Janet Olson and Beverly Pottle have been walking the sidewalks together and picking up trash for three decades. Photo credit: Scott Moncrieff
“I hope you don't mind if I run into you, because I'm not good at walking straight,” says Beverly, who is dealing with macular degeneration, and we’re off on a sidewalk stroll around Andrews University.
Janet Olson, 79, and Beverly Pottle, 85, have been walking these sidewalks together for three decades. Their habit started well before retirement, back when they were working for the University — Beverly as an administrative assistant for the dean of the School of Technology, Janet as an administrative assistant in Plant Administration.
They usually do two to three miles a day, with time off for icy days in the winter. They walk and talk — and pick up litter.
Janet recalls, “I was probably eight or nine, in the back seat of our car, and I just tossed something out the window. My dad slammed on the brakes. He turned around and he said to me that two-word thing: ‘Janet Marie, if I ever see you do that again, you’re in trouble. Get out of the car and go back and pick that up.’ And that was a life lesson.”
Beverly also abhors litter so they carry plastic sacks and pick up bottles, packaging, whatever people are throwing out their car windows or otherwise carelessly discarding. Lately they’ve picked up a lot of masks.
They talk about everything under the sun: their kids, books they are reading, political news, personal stories and trials, and they share Bible verses and even do some memorizing, reciting from the Psalms and other favorite places in Scripture. They walk and talk and pray, for each other and for others. “Beverly was my strength when my husband was ill and when he died,” says Janet, “and now her husband is fighting some illness.”
According to Beverly, Janet is tender-hearted toward worms crossing the sidewalk. She helps them into the grass on the other side. Beverly identifies bird songs. Those are two of their “side jobs.” They freely admit to moving slower these days, but they keep going.
“If you read any kind of articles in magazines,” says Beverly, “they tell you walking is a good thing.”
“It’s cheap; it’s accessible,” says Janet. “And at our age, mobility is everything.”
They also get together to play games by the fireplace in winter. Rummikub is a favorite. “It’s got enough thinking involved in it that we don’t feel like we’re just completely wasting our time, and yet it’s fun,” says Janet.
We turn to climb some steep stairs, and I comment on the difficulty of the ascent. Janet says that she calls this the “Mount Everest” of their walk, and all three of us grab onto the handrail. Beverly tells me that in her younger days, when she and her husband were in Africa, she climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. When Janet was young and working in Oregon, she climbed on the slopes of Mount Shasta and Mount Rainier.
They tell me about books they have read, from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (a book with a lot of walking in it!) to Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing, to John Grisham’s Sooley, to A World on Fire, the recent Adventist devotional by David Metzler about the spread of the gospel through the apostle Paul.
We return to the topic of getting older. “I just can’t seem to think of food to cook,” says Beverly. “When you’re younger, you invite people for lunch.”
“I don’t cook,” says Janet. “That’s my solution. I stand at my kitchen counter and eat sandwiches and cereal. I’ve lost all interest in cooking. Mealtime can be a very lonely time.”
I ask about getting a photo. Janet quips, “Anything but a close-up should work.”
As I take pictures of them walking, Janet says, “At this stage of our lives, there’s not much we can do, but when we walk and pick up trash, I feel like we have the opportunity to leave our little corner of the world a little better. That’s a small legacy, but it’s a legacy.”
Beverly adds, “A number of people stop to thank us, but they usually don’t bend over and pick anything up.” She laughs.
It’s time for me to say goodbye, but the ladies still have a loop around the Garland Apartments to finish their walk. I watch them head off down the sidewalk, investing in their friendship, investing in their health, inspiring the next generation.
Scott Moncrieff, professor of English, Andrews University