patient.
In repose, he has a glow of health and the appearance of stored energy waiting to be used with steady economy: he’s at rest, but not because he needs to be.
In the past, he’s taught himself skills he hadn’t possessed in order to give classes that local seniors requested, from pilates to water aerobics. That he has the ability to master such things and then help others understand and do them as well doesn’t seem to strike him as unusual.
Now, at 63, he’s stepping down as the Galax Recreation Center’s senior activities director, to have his post filled by Sarah Hall, 27, formerly a French teacher at Galax High School, who has experience in dance and coaching athletics.
Dees’ last day is July 31.
“I feel really, really confident with Sarah replacing me,” said Dees.” I don’t have any qualms at all about leaving the program because I know it’s going to be in terrific hands.”
“Aaah!” says Hall with a pleased, embarrassed shriek, giggling and covering her face with her hands.
“And I know she’s going to do a wonderful job,” Dees continues. “It’s like I told her: this job is what you make it. You can make it really difficult or you can make it really easy, depending on how you want to approach it. But just have an open heart, open arms, give a hug when one is needed. You’ll make the best friends you’ve ever had in your entire life.
“Just have a good time with it. I have.”
Dees first came to the rec center to swim laps several days a week in the early 1980s, four months after the birth of W.K., his son. He was a self-described “stay at home dad” while his wife, Stephanie, worked. Mike brought his son along and kept an eye on him while he worked out.
“There was an elderly lady who was lifeguarding in the morning,” he recalls. “One morning she couldn’t stand it any longer. She told me, ‘I’m going to teach you how to swim.’ I just sort of took off from there.”
“After I learned to swim pretty good, I enrolled [W.K.] in a parent-taught swim class,” he continues. “And by the time he was six months old, he was swimming the width of the pool. And I thought to myself, ‘You know, now that I know how to swim, I should take a lifeguarding class, so that I can be prepared if anything should happen.’
“I’d been done with that for a few weeks and Mr. Nelson [David “Bud” Nelson, Galax Parks & Recreation Director] asked me if I’d be willing to come work a few hours a week as a lifeguard.”
At the time, he worked around his wife’s schedule. He started out working about 20 hours a week; then 40-60 hours a week. It was this steadily increasing involvement in the rec center that led Dees to become a part-time employee and then, in the early 1990s, full-time senior activities director.
“I just fell into it. I mean, it just sort of happened,” he recalls. “I was helping Patty [Connors, the center’s former aquatics director] with the aquatics thing. We had just a handful, four or five seniors, that were coming at that time, but it grew really fast.
Connors later moved to Richmond. “I was lifeguarding, I was teaching swimming lessons, I was teaching water aerobics, I was coaching the swim team, and plus trying to run the ever-growing senior program, and it just got the point where I couldn’t handle it all,” Dees says.
“When Patty left and it got to the point where I couldn’t do both jobs well, I was putting in 60 hours a week,” he says. “And that’s when Bud split the department and I became the Senior Activities Director.
From that half-dozen seniors, participation exploded. “Within two to three years’ time, we were up to three or four hundred that were coming in and getting involved in different activities,” says Dees.
Dees has done everything with the seniors who come to the center. It’s fruitless at first to ask him to pick a favorite thing about his job. “All of it. I really love everything I do,” he says sincerely.
Prodded a bit, he fishes out one thing.” The opportunity to travel abroad has probably been my favorite,” he confesses. “We’ve taken two trips to Europe, we’ve been to Ireland, we’ve been to the Bahamas, we’ve been all up and down the East Coast of the United States, we’ve been to California.” Dees says the travel happened about once every couple of years when the economy was in good shape.
If he doesn’t have a least favorite thing about the job, does he have something he found especially challenging?
“I asked him this in the interview!” interjects Hall with a laugh.
“Gosh, I don’t know.” He withdraws into himself for a moment to think. “Finding instructors for the programs that we offer here,” he concludes. “In the past, if we had a program, if we had an interest among seniors on a subject, if I couldn’t find an instructor then I learned it myself.”
Dees says he’ll miss “the daily camaraderie I have with people.”
At his peak, Dees was teaching about six classes a week, several of which met more than once a week.
“Over the years, we’ve brought people in; we’ve had people who’ve taken my classes who want to become instructors,” he explains. “So either I’ve trained them or we’ve sent them off to get trained for certification. We’ve got our Silver Sneakers program, and now I’ve got three instructors in that program that are all certified.
Dees enumerates further. “The pilates class I created. We didn’t have an instructor, so I went online and studied videos, and worked and worked and worked several weeks until I had a routine down I felt was one that the seniors could do; I modified it here and there to make it easier for them to do. The water aerobics program is something that I created, all the routines we’ve used through the years have been ones that I’ve come up with, I burn my own music and try to set the exercise according to whatever song is playing.”
He even makes sure things run smoothly in his absence. “I always type up my instructions so if I’m gone, if somebody has to fill in for me; they’ve got something to go on.”
Cooking classes, basket weaving, chair caning, arts and crafts, line dancing and many other things were taught by Dees himself after a learning period; other classes, like tap dancing, watercolor and acrylic painting, and sign language, were taught by staff or community members who volunteered.
Even in retirement, Dees is hardly going to retreat from activity. In September, he’d like to return and help teach water aerobics.
“I’ve been teaching it here for 30, 35 years. I don’t want to give up teaching it. It’s just too good. Plus it’ll help take a load off of her, too,” he says of Hall.
Even so, that’s not it for him. “I’m expanding my chair caning business,” he states. “I’m a master caner and have been for almost 30 years now.” This started when he learned chair caning for a class and improved on his skills as time went on; he got help from a couple who moved to Galax from New Jersey and taught him more about the craft. He plans to advertise his business as far up as Roanoke and as far out as Abingdon.
His successor listens attentively to his recollections. Hall has a springy energy, a quick smile, and a sense of optimism as she recounts her own story about getting to her new position.
She’s originally from Richmond, she says, with a degree from Sweetbriar College. She’s never done this exact job before, but she’s glad to have the chance.
“I have been a French teacher at Galax High School for the past five years. But then the program was cut due to budgetary issues. Life happens,” she shrugs.
She learned about the job from Assistant Parks and Recreation Director Tony Quesenberry, who encouraged her to apply. “So I did. It just kinda fell into my lap. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect, and I’m just glad the opportunity came along and that they saw potential in me and chose me. It made me feel really good.”
“This is a whole new experience. The most senior work I’ve done has been on church committees,” she admits, then adds with a smile, “But I think that it’s gonna be fun.”
“In the community I actually work part time at the Conservatory of Dance and Theater [in Galax], and so I instruct creative movement, jazz and ballet classes over there, which has been a good experience,” Hall adds.” Also, I was an NCAA athlete. That was kind of helpful.”
“You know, she’s handled teenagers all these years,” Dees interjects. “That’s all we are, just older teenagers. And a good majority of us are just older kids.”
“Which is even better!” laughs Hall.
What is the thing she most anticipates about it? “I think I’m mostly looking forward to the variety of it,” she says. “Yes, there’s a schedule every single day, but every single day is also different, and I’m also looking forward to the flexibility that comes with it. I mean, there’s opportunities to explore the interests of a bunch of different people, and at the same time I can cultivate my own interests. I think it’s just a program that adds richness to a lot of peoples’ lives, and I’m looking forward to exploring that.”
It will take her a while to make changes, if she chooses to; the schedule is set up six months in advance. After that, she’d like to incorporate dance into the program.
“In fitness right now, there’s a big trend towards dance and lengthening and things like that, and how it’s beneficial as you’re aging, so I’d really like to do some of that.”
She also would like to serve another demographic as well, she says. “Ultimately, I would like to be able to get more classes available later into the day for working adults, because that’s one of the big complaints that I hear around town, and I know that I’m guilty of having that complaint,” she says. “‘Man, I wish that this Zumba class was at this time!’ And I think it’s going to be part of my mission to make sure that working adults can partake in all the things that the rec center has to offer, because there are a lot of amazing things here, and it’s hard when you just can’t do it.”
It’s a big responsibility to take over, and Dees has words of wisdom for Hall.
“My advice to her is...” he thinks for a moment. “Be open. I’ve always kept an open-door policy. Just, I don’t know...enjoy yourself.” He smiles at her.
“Can I tell you what he told me in the interview?” Hall asks. “I thought it was really good advice and I remembered it. He said, ‘You have to have a soft and sympathetic heart. Because there’s a lot of people here that just need to be heard, and just need someone to be there for him.’
“He said that, ultimately, that’s the most important thing that we do. The programs are great, and all the things that we have going on are wonderful and give people lots of opportunities, but you know, at the end of the day, it’s the relationships that you’re able to cultivate that really make the difference, and make the program work. That without the relationships, the programs have no depth and don’t go anywhere.”
“Don’t be afraid to hug,” adds Dees.
“That was the most meaningful thing you said to me in the interview,” she tells him.
“My hometown in Fayetteville, N.C. I moved up here in 1977,” he says. “I don’t have a single blood relative in this area, I have no relations of anybody in this area, but I have the biggest family I could ever ask for.”