By SUE WEBBER
If gusto were a sport, Gretchen Walby Fogo would be an Olympian.
Her life of physical activity goes back to being an 8-year-old and falling in love with canoeing at Camp Kiwadinipi, near Ely.
The retired Methodist minister and former school teacher has lived in the same Minnetonka house for 53 years and gives talks titled “Aging: Living with gusto, guts, growth and grace.”
In the years bookended by canoeing as a youngster and retirement from teaching and the ministry, Fogo has seized all that life has to offer, relished and savored it, and used it to broaden her horizons and cultivate a deep faith and countless lasting friendships.
“I love people and I just love life,” Fogo said. “At this point, I have between 5 minutes and 20 years to live. It’s life. All of life is an adventure.”
She was an only child, and she said her parents sent her to a girls’ camp early on to make friends. “I thrived at being at camp,” said Fogo, who later became a counselor, director of a Methodist church camp and served on camp boards.
She recalls her mother getting a call from the camp when Fogo was 11, in 1946, asking permission for Fogo to go on a week-long canoe trip with the older girls. “I’m sure my mother thought it was a call about polio,” said Fogo, whose passion for canoeing began.
Growing up, Fogo remembers having a chemistry set in the basement and wanting to be a research chemist.
As a student at Minneapolis West High School, she learned to hitchhike. “I love to hitchhike,” Fogo said. “When I was at Carleton College, I hitchhiked from London to Edinburgh and back to London at the age of 20. It was the highlight of my college life. I haven’t hitchhiked now for a few years.”
Her husband, Jim, a member of the St. Cloud State University Football Hall of Fame, was a math teacher in Minnetonka for 37 years.
Gretchen taught junior high history and geography (1956-59) in Rochester, Minnesota; geography, history, civics, speech and physical education at Minnetonka Junior High (1959-65); seventh-grade science in Bowling Green, Ohio while Jim was in graduate school (1962-63); and then back to Minnetonka to teach seventh- and ninth-grade French (for half a year in 1966-67).
After she became the mother of three, Fogo stayed at home for a while and became a member of the League of Women Voters.
What she terms one of her many unforgettable experiences occurred when Fogo became co-chair of Joan Growe’s campaign for the Minnesota House of Representatives in 1972.
“I learned I could be an organizer,” she said. “It was life-changing. It coincided with the waves of the women’s movement. Many women were making mid-life career changes.”
“Then I had a faith-awakening that led me to the ministry,” Fogo said. “I started the seminary late, in my 30s. I graduated at 42.”
Fogo’s career as a Methodist minister included six years as associate pastor at Centennial United Methodist in Roseville, a couple of years as a chaplain resident, director of nurture on the program staff for the Minnesota United Methodist Church, and staff person to camping, education, higher education and youth.
Then she was director of church relations at Hamline University for 10 years.
“When I was 70, I was hired as an assistant pastor part time at Minnetonka United Methodist Church for four years,” she said.
Fogo recalls six major international trips during her lifetime. Recently, she drove 1,000 miles alone to attend a conference in Atlanta, and then took a trip to Washington D.C.
“I traveled on the subway; that was on my bucket list,” said Fogo, who also made a spring trip to San Francisco to see her children, and a train trip to visit her son in Idaho. She has seven grandchildren, five of whom are girls that have been born in the eight years since the death of Fogo’s husband, Jim.
During her 70s, she had five bone replacements, but just kept going. “I believe in gusto,” she said. “One of my mottos is ‘Set a date and do it.’”
Having been a writer all her life, Fogo now is working to compile a collection of meaningful words and phrases in a book of her memoirs that recounts her life’s adventures. She is adding what she calls “aha moments” for A to Z words. Her C word, for example is comparison. She heard an anecdote that said: “Healing begins when comparison ends.”
“It spoke to my soul,” she said.
One of Fogo’s most recent experiences was spending time at the Northland Recreation Leaders Lab camp, which she labels “a most exciting camp for adults ages 20-90, men and women.” It included crafts during the day, folk dancing at night, and a costume party. Fogo dressed as a roller girl, she said, complete with fishnet stockings.
“It was the most exhilarating week of my life,” she said. “I was just so charged up.”
Water has always played an important part in Fogo’s life. When she was 9, her parents moved to a home near Cedar Lake in Minneapolis. She has lived near water in Minnetonka now for 53 years. And then there’s her ongoing love of canoeing.
“When I left the church, they gave me a canoe as a going away gift because I had led troops to the Boundary Waters,” Fogo said. “They came right down the center aisle of the church, carrying the canoe. I love the Boundary Waters as much as anyplace. I’ve canoed Minnehaha Creek many times, and I would do it again.”
Teaching, speaking and facilitating have been woven throughout her life.
“I love to facilitate groups, and I’ve always taught,” Fogo said. “I’m taking a creative writing class. I’m connecting with people all the time.”
She said she has been interested in the topic of aging “forever.”
“I’ve always had older women in my life,” Fogo said. “I had wonderful grandmas.”