The thousands of seniors she's known have passed on these age-old lessons: Time goes by in a snap. Circumstances can change quickly. Do what you think needs to be done, and do...

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The thousands of seniors she’s known have passed on these age-old lessons: Time goes by in a snap. Circumstances can change quickly. Do what you think needs to be done, and do it now.

“Sometimes, I feel like bees are after me,” Marianne LoGerfo says. “Opportunities come and go. You need to seize them.”

And so she has. At 62, LoGerfo retires this month after nearly 22 years as director of Northshore Senior Center in Bothell.

She’s a self-effacing public servant. Her name is not widely known. Her salary is a moderate $46,000 a year. But her vision, creativity and energy have made aging in America a profoundly better prospect.

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“Marianne is a national legend,” says Nancy Whitelaw, director of the Center for Healthy Aging at The National Council on the Aging.

LoGerfo proved through research into her innovative programs that senior centers can be much more than places to play bingo and trade dance cards. They can help keep older adults vigorous, optimistic and out of hospital emergency rooms. They can give families a break with caregiving. And they can help keep community life vital.

Consider Northshore. When LoGerfo took over in 1983, it was based in an old house with 500 members and 50 volunteers. The director’s tiny office had an “authorized personnel only” sign on the door.

LoGerfo took down the sign and started asking questions.

“What have you always wanted to do?”

Voilà! The little senior center started a cross-country ski program, tap-dancing classes, piano lessons and a computer lab.

Today, Northshore is one of the largest, most cutting-edge senior centers in the nation, with three branches, 8,000 members, 2,000 volunteers, a fleet of 16 buses and hundreds of programs. Bingo included.

LoGerfo led a campaign that persuaded voters to create a Northshore Parks and Recreation Service Area taxing district and then approve a $3.6 million bond issue to build a senior center. It opened in 1992. A few years later, she did it again.

A primarily taxpayer-financed 20,000-square-foot Health and Wellness Center will open across the street early next year. Total cost: about $6 million, including private and corporate donations. It has a fitness center, computer lab and adult day care.

Still not enough, said LoGerfo, who insisted the buildings must be connected. So she raised $650,000 for a pedestrian overpass.

The Senior Wellness Project — LoGerfo’s idea — started at Northshore a decade ago with help from the University of Washington and Group Health Cooperative. The program, which cut participants’ hospitalizations by more than 70 percent, has won national awards and been replicated in 55 community centers across the United States and in Europe.

A core component, The Lifetime Fitness Program, was developed by the UW and tested at Northshore. It was recognized last year as one of the 10 most effective physical-activity programs in the United States by the National Council on the Aging and has been adopted by the Ministry of Health in China.

“Very dreamy, very shy”

LoGerfo got help from home to build her legacy.

Her husband, Dr. Jim LoGerfo, directs the UW’s Health Promotion Research Center, which runs a national project on healthful aging sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. He’s also the former medical director of Harborview Medical Center.

“Marianne firmly believed that senior centers could play a very important role in improving people’s health and well-being,” Jim LoGerfo says.

He introduced her to one of Seattle’s best-known researchers on aging, Dr. Ed Wagner, with the Center for Health Studies at Group Health. Wagner designed scientific studies that proved her ideas were right.

Marianne LoGerfo is a master at knowing when to ask for help and knowing what needs to be done. An idea morphs in her mind’s eye into a complete picture with all the steps to make it happen.

“If I listed the 10 most interesting, hardworking, accomplished but nice people I’ve met in my career, she’d be on the list,” says Sen. Maria Cantwell, who helped Northshore in her state legislative days.

All of this from an unpretentious woman who cuts her own hair, wears sensible shoes and still claims to feel timid when she asks for money.

LoGerfo grew up as one of three children in a two-bedroom house in Yonkers, N.Y. Father was a cellist. He gave it up to manage a Woolworth five-and-dime store. Mother was quick-witted and sharp-tongued. Grandmother was the role model and light of her life, a warm person who brought out the best in other people.

LoGerfo recalls being “very dreamy, very shy, very bookish.”

She won a full scholarship to the University of Rochester in New York, where she met Jim, her roommate’s lab partner.

After marriage, the couple had three children in three years. She finished a master’s degree in teaching before delivering their first child, but pursuing a career seemed impossible.

“It was a very hard time for me,” she says. “For Jim it was a very thrilling time. He loved his medicine.”

In 1969, after medical school and a year of internship, Jim LoGerfo joined the Indian Health Service. The couple packed the family into a Volkswagen van and drove to the Tohono O’odham Nation in Arizona.

STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Mariannne LoGerfo tours the new Health and Wellness Center with Bob Mitchell, network voice and data specialist, and Russ Woodruff, far right, project manager. The center, which cost about $6 million, is scheduled to open early next year. It has a fitness center, computer lab and adult day care.

Two years later, the family moved to Washington state, where he finished his residency at the UW. The couple also adopted a child from Korea and later one from Colombia. Both had medical needs.

They moved to Woodinville where there was room for pets and kids.

When the youngest child went off to elementary school, LoGerfo’s restlessness bloomed.

“I didn’t know what to do, who to become. I thought I would never find a place for myself in the world. I felt very ashamed that I wasn’t satisfied with being a wife and mother. But I wanted my own life’s work.”

One day she imagined herself walking up a narrow flight of stairs to feed a needy old man. She took it as a sign and started to volunteer with older adults through a nonprofit agency.

That’s when she met May Mathews, a 94-year-old with a doctorate and a stack of newspaper clippings. Mathews couldn’t see or hear well.

“Pick a clipping and read it to me. Shout. Slowly,” Mathews instructed.

LoGerfo came to understand that independence can contribute to an older person’s health.

Mathews would say, “There’s nothing wrong with me that a good burp won’t cure.” Then she’d let out a belch so LoGerfo knew she was well.

“She really taught me the value of being who you are, of living life on your own terms.”

Inspiring her volunteers

LoGerfo earned a second master’s degree, this one in social work from the UW. Soon after, she was hired to direct Northshore.

The members captured her imagination with their humor, kindness, intelligence and courage.

It’s been mutual admiration and respect ever since.

That’s probably why LoGerfo has persuaded them over the years to try challenges they never dreamed possible.

Bernice McDonnell remembers the day she suggested Kenmore needed its own small senior center, a branch of Northshore.

“I think it’s a great idea,” LoGerfo responded. “You know we don’t have any money. But you can go in front of the City Council and ask for $5,000.”

“I’ve never done that,” McDonnell replied.

“But I know, Bernice, you can do it,” LoGerfo said.

Northshore received the $5,000 and increasing amounts in subsequent years.

About her retirement, LoGerfo admits: “I’m in a hideous panic.”

She fears being heartbroken because Northshore has been such a big part of her life. “The people are like my own bones and blood,” she says.

But her older friends also have shown the way.

After watching them seize life’s opportunities, LoGerfo started to ask: “Have I lived all of my life?”

Over the years, she’d given up a lot of personal joy for the love of the work.

And she was just plain tired, getting sick more easily after working hard.

“I’d like to hang out in my pj’s for a month,” she says.

Then there are the nine grandchildren to dote on. A stack of books on William Shakespeare, philosophy and neurobiology to read. Perhaps classes to teach. And slopping around in the snow on cross-country skis.

“Hopefully, the bees will go back in their hive,” she says with a laugh.

Marsha King: 206-464-2232 or mking@seattletimes.com