Masters of the third act
Give it up for five local seniors who never give up—or even take it easy, for that matter
A robust concerto blasts through speakers inside Chez Daniel on a Tuesday afternoon. Hours before dinner, the traditional French restaurant in Folsom already smells like a wonderful combination of garlic, onion and maybe some butter or wine.
“You’re lucky, he’s in a good mood today,” says a tall man exiting the front door with a clipboard, after finishing what appears to have been a business meeting with owner Daniel Pont. Pont’s known to be very particular about things such as enforcing his dress code and not accepting credit cards on weekends. One recent review of his restaurant called him “notoriously stubborn.”
Pont disappears for a few minutes into the kitchen and then answers a phone call. Not only is he Chez Daniel’s owner, he’s also the accountant, the dishwasher, the sous chef, the chef, the general manager, the sommelier and the spokesman.
Finally, he sits down and explains that he’s a little dizzy all of a sudden. It’s the only sign of slowing down that the 77-year-old seems to display at all. He steps back into the kitchen to cut a small piece of baguette. A bite of bread and sip of sparkling water seem to fix whatever was wrong.
As Pont proves, younger doesn’t necessarily mean better. Inspired by a recent piece in The New York Times Magazine called “Old Masters,” SN&R wanted to find Sacramento athletes, artists and musicians of an older generation who are all still setting a high bar in their third acts.
We sat down with a handful of people over the age of 60 who are still at the top of their game. Some have spent a lifetime mastering their skills; others have retired and refocused on doing what they love. In other words, it’s a group of people who see age as just a number, who strive to be active and aren’t afraid to learn. More importantly, these five people still have the uncanny ability to inspire us with their stories, wisdom and youthful energy.Chef of all trades
The first thing chef Pont says while seated at a white-cloth-covered table is that he doesn’t want to be called a restaurant owner.
“A restaurant owner and a restaurateur are completely different individuals,” he says. “I am a restaurateur, a man who can do quality control, cook, serve and do the PR all at the same time.”
He’s also a loving grandparent and husband. But, most importantly, he wants everyone who comes in to know that he’s the chef, and he makes a point to come out from the kitchen during dinner and interact with customers.
“You go into a restaurant today and do you know who cooked the food?” he says. “Not just Sacramento, anywhere: Who cooks your food? Why is it important to have a good chef if he doesn’t cook your food?”
He makes a great point. It’s hard to know who’s cooking a particular meal on any given day. But that’s not how things work at Chez Daniel.
Pont grew up in Lyon, France. He was always helping his mom out in the kitchen as a kid, roasting coffee, making bread, cooking eggs. He worked summers at a restaurant and picked up culinary skills. More importantly, he says, he was learning to be a “customer-oriented person.”
At 19, Pont entered service as a French military correspondent in Canada, but after finishing his service and acquiring a job at a French restaurant in Chicago, he never returned home. Here in the United States, he worked just about every kind of restaurant job before opening his own restaurants in the Bay Area, Sacramento and now Folsom.
Pont works 12-hour days, five days a week, and drives hundreds of miles each week. He’ll start off the day buying fish in Midtown and then head to a grocery store to pick out ingredients. Then, he’ll drive to Folsom to prep, cook, wash, mingle with customers and clean. Finally, he drives home to Sacramento.
It appears that he could go forever at this pace, but he says with some certainty that this will be his last restaurant. “It’s very hard for me because I know that when I close, that’s it,” Pont says. “And it will be painful.”
What keeps him inspired to work so hard every day after about 60 years in the food industry?
“You have to like it. It’s in you, it’s in your blood and under your skin,” he says. “You know it when you come home and your wife says to you, ’Go and take a shower because you smell like garlic.’”
Chez Daniel is located at 49 Natoma Street in Folsom. Call (916) 353-1938 to make a reservation and visit www.chezdanielfolsom.com for more information.Poems of a nuclear shutdown
On the patio of a Midtown coffee shop on a recent weekday, people type away on their laptops and sip coffee. No one expects to hear poetry out of the blue. But that’s what they get, a free bonus.
“Do you want to hear it?” says poet Martha Ann Blackman. “It’s called ’It Only Took Ten Years.’”
She recites: “It came to her in a wind song / from across the miles.” Some people look up from their screens and books.
A bit later in the poem: “The woman heard because / she was meant to hear / and to tell, to tell, to tell. And a change was made / a direction moved in the wind song / and it was sweet again. / And it only took 10 years.”
This is part of an autobiographical poem about her 10-year involvement as spokesperson in a grassroots effort to shut down the Rancho Seco nuclear power plant.
Poetry always comes to Blackman from an unknown place, she says, and whether she wants it to or not. “It’s almost like poetry’s given to me and I write it down,” she explains. “It flows when it comes to me that way, and it’s not work. It’s more like play.”
One thing she began to grow increasingly concerned about in the ’70s was SMUD’s Rancho Seco Nuclear Generating Station. In 1979, after writing a poem about it, she and a team of anti-nuclear activists began a 10-year battle to close the power plant. As spokeswoman for Sacramentans for Safe Energy, she put in up to 60 volunteer hours per week.
What made their campaign successful—Sacramento residents voted to close the plant in 1989—was the fact that “we did not attack people, we attacked the problem,” she said.
In the year 2000, she was hired in an administrative role for the California Environmental Protection Agency, where she worked for 14 years. Now retired and in her early 70s, she’s refocused on returning to her first love, poetry, which she’s written and performed continually throughout her life.
“Sometimes a word makes a difference. Sometimes it takes every single touch and every single vote and every single phone call to make something change,” she says. “We forget as human beings that we have a lot of power and we need to be respectful of that power and do good things with it.”
Blackman can be found occasionally reading poetry at Luna’s Cafe & Juice Bar, Shine and the Sacramento Poetry Center. Her published work can be found in poetry books by Rattlesnake Press. Visit www.rattlesnakepress.com/Martha_Ann_Blackman.html for more information.Ball so hard
On a recent weekday, Paul Clegg’s putting in dozens of practice shots at a local park. He’s working on perfecting the 3-point shot, but it’s not quite game ready yet. If it’s like the rest of his shots, he’ll keep up this practice session until he can consistently hit half of them. Then he’ll bring the 3-pointer into the basketball league at his downtown gym. Later on, at the end of the season, he’ll review the shooting percentages and make sure they’re satisfactory.
At the gym on a different day, Clegg warms up and stretches his legs. He probably won’t be blowing past defenders like he could when he was one of the best teenage players in Brooklyn. But don’t leave him with an open shot, either, just because he’s 69 years old. He has the ability to shoot, and even embarrass younger players who don’t play defense.
“I’m kind of interested in exploring the limits of what you can do,” says Clegg, who plays basketball three days a week, both at parks and at Capital Athletic Club. It’s hard to know what you’re capable of until you push yourself beyond your limits, he says.
The retired Sacramento Bee copy editor and columnist grew up in New York City playing ball at Braddock Park in Queens. He was the star of his high school team and thought he’d continue to play college ball at Harvard University while earning an English degree, but he dropped it to concentrate on academic pursuits. In the following 50 years or so, he’s had an “on-again, off-again” relationship with the game.
After graduating from Harvard, he moved to the West Coast. “I came west because I thought the revolution was starting back in 1968 and Berkeley was kind of the place to be and I was a budding activist,” he says.
He wound up with a newspaper job in Red Bluff, and then got a job at the Bee, where he worked for about 30 years. It wasn’t until 2008, in his early 60s and recovering from hip surgery, that he became more serious about playing basketball regularly again. Seeing a 90-year-old pole vaulter at the World Masters Athletics Championships in Sacramento reinforced the idea that he might as well give it a shot.
So in 2011, he started up again and at the same time started chronicling his new journey in a blog called “Game to 100.” He writes about “those of us playing basketball after 50, taking on all comers in athletic clubs, rec centers and playgrounds,” he says. It’s also branched out into topics such as the new Kings arena, other sports and ageism.
At this point in his life, Clegg says he’s spent too long in his comfort zone, and now he’s ready to step out of it. He’s trying to enrich other parts of his life, too, by trying new things that used to scare him, like traveling to foreign countries with his wife.
“Don’t sell yourself short,” he says. “I think you’re capable of a lot more things than you realize you can do.”
Read Clegg’s blog at www.gameto100.com.Dance all day
Tina DeVine might start one of her 12-hour-or-longer days at 9 a.m., teaching an 11-year-old dancer, then leading a rehearsal session for a local dance company. Later, she’ll go to the gym, teach more classes for a different group and have another rehearsal. Sometimes rehearsal won’t end until midnight. But it doesn’t seem to faze the 62-year-old dance lover.
It was probably around 20 years ago, while living on a rural Hawaiian island far away from dancing, when she realized how much she really loved it.
“We were living on an outer island, so there was no dance, not even a small studio at the time,” she says. “I just couldn’t read about it, hear about it, because I loved it and when you love something and you have to quit for one reason or another, it’s like you have to hide from it.”
This rural farm experience would also, in a way, help DeVine rekindle her flame with dancing. Ballet dancers generally peak in their early-to-mid 30s because of its physical demands. But she was super fit from farming. Plus, for the 20-year period during which she home-schooled five kids in Hawaii, she couldn’t even think about dancing, making her realize how much she really missed it.
DeVine showed a lot of promise as a young ballet dancer. Growing up in Michigan, she first started ballet at the age of 4 and became serious about it by the age of 11. When she was a little older, she honed her ballet skills attending professional dance companies’ summer programs. Then, in her late teens, she danced professionally in New York City, Chicago and San Francisco.
In her early 20s, however, she quit dancing altogether and made the jump to Hawaii, where she got married and raised her five kids, who are now all working professionals.
Finally, in her early 40s, after a 22-year break from dance—and years without the comforts of things like hot water and electricity—DeVine decided to move back to California and pursue her old profession.
Re-energized by her decision to dance once again, she branched out, taking jazz dance classes from Kelli Leighton, owner and artistic director of Leighton Dance Project in Folsom, and artistic director of CORE Dance Company. DeVine also returned to ballet, which led to her becoming ballet mistress at CORE a few years ago; and last year she started the role of artistic director of the ballet program of Leighton Dance Project.
“I’ll do it until I drop dead, it’s what I love to do,” she says. “As long as I can move, and students can learn something from me, I’ll keep doing it.”
One of the things that’s kept her going over the years, she says, is just self-discipline in all aspects of life.
“Whatever you want to do, or whatever you have an affinity for or love to do, put your hardest effort in, your whole heart into it, because it’s the work ethic that counts, not necessarily what you achieve,” she says. “The work that’s behind it can help you in life no matter what you end up doing.”
When retired teacher Kathryn Hohlwein explains the effect that poetry has on kids, she starts to tear up at the sound of her own words.
“It hooks them. They don’t forget it,” she says. “It’s not my doing, it’s just that the poems are wonderful.”
The particular poems she’s describing are the epic poems of Homer: The Iliad and The Odyssey. And Homer’s not just any poet in her heart.
According to Hohlwein, the Bible, and the works of Shakespeare and Homer are three of the most influential writings in history of western civilization. But there were plenty of people teaching the first two already, so she spent more than three decades teaching the third, she says. Now that she’s retired, her nonprofit group The Readers of Homer continues to present the text to a new generation of learners and hardcore classicists alike.
Hohlwein was born in Utah, but came to Sacramento after studying on the East Coast, in Europe and in the Middle East. She married an art professor, and the two found jobs at Sacramento State University in the late ’60s. There, she taught Homer’s two most famous works until retiring in 1996.
Homer transcended the politics of his day, and is still relevant, says Hohlwein. Moreover, he understood the complicated emotions that war, and coming home from war, involves.
“I think the Homer lesson above all is the fabulous impartiality of his work: Do we love the Trojans or do we love the Greeks; or do we love the Trojans and hate the Greeks?” she says. “Yes, he’s Greek and yet he’s writing about people in a foreign country, the defenseless, the occupied and the destroyed. It touches something very real and deep in all of us, whether we know it or not.”
By the time Hohlwein retired in 1996, she’d built a contingent of loyal students who loved the class, and she also wanted stay connected to the works. Someone pitched her the idea to create a nonprofit called The Readers of Homer. So in 1998, the group launched with an audience-participation reading of one of Homer’s epic works in Sacramento—straight through from beginning to end.
It was a hit, and the group hit the road, hosting hours-long readings nationally and internationally in Los Angeles, New York, Uruguay, Egypt and Greece. At readings, audience members split up the text, and take turns reading passages. It’s this audience-participation and spectacle of the readings—which often include foreign languages, music and food—that inspire young people and non-poetry lovers to enjoy it for the first time.
“The success has everything to do with the fact that the audience reads,” says Hohlwein. “People just love it at any age, any kind of person, poetry lover or plumber who doesn’t like poetry. It teaches itself.”
Find out more about Readers of Homer at http://tinyurl.com/readersofhomer. Hear Hohlwein read her poetry at the Sacramento Poetry Center, at 1719 25th Street, at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, February 2.