Clarence Burnett dates a woman 18 years his junior, bush hogs his field, does his own cooking and cleaning, and drives from Wythe County three to five times a week to work out at the Carroll Wellness Center. Big deal, you say? Yeah, it is a big deal, especially when you consider Burnett turned 99 in August.
Three to four times a week, you can find Burnett on the treadmills, bicycle stations and other areas of the Hillsville facility. Somewhere nearby you will find Burnett’s girlfriend, Mae Phillips, age 81.
“Clarence is just an inspiration to us at the Wellness Center. I use him as an example to other members when they are thinking about not coming and exercising. I am like, ‘Well, Clarence Burnett was here this morning, again, for the fourth time this week. He is 99 years old, so I don’t want to hear any excuses,’” Carroll Wellness Center Manager Greg Hampton said. ‘And don’t tell me you live too far away from the Wellness Center to exercise either because he drives from Wythe County. Galax is not too far. Your health is worth an extra 10-minute drive.’ So I just like to use him as an example, inspiration and encouragement, that you can do it.”
Burnett is in great health, Hampton said, which is very much attributable to his active lifestyle. Hampton said the nonagenarian (person in their nineties) is an example of what can be obtained with proper exercise and fitness. He’s been coming to the Carroll Wellness Center almost from the very day it opened in 2004.
“He is a valued member,” Hampton said. “We have got several in here, not 99, but several in their late 80s and early 90s, just like him.”
Burnett said his workout regime consists of one-hour workouts three to five times per week. He said it helps keep him going. He still keeps his own house, does his own driving and cooking. And despite what he called a “bad year” in 2015, Burnett doesn’t let anything slow him down for long.
“I fell and broke my hip, then my appendix busted, and then I fell and cut my head open. I’ve had a bad year this year,” Burnett said. “It kind of slowed me down. I don’t jump a fence like I used to could. I have to lay it down on the ground.”
All jokes aside, Burnett has maintained an active lifestyle since his store, Poplar Camp Electric Company, went out of business in 1979 after 40 years. By that point, he still had been exercising for five years, walking the railroad way along the New River Trail and riding a bicycle.
The father of two boys and two girls, Burnett said he was 18 when he went to work in the coal mines in West Virginia. He stayed for a year or two and came back to Austinville, where he worked in the Lead Mines for five years. From there he bought 100 acres of land and “had to work some to get it going.”
“I’ve been all around. It’s been a lot of hard work. When I started out, I made 50 cents a day for 10 hours. I made a nickel an hour and I was glad to get it,” Burnett said. “You start going back 100 years…that is a while. I remember when the ox yoke was the standard for farming, and then they moved up to horses and then I don’t remember when they got the first tractor, but I guess I was about 25 years old.”
Burnett said he can remember as a kid when a Model T would come through Carroll County, he and others would run a mile to get to see it. There’s been many changes over the past 100 years, he said, adding that “corruption, filth and no consideration for other people” are at the top of the list.
“People are in too big of a hurry to do their own thing,” he said. “You can’t depend on nobody anymore.”
A good sense of humor helps keep Burnett young as well. When asked if he feels good for the age of 99, he perked up.
“You think people die at 98 and 99? They ain’t dead. You can see I ain’t dead,” Burnett said. “But we come three, four, five days a week (to the Carroll Wellness Center). It’s a good place to come exercise and it’s something I look forward to. I have that little girl over there and I have to take care of her and keep her happy (referring to his girlfriend Mae Phillips). She looks like she’s 69 and she is 81. She’s been my girlfriend for eight years. We do a lot of eating out and going places.”
Burnett said he recently sold a 5-speed pickup truck because he couldn’t drive it anymore. He would like to buy a small pick-up with four-wheel drive and an automatic transmission like an S-10.
“Tell anybody that wants to sell one to call me at (276) 699-1208,” Burnett said.
And just like that, Burnett was ready to get on with life. As he ended the interview, he patted his girlfriend on the back and said, “Come on baby, let’s go to Hardee’s.”