- Associated Press - Saturday, April 23, 2016

ST. CLOUD, Minn. (AP) - Unlike the rest of the 59 people who graduated March 25 from American Airlines’ flight attendant school in Fort Worth, Texas, Katie Anderson had her own uniformed presenter to pin on her wings.

It was an 85-year-old former pilot who fit easily into the same AA captain’s uniform he wore when he retired a quarter-century ago.

It was a vibrant, youthful octogenarian with the energy of somebody half his age, the St. Cloud Times (https://on.sctimes.com/1VjiABU ) reported.

It was grandpa.

“I don’t think I act 85,” Andy Anderson said with a grin. “What bothers me most is when I see a picture - sometimes I don’t recognize myself. I still see myself as much younger.”

“He was definitely the oldest wing-pinner. Everyone thought it was so amazing,” added granddaughter Katie Anderson, 22. “That we got to share that special moment really meant a lot to me.”

It was a joyous occasion, an impact occasion, courtesy of a guy who still makes impacts on a regular basis back in his hometown of St. Cloud.

“Andy is the type of person that would give you the shirt off his back,” said Margaret Rice, who along with Anderson volunteers with the Step Force program at St. Cloud Hospital. “Very caring and giving.”

Andy Anderson has done a lot of both in his life.

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Anderson gets up at 6 a.m. every day and exercises for an hour in the basement gym of his home near St. Cloud Country Club.

He needs to stay fit. Anderson has a busy schedule, and he has tried to keep it that way since he retired in 1990 after nearly 34 years as an American Airlines pilot.

“I wanted to lose a little more weight, because I wanted to stay mobile,” said Anderson, who at 6-foot and 160 pounds is 25 pounds lighter than he was when he retired. “You see so many guys my age who can hardly get out of the chair.”

Anderson is among the most active of St. Cloud Hospital’s Step Force volunteers, working four-hour shifts up to six days every week.

“He has the energy level of a 30-year-old,” said Megan Richert, volunteer program specialist at the hospital. “It’s insane.”

“He’s a really impressive man,” Katie Anderson added. “He doesn’t act his age at all.”

Since retirement, Anderson has remained an avid golfer. He’s also been a skydiver … a volunteer pilot for Nomads Travel Club and the Wings of Mercy medical program … and a dedicated hospital volunteer.

This is a hard guy to slow down. Anderson likes it that way.

It also helps take his mind off something he lost.

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Anderson, born and raised in St. Cloud, grew up wanting to be a Navy pilot largely because of newsreels he saw at the movie theater during World War II.

“One of the most impressive things was guys taking off and landing on an aircraft carrier,” he said. “That really hit me for some reason.”

Anderson earned a Navy scholarship to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where he met eventual wife Barbara. They married in 1953 and subsequently lived in a variety of places (Boston, New York, Chicago, Fresno) while raising two children. Son Bill - Katie’s father - is a cardiac surgeon in Fort Worth. Daughter Laura Bergstrom also lives in Texas.

After graduation, Anderson owed the Navy a few years of service before joining American in 1957. He flew everything from twin-prop Convair CV-240s to Boeing 767s during the ensuing 34 years.

“While I was working, I felt like I never worked a day in my life,” Anderson said. “It was like playing golf.”

Anderson flew international flights almost exclusively in the last few years before he reached American’s mandatory retirement age of 60 in 1990 (it’s 65 now).

“I wouldn’t have retired. I was still in very good health at age 60,” Anderson said. “As I sat there at the gate when I finished my last flight at O’Hare (Airport), they had to come pry my hands off the yoke to get me out of there because I didn’t want to go.

“You can’t fly on your 60th birthday. It was the day before my 60th,” he said. “I brought 225 people from San Francisco to Chicago. The next day, I wasn’t qualified because I was 60. It was crazy.”

Andy and Barbara subsequently traveled the world as he remained active as a pilot in the Nomads and Wings of Mercy programs.

But on May 4, 2008, Barbara died rather suddenly, the result of a stroke and of complications from lupus and a kidney transplant 18 years earlier.

“That was a big blow, because we had been married 55 years,” Anderson said. “I didn’t have much time to get used to that.”

It was a loss that would have shut down a lot of 77-year-olds.

Before long, it inspired Anderson to do new things.

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Golf wasn’t enough.

A friend suggested Step Force, a program in which volunteers help both visitors and patients navigate St. Cloud Hospital’s 1.5 million square feet.

“Step Force stands for Speedy Transport and Escort Pool,” he said.

Volunteer work helped Anderson fill the void in his life.

“We find that with a lot of our volunteers,” Richert said. “Those relationships they build with their fellow volunteers and staff members are very important to them.”

“Most volunteers do one or two days a week,” said Anderson, who sometimes works as many as six. “I started on three. What else am I going to do - dust the house? Vacuum or something?”

Instead, he walks 4-5 miles during almost every shift while helping visitors and patients and socializing with other volunteers.

“He’s so personable,” Richert said. “You really get the sense that he cares about you, even if it’s just for five minutes as he’s walking you down the hallway.

“He makes you feel right at home and comfortable, even in what can be a very scary situation.”

The camaraderie of Step Force has become an integral part of Anderson’s life, one he couldn’t do without.

“I can’t hardly imagine it,” he said. “It’s like getting together with your buddies.”

It also kept him in shape for his latest task.

___

Anderson was thrilled when his granddaughter was one of 60 selected from about 3,000 applicants to attend flight attendant school.

He was doubly thrilled to participate in the graduation ceremony.

“She got her dad to call me,” Anderson said. “Do you think grandpa would come down and pin my wings on me?

“I said, ‘Boy, I’d really be honored.’ “

Wearing his pilot’s uniform was a mandatory part of the process, so Anderson dug it out of the closet for the first time since 1990.

“He was so proud to fly down to Dallas and be part of the graduating ceremony,” Rice said, “along with wearing his American Airlines uniform of 25 years ago.”

“I was really impressed that he still fit into his suit,” Katie Anderson said. “I hope I can do the same thing when I’m 85.”

She was one of the first to get pinned (it was done in alphabetical order), and it was a highlight of the ceremony.

“One of the other girls said she was doing fine, and then she saw my grandpa putting on my wings,” Katie Anderson said. “She started tearing up, because it was such a special moment.”

Fifty-nine years earlier, Anderson had begun his American Airlines pilot’s training in a building basically across the street.

“It’s different generations, experiencing such a similar thing,” Katie Anderson said. “I was really honored that he came all the way down just to pin on my wings.”

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Anderson is back home and back at the hospital, with no plans to slow down.

“Not any time soon, no,” he said. “I feel better doing it. You don’t get your youth back, but you delay some of the ravages of old age.

“My daughter’s always trying to talk me into going down to Texas. I say, ‘I’m not a Texan. I get all the Texas I want when I come down.’ “

Anderson paused, and then smiled at his own impending one-liner.

“Plus the fact they can’t get along without me at the hospital,” he said with another grin. “That’s the big joke.”

Except it’s not a joke. Anderson remains indispensable at 85, an age by which most people have already permanently parked themselves in the hangar.

This one will be up at 6 a.m., revving the engines for another busy day. Whether he’s in uniform or not, it’s impossible to keep Andy Anderson grounded.

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Information from: St. Cloud Times, https://www.sctimes.com


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