98-Year-Old Betty Lindberg: From Telegraph Key to Smartphone and Still Eyeing the Future
The name of the landmark study: "Exercise and Immunity in the Elderly." The year: 1991. Betty Lindberg had recently turned 66.
"Your results have been the high point of the investigation," wrote one of the Appalachian State University researchers in a follow-up letter informing Betty that she had the cardiovascular fitness of a 42-year-old. "You are, indeed, an inspiration to all of us."
The name of the class is "Senior Fit." The year is 2023. Betty Lindberg is 98.
As the group gathers one January morning at LA Fitness in Buckhead, Betty fetches a resistance band and exercise ball and lines up in the back row. It's her favorite spot, she explained; from there, she can see what everyone else is doing even when she can't hear the instructor over "Jolene" and "Dance, Dance, Dance." Plus, she said, she feels self-conscious in the front.
Wielding five-pound weights in each hand, Betty proceeds to smoke most of the class.
On the way out, a few of the regulars say goodbye. "Take it easy," says one offhandedly to Betty.
"Why?" asks Betty.
Yes, Betty Lindberg was already old enough three decades ago to qualify as "elderly." Yes, the longtime member of Atlanta Track Club still works out six days a week - Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at her exercise class ("I wish it were tougher") and Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays with a 2.5-mile run/walk around her neighborhood. She takes Saturdays off to get her hair done. Yes, she has participated in every Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race but one since 1989, with a shelf full of finish-line photos in her pine-paneled den to prove it.
Yes, she is returning to compete in the USATF 5 km Championships, to be contested as part of the Publix Atlanta Marathon Weekend 5K this Saturday morning. So, if you want to run in the footsteps of the woman who last year made the pages of Sports Illustrated for setting an age-group world record here - her time of 55:48 obliterated the previous mark by more than 30 minutes - this is your chance. Registration is still open.
"Probably no world record this time, but I will be the only woman 95-99 giving it a try!" she reported last week in an email update.
And yes, we are referring to her by her first name rather than last. Trust us, we are not being patronizing to this woman in her 10th decade who still carries her own groceries out to the car before driving home with confidence, then shouts out questions at the TV while watching "Jeopardy!" after replying to emails on her iPhone 11.
Rather, it's an acknowledgement that when all of Atlanta knows the woman with the motto of "keep moving" as simply Betty, you go with the flow.
Which is pretty much following the example of what Betty has done all her life. Over a takeout post-workout lunch of Brunswick stew, fried okra and collard greens in her tidy dining room, Betty and her two children, son Craig and daughter Kerry McBrayer, share family stories, photos and memorabilia, even breaking into song. Lunch turns into coffee, and still there are tales to be told, laughs to be laughed, heads to be shaken at their modest-yet-indomitable matriarch. Examples: When she shattered the 5K record, she hadn't even told her kids she was going after it; when she ran the Resolution Run less than a month after getting a hip replaced about 10 years ago, she neglected to alert them.
"We're really making the most of it," said Kerry. "This is the time. Now."
In 1924 - with a Model T selling for $265 and Calvin Coolidge as president - Betty Ann Reynolds was born in the tiny Finnish-American village of New York Mills, Minnesota, to Clyde and Henna (Hopponen) Reynolds.
When she was 2 years old, the family moved to nearby Parkers Prairie, where her father worked in a lumber yard before taking over a bar and restaurant; her grandparents ran a bar and restaurant, too, over in New York Mills. There, Betty ate so much ice cream as a girl that she doesn't care for it much anymore, and her older brother - who would go on to earn a Ph.D. in theater and speech - would be hoisted onto the bar by grandpa to serenade customers with ditties such as "I'm a villain, a dirty little villain, I leave a trail of woe where'er I go …". " (Yes, she still knows all the lyrics.)
As a child, Betty played dolls and jacks with her girlfriends, made mud pies with eggs from her grandmother's Bantam hens, and enjoyed packing a sandwich and dessert into a little pail to go picnicking on the lawns of neighbors. "You didn't take part in any sports!" she told podcaster Ali Feller last year. "Girls just sat and watched the boys play."
She hunted pheasant and duck, though, and went ice fishing, eating the bounty. She and her brother liked to sit around the family's big radio and listen to adventure stories, and she remembers Robert, four years older than she, holding tight to her hand one day so she wouldn't blow away as they walked home from school in a blizzard.
When Betty was a sophomore, her family moved back to New York Mills, where she graduated from high school in 1942. She thought she would become an English teacher, but as part of the war effort went to work for the National Youth Administration, where she had the option of learning how to work with sheet metal to build airplanes or how to construct radios and install them in airplanes going off to war. She chose radios and was lucky enough to get an instructor who also taught Morse Code (yes, she still remembers it, snappily typing out "Peachtree" on an old telegraph key brought out by her daughter.)
Instead of going to work in a factory, however, Betty took a job as a radio telegraph operator with Northwest Airlines. From the ground, she communicated with pilots of the DC3s - noting ETAs on a chalkboard - and used Morse Code to send and receive information for flight reservations. After stints in Minneapolis and Chicago, she transferred to Fargo, N.D., where she impressed a tall Navy aviation veteran from the city ticket office with her speed on the telegraph. He took a special trip out to the airport one day just to find out who exactly this Betty Reynolds was.
Not long after, the two met again on an office hayride. "We talked and we talked and we talked and we talked," Betty remembers.
"I think mom's comment has been that when she laid eyes on
him, he didn't stand a chance," said her daughter.
Betty Ann Reynolds and H.O. (Lindy) Lindberg were married in 1948. By the time Kerry came along in 1951, Betty had quit her job; a few years later Lindy was transferred to Bloomington, Minnesota, where son Craig was born in 1956. A year or so later, the toddler was standing on the front seat next to Betty on the way back from a doctor's appointment when, in those pre-carseat days, "I go whipping around a corner and he flies out the door and lands in a snowbank," she recalled. "That's as safe as I kept my kids."
In 1958, the family moved to Atlanta as Northwest launched service in the city; she still lives in the cozy house they bought a few years later. (Asked how long it took her to get used to the heat and humidity, Betty replied: "I'm still working on it.") Lindy's office was in the just-completed Lenox Square shopping center, which years later would become the site of the Peachtree start line.
Lindy's new job in Atlanta meant more travel opportunities, and the walls of their home were soon lined with art and souvenirs from their many trips to Asia. On one trip to China in the 1980s, the couple missed a boat to travel down the Yangstze River, and when their hired car got a flat tire the driver had to unload all of their luggage to reach the spare. Betty remembers standing on the side of the road, with hundreds of locals looking on.
"They might never have seen a Westerner before," she said.
As the kids got a little older, Betty took a job at Lenox Square, too - in customer service at Rich's, a department-store chain headquartered in Atlanta. (She retired in 1992.) A leader for her children's Brownie, Cub Scout and Girl Scout troops, PTA president, on the council of Peachtree Road Lutheran Church, their mom "just wasn't a sit-at-home kind of person," said Kerry.
But while she may have spent a lot of time running around, she didn't start running in the literal sense until she was 63 years old.
It was 1988 when Kerry asked her parents if they would meet her and her husband at the Peachtree finish line to take them back to their car at the start.
"I had no idea what a road race was," said Betty. "Why are people getting up at the crack of dawn on the Fourth of July?" When she saw the mass of runners smiling and waving as the approached the finish, though, "I said, 'I can do that; that looks like fun.'"
And then - because when Betty says she's going to do something, she does it - she did it.
She soon discovered that running required a bit more exertion than her only previous foray into working out: the passive vibrating exercise belt, for which an ad at the time exclaimed: "What! I can exercise without effort? YES!" Betty's first-ever run, with Lindy in their hilly neighborhood, lasted about 2/10th of a mile by her recollection before it ended with a gasp that it was time to go home.
Betty kept at it; Lindy less so. At a solid 6'2" a foot taller than his wife, he found running too punishing. Instead, he turned to faithfully volunteering at Betty's races, translating at the Peachtree for any Scandinavian elite distance runners who travelled to the world-renowned race and helping collect the old tear-off bib tags at the finish line. Back then, the race timed only the first 1,000 runners; after that he would leave to find Betty. He also volunteered at the 1996 Olympic Games, as did Betty and son Craig.
In 1989, a year after she discovered Peachtree, Betty ran her first. (The next day, a sales manager asked her where she had purchased the T-shirt on her desk. "I earned that!" she recalls informing him.) Soon, she became a Peachtree volunteer as well as participant, holding the barrier for her wave before tossing off her volunteer shirt and jumping in. In 2019, for the 50th Peachtree, she served as an honorary starter before joining the celebration as it made its way to Piedmont Park.
She has done every Peachtree since, missing only 2005 when she was caring for Lindy as he battled Parkinson's. The disease's progression, said Kerry, was one of the few things to ever visibly upset her mother. Lindy died in January of 2006.
In the early years, Betty started the race with Kerry and her husband but then shooed them ahead so they could run their own, faster pace. Last year on July 4, Betty drove herself to the start line, parking in her church lot before meeting up with son Craig and his family. They all stopped at a table around Mile 1 set up by granddaughter Nicole, where the cheering section enjoyed breakfast casserole, fruit salad and mimosas. (Yes, Betty had a sip). As the entourage carried on after grabbing a quick family photo, Betty slapped high fives and obliged selfie requests as Craig and his wife Cyndi, along with Betty's grandsons Eric and Kyle and their wives Lilly and Jackie, acted as wingmen to shield her from admirers when necessary.
After crossing the finish line, Betty declared that she had just completed her last Peachtree.
"Every year when she finishes, she says 'I'm never doing this again,'" said Kerry over lunch.
"Absolutely not. I will not sign up for it. No, I will not," said Betty.
Kerry and Craig exchange skeptical glances.
Peachtree or no Peachtree, Betty still sees racing in her future. Seven years after setting her first age-group world record at 800 meters (6:57.56), she already has her eye on records in the 100-105 age group. (Yes, she knows what they are.)
"I looked up the 100, 200, 400, 800 and 1500, and I am pretty sure I can beat them," she says. "But I don't know, maybe somebody will come along who can do it better than I can."
Said Craig: "Let's just see 'em try."