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Doris Hammond: Mentor encourages living life to the fullest no matter your age

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Gerontology – the scientific study of aging – has been a focal point for Dr. Doris (Dori) Hammond for decades, and she has won a variety of admirers through her efforts to encourage senior citizens to make the most of their stage in life.

"It's kind of a joy to experience getting older people ... in a way, as excited about being old as I am," she said, in sharing her perspective on her local roles in Aiken.

The Cincinnati native, a former college professor whose 88th birthday will be Jan. 27, is now a life coach with a background as an educator and licensed, professional counselor. She has lived throughout the eastern United States over the past 50-plus years, and now Cumberland Village as her base of operations, where she moved almost a year ago from Kalmia Landing.

She is known to some for her support of the Academy for Lifelong Learning, at USC Aiken, and also for leadership in establishing such Aiken-based organizations as Wise Outrageous Women and Women in Celebration.

Hammond also teaches synchronized swimming, calling on a few of the skills she fine-tuned during her youth in Ohio as part of a performing group that was sponsored by Coca-Cola and went by the name of "Cokettes."

"I teach a class at USCA and have a wonderful group of women that love doing it," acknowledging an activity relatively resistant to COVID-19. "Water is where you can't transmit the virus, so if you stay in the water, you're safe."

Teaching is a huge part of her background, as she taught elementary grades over the course of years in Georgia, West Virginia, Ohio, Michigan, New York and Florida, along with supervising student teachers in New York. More recently, she was on board with Empire State College (in Saratoga Springs, New York), State University of New York at Buffalo, and D'Youville College (also in Buffalo).

Hammond's local admirers include Bette Ross, whose acquaintance is through their mutual support of Aiken County Family Promise, a new organization dedicated to providing "support to families and children facing homelessness," as Ross described it. 

"She was instrumental in bringing the concept of Family Promise to Aiken," Ross said. "If not for Dori's commitment and passion for Family Promise, it would never even be where it is right now ... and for me, that's huge, because she personally asked me to be involved."

Ross, who is now president of the organization's board of directors, added, "She is the reason that we're even close to operational right now."

Kathleen Hall, another board member with Family Promise, said, "I'm 61, and ... very much with her encouragement, I'm a student at USC Aiken – a real student. I have gone back to further my education, so she's extremely encouraging and inspiring to me." 

Among her awards through the decades have been one from the Academy for Lifelong Learning, in recognition of service; one from the American Association of University Women, for community service; and one from the Mental Health Association of Aiken County, recognizing Hammond as the state's top volunteer.

She was also recognized in connection with Make a Difference Day, in honor of her years of support of a program through Wise Outrageous Women, to help the children with Helping Hands, a facility for abused and neglected children in Aiken County. Money from that award went to help begin an annual retreat titled Women in Celebration.

Hammond and her late husband, Ted, met in high school, after he saw her in a swimming event and then again at a summer camp, and the couple moved around in the years to come, largely on the basis of his work in the food business. She was an elementary school teacher during their early years together.

"He was mainly in charge of starting grocery stores," Hammond said, recalling that their road led throughout the eastern half of the United States, winding – sometimes repeatedly – through such territory as Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, New York, Michigan, Florida, West Virginia and Georgia. Hilton Head and Aiken have claimed most of her attention over the past couple of decades. 

The 87-year-old's family tree now includes three daughters and "one granddaughter who's about to have a great-granddaughter for me, which will be wonderful." 

"Two of my three daughters ended up joining the Peace Corps, and they went to Africa as though it was nothing ... whereas I was afraid to go away from Cincinnati for college. I went to the University of Cincinnati. I could walk to college," she recalled, with a laugh. 

That was the early 1950s, as she received her bachelor's degree in education in 1954. She wound up living in Cincinnati until age 30, and by the time she got in gear to pursue advanced degrees, she was usually the oldest student in the class, en route to a master's in counseling, in 1975, from Marshall University, in West Virginia; and a doctorate in counseling, in 1979, from the University of Georgia. 

Her time in Athens, as she approached her dissertation, led her initially to focus on the topic of pet therapy, but she wound up taking an alternate route, focusing instead of human sexuality. 

The Hilton Head-based magazine Pink, in a November 2009 story, noted, "A few eyebrows maybe have been raised when Doris chose to study older people's sexuality; but her book, "My Parents Never Had Sex: Myths and Facts About Sexual Aging" (Prometheus Books), proved to be an insightful, sensitive and even humorous treatment of the subject."

Hammond's early Aiken years, starting in the late 1980s, included service as J.D. Lever Elementary School's guidance counselor. Her sole reason for leaving that school, she said, was the fact that her private counseling practice had grown to the point that it required much more of her attention. 

She came to J.D. Lever from New York as a former college professor, driving down in a yellow sports car, and the elementary school reportedly established a betting pool among the faculty as to how long Hammond would stay. The most optimistic of the bunch guessed that Hammond would stick around for seven days.

"Well, what they didn't know – or I perhaps didn't even know – was how dear those children would become to me," Hammond recalled. She wound up staying at the school for six years. 

Much more recent developments included suffering a stroke, followed by a vigorous rebound. "This was a challenge, and I have worked very hard to regain the speech necessary for anybody to understand me," she said, noting that she has also recently had to give up tennis – one of her favorite leisure-time pursuits – due to the stroke and related complications of age.

Highlights in recent years, she recalled, including picking up a clarinet and finding that she was quickly able to handle the instrument comfortably, as she did during her teen years as an award-winning player. Her musical background also includes vocal performance in a variety of settings.

Pets are a traditional part of the Hammond household, and Hammond's childhood memories include hundreds of visits to Cincinnati's zoo, where she had exceptional access due to one of her grandfathers working there and being able to provide passes. She eventually built a collection of warthog-related items for her household, based on her standing up for "underdog warthogs" after her dad, during a zoo visit, once referred to them as the ugliest animal. 

Dr. Holly Woltz, an Aiken-based veterinarian who serves the Hammond household, credited Hammond with consistently making the most of tough situations.

"She is ... constantly positive. She has had quite a few health setbacks in her life, and it's like she just rises, like a phoenix," said Woltz, who also recalled hearing of a conversation that Hammond recently had with an elderly friend. Hammond's acquaintance reportedly expressed a degree of resignation with regard to COVID-19, due to being old and having "had a good life," to the point of not being interested in self-quarantining or getting a vaccine.

Woltz said Hammond took strong exception to the attitude that "whatever will be, will be."

Hammond's reply, Woltz said, was, "You have to do your best. You have to continue life at its fullest. You have to make a difference."

Woltz recalled her reply to Hammond. "'Well, Dori, you're right, but a lot of people don't see things your way.' To me, she's positive. She's grateful. She actually reminds me a lot of my mother. She is of that era that she doesn't take things for granted. She's absolutely a family and friend person, so I consider her to be truly a mentor to me, and I know she has been a mentor to many, many people."

Ross, with Family Promise, commented, "I pray that I'm going to be like her ... We should age as wisely as Dori."

Hall chose the phrase "funny and fun to be around" in describing Hammond. She added that the 87-year-old is "committed to the well-being of not just fellow humans but her community, and she's caring and wise and humble and strong, but all of that, with a really great sense of humor."

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