Jim Freer has hands as creased and cracked as the wood he works inside a Mesa shop, teaching other retirees to mold the earthen material into woodcrafts. The 76-year-old retired pilot and postal worker says those hands are more dexterous today from the practice of teaching old hands new tricks.
A three-day series
Those same hands took Freer through the grueling elimination process recently in east Mesa during the 9th Annual Bud Walrath National Singles Shuffleboard Tournament last week at Mesa Spirit RV Resort.
The event brought out more than 200 “shufflers,” as they call themselves, from all over the country, as well as parts of Canada. Flags draped around the dozens of shuffleboard courts at the resort were a testament to the variety of states represented.
While the majority of shufflers were well past retirement, like Freer, the grace with which the myriad disks slid across the long boards was a testament to the sport’s compatibility with just about any strength level. The youngest reported person to push a disk during the week-long event was 2 years old, and the oldest was 90.
Recreational activities in the East Valley have long been a beacon to retired, part-time residents who flock to the region for ballroom dancing, line dancing, horseback riding, shuffleboard, arts and crafts, swap meets and farmers markets. Many attribute the recreational activities with boosting the health and lifestyles of snowbirds.
Event organizers said there are about 16,000 shuffleboard players in the state, which is the second-most popular state for the sport after Florida. There are a reported 50 parks for players in the East Valley alone, mainly housed in supersized retirement communities such as Leisure World, Fiesta Village and Greenfield Village RV parks, among others.
Freer, on the second-to-last day of the national shuffleboard tournament, had managed to push his way through the steep and extensive field of competition. But he was having difficulty landing his hammer shot — the last shot a player has to either score a point or knock an opponent off the board.
Another player knew every detail of the court, including just where to strike his hammer. Standing in comfortable hiking sandals and socks while surveying the glycerin bead- laden terrain, Ray Dunlop, a snowbird from Kansas, knew that the court pulled to one side.
“You have to get out on the court to get a feel for it,” he said of the glassy surface as slippery as ice.
Dunlop described the court as 39 feet by 6 feet, with triangles on each end that offer small areas where players must place their disks to score or block their opponents for the win.
Dunlop took the game and went on to the next day’s finals. He also nailed — or hammered — a win on the last day of competition against 32 other players to take home the national pin — a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. Players are only able to win one national pin no matter how many times they take top position in the pro event.
Dunlop won the pro portion of the shuffleboard tournament on Feb. 13 and split the prize money of $1,700 with the 16 other players. There were also consolation prizes and the event gave a $1,300 donation to the Sunshine Acres Children’s Home of Mesa.
For Freer, heading back to the workshop held more than figurative meaning: His skills are needed in helping others learn how to craft bowls and other artful pieces out of wood. The ones he makes, he gives away to family.
“I have to start selling them because everyone in my family has already received one,” joked Freer, a retired U.S. Air Force pilot, who said he might rent a booth at a swap meet.
When he’s not staying active on the shuffleboard courts, Freer has become so skillful with wood that he oversees a class in his retirement community.
“I’ve always liked woodworking,” said Freer, who lives part-time in Mesa Spirit RV Resort when he’s not at his other home, located in Washington state.
Fellow Washington resident and business owner Margaret Robinson said her passion for many years has been line dancing, and the benefits of the hobby have paid dividends during her winter sojourns to the East Valley.
“You don’t need a partner, just a love of dance,” she said, adding that the benefits include improved stamina, agility, better circulation, posture and heart health pluses.
The 57-year-old Sunland Village resident said she enjoys the musical aspect of the exercise, as well, as she sometimes performs the dance to rock 'n’ roll or even rap.
“It’s like the electric slide meets the waltz meets the tango,” she said. “We dance to everything from Perry Cuomo to Britney Spears, but mostly country.”
To many retirees and winter visitors who reserve part of the year for basking in Arizona’s sun, the quiet nights in the Valley’s mature communities are music to their ears.
Kenn Kardish and his wife, Fran, come down from Alberta, Canada, for the quiet and rustic charm of Apache Junction’s Desert Holiday RV Resort, where he also rides horses.
The retired lawyer and Canadian Royal Mounted Police officer also performs country music with his wife, a retired paralegal.
They’ve been performing country music at senior communities for almost as long as they’ve been coming to the Valley, since 2002, he said.
“We play at our resort and we sometimes go to other parks to attend jam sessions,” he said.
Kardish and his wife also play shuffleboard; he came in third place in the amateur consolation portion of the national tournament, and his wife took first place in the women’s pro consolation.
“She’s better than I am,” he said.
Kardish said he and his wife enjoy arriving in the Valley early enough each season to survey the land before other snowbirds arrive.
They’re driven, if only temporarily, by the solitude and the always-good weather, he said.
To stay fit, he works out every morning before the sun rises at the multigenerational center across the street from Desert Holiday.
And he always can tell when old friends are back in town for the winter.
“I can’t get a workout machine,” he said.