Bettye Crenshaw, National Older Worker of the Year, resumed her career last year at age 65, after a decade of being confined to a wheelchair and her Fairfax County home.
Because new technology had transformed offices in her absence, Crenshaw had to learn, among other things, how to use computers, facsimile machines and laser printers.
"At 65, so many people are retiring or planning to retire. She was planning to start up," said Merni Fitzgerald, spokesman for the Fairfax County Park Authority, where Crenshaw works as publications coordinator.
"For all those sitting at home, I want to tell them they can get up and get out," said Crenshaw, 66. "For those afraid, dare. Dare to try. Don't say you can't do it."
Outgoing, chatty and cheerful, Crenshaw is known in her Fairfax office for decorating her walker with the flower of the month (January is carnations). "It's fun! It's fun!" she replied when asked about the pumpkins that adorned her walker around Halloween and the poinsettias she displayed at Christmas.
Crenshaw, a former Red Cross "Donut Dolly" who entertained troops during World War II by singing and playing the guitar, said she never married because the pilot she was engaged to was killed when he was shot down over the English Channel. "I never met anybody else I much cared for," she said, recalling the day they met when the jolt of a bus caused her to fall into pilot George Knapp's lap.
Marion Jacknow, coordinator of Older Worker Job Training Programs for the Fairfax Area Agency on Aging, said she nominated Crenshaw for the award because she "is an outstanding example of the positive assets of older workers" and because she is living proof that older workers can be trained for modern jobs.
As the U.S. population ages, more companies are turning to older workers to fill their staffs. More senior citizens working means fewer drawing Social Security benefits.
The National Older Worker of the Year award, administered by the National Council on the Aging, applauds exemplary senior citizens who continue to work at the age when many quit.
Crenshaw, a former U.S. Army officer and print specialist who worked at a national association, was housebound and had to use a wheelchair after she suffered a stroke in 1979. "It robbed me of my sense of balance and stole my mobility, my livelihood and my independence," she said.
In 1989, after a decade of struggling to overcome the effects of the stroke, she learned about a job training program for senior citizens, the Senior Community Service Employment Program, a federally subsidized project administered locally through the Fairfax Area Agency on Aging.
While training to reenter the job market, Crenshaw began a five-hour-a-day job at the Fairfax County Recreation Department, where she learned to use computers, fax machines and other new office equipment. Every workshop that the agency offered, Crenshaw attended. She soon moved to a full-time job with the park authority.
There, Crenshaw edits and proofreads park pamphlets and written material, looks for ways to trim the agency's budget by redesigning automated computer programs, streamlines paper-ordering procedures and promotes recycling.
"She's very friendly, outgoing, gets along real well with people," said Fitzgerald, who added that Crenshaw's "determination to learn all about modern office equipment" was an inspiration to many in the agency.
"She is an example of a person who pulled herself up by the bootstraps. She had a great deal of initiative," Jacknow said. "She made a commitment to get herself out of the wheelchair and out into the job market.
"It was very frightening, very scary for her at first," Jacknow said. "She had not been in the classroom for many years. Her confidence was on the ground. She didn't know if she could relearn, go back to work and stick to a schedule. She put one foot in front of the other and found she could."
On Monday, Crenshaw was scheduled to receive her National Older Worker of the Year award in New Orleans.
Older Americans, she said, "have a lot of useful, old skills. We just have to get off our fannies and use them."