Nicki Smith … Still Moving at 93

Niki Smith, a member of the West Chester Area YMCA participates in an water exercise class.

When you are 93 years young and still working, you are a special person! But don’t tell Bernice “Nicki” Smith that. Nicki, a member of the West Chester Area YMCA, she considers herself just a regular person.

She is a regular person who has survived breast cancer, went through, in her words, “two extremely painful” knee replacements, a hip replacement and has arthritis, but that doesn’t stop her. 

She continues to teach at the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP), as she has for the last 50 years, and takes a train by herself to get there, but she doesn’t consider that a big deal.

Nicki, may consider herself a regular person, but anyone who spends a little time with her will tell you otherwise.

Staying Active and Involved

At the YMCA, Nicki attends a water exercise class three days a week, which she does not like to miss because it helps to keep her going. “I really enjoy that class,” she says. “Kevin (the instructor) is great; he really makes it fun.” 

In addition to Kevin, Nicki has made many other friends at the Y, and she is never afraid to help someone out. When one of the regulars from the exercise class passed away, Nicki collected the donations to help pay for a plaque on a park bench that her husband wanted placed in her memory. “I really don’t like collecting,” Nicki confessed, “but no one was doing anything, so I did it.” 

A Natural Teacher

Not surprising, Nicki’s passion is teaching. She has been teaching at CCP for 50 years, currently tutoring two days a week.

Her boss told her she was receiving an award earlier this year, but Nicki couldn’t figure out why. When her boss explained that she was the oldest teacher at CCP, Nicki’s reply was, “that goes to show you that you just need to get old and you will receive an award!”

Things were very different 50 years ago. Nicki got into teaching because her husband played tennis with the president of CCP. They needed help and she had a college degree. “Back in those days, you didn’t need a teaching certificate,” she recalled. “Women did not have many options coming out of school. Other than being a housewife and mother, women could become a nurse or teacher, not much else. So, I helped him out and have been there ever since! It was a good job…gave me a good life balance.”

Nicki’s work days are fairly long, 9:00 am to 4:30 pm, but she enjoys it and the people. She likes to get to know the students she tutors and finding ways to help them. “It is such a pleasure to see some improvement with a student I have spent time with.” It is especially rewarding when that effort is acknowledged. “I had a student call me a few years ago and thank me,” Nicki recalled with pride. “She said she was teaching her kids the same way I taught her!’”

Thirst for Knowledge

Spend a few minutes with Nicki and you won’t be disappointed. She is still sharp, tells a good story and loves education. From teaching students, many of whom are “comma obsessed,” to her recent research in Norwegian history, Nicki has a wealth of information and a passion for it. 

Nicki lights up as she discusses the old Norwegian Viking sagas she has been deciphering, something she just decided she wanted to learn more about. She admitted that her notions on the writings turned out to be wrong, “I thought they would be all action, and most are, but there are a few with feelings. It’s really fascinating.” 

Keep on Moving

The only problem with her work day is that sitting all that time is a little much for her. She has to get up and move around every so often or she will get too stiff. “Oh, and I have to try not to fall asleep on the train ride home,” she chuckles.

That is why her exercise class at the Y is so important; she wants to keep her muscles strong and her joints moving. She likes her regular routine - has a martini every night - and is not ready to venture into other swim classes or workouts right now. “I know how to swim, but I just don’t like to get my hair wet. And you know, I feel that if my hair looks good, I look good!”

Category: Y Stories