Walking with Mrs. Hocutt

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Steve Huffman
SPENCER ó When Marie Hocutt retired 20 years ago from teaching social studies at North Rowan High School, she began chronicling her daily strolls.
Hocutt, 86, had always been active and throughout her life often walked several miles a day. But until 20 years ago, she’d never kept track of her hikes.
And so, in January 1989, Hocutt began recording on a calendar her jaunts ó tracking little things like the distance, temperature and time of day. Every Monday, she’d weigh herself and post the results.
Nothing fancy, but it was some sort of record by which Hocutt could gauge her accomplishments.
“When I say, ‘I walked this many miles,’ it’s not guesswork,” Hocutt said. “Of course, back then, I didn’t have any idea I’d still be walking 20 years later, at 86.”
As of last weekend, Hocutt had logged 23,036 miles over the past 20 years. That’s enough to have pounded the pavement from North Carolina to California and back … well, quite a few times.
Over the past 20 years, Hocutt has walked 4,939 days, and, if anything, is improving her regimen as she ages.
Last year, she walked 329 days and is planning to take a stroll at least 330 days this year. This past January, Hocutt failed on only three days to walk and beat that by taking to the streets every day in February.
In Spencer, the sight of Hocutt making her way along the sidewalks of Salisbury Avenue is as common as watching the trains meander around the yard of the N.C. Transportation Museum.
Logging all those miles, Hocutt said, can be taxing.
“I walked three miles yesterday and it just about wore me out,” she said one afternoon last week, chuckling to show that her soft-spoken complaint should be taken only so seriously.
Hocutt is a native of Asheville and attended Oakley High, a tiny school that existed long before the days of consolidation. It was located near the Biltmore Estate.
Hocutt played high school basketball in an era when females were considered too fragile for the extremes of full-court hoops.
“I was a guard,” Hocutt said. “We couldn’t dribble but once and we couldn’t cross mid-court.”
Because her basketball career consisted solely of backcourt play, Hocutt was never allowed the opportunity to take a shot. School scoring records belong to others.
As evidence of the frivolity of the reasoning of the period, it should be noted that when basketball practice ended, Hocutt proceeded to walk three miles back to her house. It was the same three miles she’d hiked to school earlier in the day.
Hocutt lives in a well-kept, brick ranch house in a quiet Rowan Avenue neighborhood. Her husband, Manly, once the pastor of Oakdale Baptist Church, died in 1972.
The couple have four children ó Kathryn, who lives in Boiling Springs; Cynthia, a resident of Seymour, Tenn.; Broadus, who lives in Charlotte; and Janice, who lives in Raleigh.
Hocutt has eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Howard Everhart has lived only a couple of blocks from Hocutt for almost as long as either can remember. Everhart was once Spencer’s fire chief and a longtime letter carrier for the U.S. Post Office.
He joked that Hocutt may have missed her calling.
“You can tell she should have been a mail carrier,” he said with a laugh, “as much as she loves to walk.”
Everhart said he always waves to Hocutt when he sees her on one of her strolls, and said he frequently pulls his car to the side of the road to see if she needs a ride home.
He does it, Everhart said, because both he and Hocutt know what the answer will be.
“I just do it to aggravate her,” he said, laughing.
Over the years, Hocutt has been harassed by a variety of dogs, although she’s been bitten only once. That happened 10 years ago when a little mutt attacked her from behind and chomped into her calf before she realized he was even in the same area code.
Hocutt now totes a walking stick that one of her daughters gave her to help fend off further vicious animals.
Hocutt has tripped and fallen twice, but never suffered much in the way of injuries.
(The second time she tripped, the first person to stop to help took a look at Hocutt and said, “Oh, you’re that schoolteacher who walks everywhere.”)
She has charted distances from her house to various points along Salisbury Avenue. From home to the “Welcome to Historic Salisbury” sign and back is three miles.
If Hocutt wants to push it a bit, it’s a four-mile round trip to Henderson Independent High School. She hasn’t hiked that far in years.
And it has been longer still since she walked to the Square in downtown Salisbury, an excursion she used to make fairly often.
Hocutt said she’s never figured out exactly why she became so enamored with walking. Decades ago, she bought a stationary bike, but never rode it but a few times.
“I’d rather be outside,” Hocutt said, “get to see the seasons change and talk to people.”
She said her calendar (she refers to it as her “journal”) motivates her to go for a walk when she might otherwise hunker down in front of the television.
“This just pushes me on along,” Hocutt said, motioning toward a stack of 20 calendars spread about a dining room table.
She said she won’t commence a walk if there’s a downpour taking place, but said she’s not above taking to the streets if there’s just a little rain falling.
Hocutt said she’s been caught in a deluge more than once, a turn of events that has forced her to seek shelter from the storm.
“I’ve borrowed umbrellas,” she said, chuckling. “But I always return them.”
Hocutt remembered one day when a storm blew up and she took shelter under an overhang at Magnolia Garden Extended Care Community near Spencer’s border with Salisbury.
Hocutt began comparing notes with several members of the retirement center, and soon realized she was 10 years or more older than most of those who call the center home.
“I said, ‘Yeah, I’m older, yeah, I’m older, ‘ ” Hocutt said, chuckling again.
She paused to reflect on all her blessings.
“I’ve had good health,” Hocutt said, “good genes. I’ve never smoked. I don’t eat much meat.”
She recalled only one day from the past 20 years where conditions turned so nasty she worried for her safety. That was back when she still walked to the Square in Salisbury and rain turned to sleet.
“It got slippery,” Hocutt said.
She slowed her pace and made it home OK.
Hocutt said she’s got a pair of sites where she sometimes stops for breaks, but never pauses for a breather unless she’s heading home. Those rest areas include a bench in front of Piedmont Radiator Works and another pair of benches in front of Green Goat Gallery.
She’s observed a lot over the years, noting she recently watched five groundhogs burrowing and doing whatever it is that groundhogs do in a huge culvert just south of Piedmont Radiator.
Hocutt said there’s much to be liked about walking ó it keeps your mind active, she said, and provides time to think through life’s intricacies.
Hocutt is a member of Spencer First Baptist Church, where she teaches Sunday school. She volunteers at Rowan Regional Medical Center where she delivers flowers to the rooms of patients.
She’s traveled much of the world with friends, over the years visiting China, Australia, India, Israel, Russia, Italy and more.
Hocutt still drives and even mows her grass about half the time the lawn is cut.
“But it takes me all day,” she said, seeming embarrassed about the amount of time it takes her to usher a mower about her yard. “I mow a while, rest a while. Mow a while, rest a while.”
On a recent weekday afternoon, she pulled a hat over her head, picked up her walking stick, locked her back door and started down the road. The “Life is Good” T-shirt she was wearing seemed to reflect Hocutt’s opinion about all the world has to offer.
“I didn’t think I’d be alive at 86,” she admitted. “The walking, it has kept me going.”

Marie Hocutt
Education: Graduate of Mars Hill (at the time a junior college), and Womenís College (now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro).
Favorite television shows: national news, as well as ěJeopardy!î and ěJudge Judy,î although she said of that latter program, ěI donít see how she gets by with it when she says, ëYouíre an idiot!í or ëYouíre a liar!í I donít see how you can say that to people. Itís not nice.î
The thing she found most disturbing in a foreign country sheís visited: The cows that roamed freely through the cities of India. ěThat bothered me,î Hocutt admitted. ěThey were all over the streets.î
Favorite writers: John Grisham and Thomas Hardy.