Adventurous Life Leads to Active Retirement

Woman on a paddle board

“I just love doing this,” says Wally Brinkmann with a beaming smile, “I hope to be doing it for a long time.” The 83-year old Prairie Ridge resident is masterfully making her way across the water atop her paddleboard.

Born in Berlin, Waltraud “Wally” Brinkmann has lived an adventure-filled life. Her adventures began when she was flown to a children’s camp for undernourished children in 1948.

“They had doctors and nurses going through the schools, examining every child and giving them a number between one and five, with one being overweight, and five being very thin. I was given a four,” she says. Her mother was contacted and asked if it would be okay for her to go to the children’s camp in West Germany.

“I had always wanted to move into a place like this while I was still able to enjoy it. I told myself ‘the time is now.’”

“My mother said sure, and I always loved to travel; actually, I spent a lot of time away from my parents when I was young.”

When the Berlin Blockade was over, they started to fly all the children back to their homes. Wally was one of 20 children who were deemed not to have gained enough weight, so, instead of flying back to Berlin, she and the others were flown to another camp. By the time she returned home, she’d been gone for about a year.

Finding Opportunity

Because of the effects of the war, there wasn’t much opportunity in Berlin. Wally’s family had relatives on her mother’s side in Canada, so she decided she would go to live with them for a while and improve her English. She’d had about eight years of English in school, but, as she describes it, it was more translating than conversational.

“It was clear by the 1950s, that English was going to be the dominant language, and my opportunity to do something with my life would be improved by knowing English,” she says.

Her initial plan was to be in Canada for a few years, improve her English, and then return to Europe. Once in Canada, her first job was at a hunting and fishing camp in the Dryden area of Ontario, where her aunt was a cook.

“We were on an island, and a lot of people came from Chicago. I learned to work with Native Americans as the guides,” says Wally.

From there, she made her way to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where she had more relatives. She became the accountant for a convenience store there.

Next up, she went to Calgary where she got a job more or less because of a case of mistaken identity. She applied to be an accountant in another branch of the convenience store she worked at in Saskatoon, and “from my name, they assumed I was a man. They had done the background check and even spoke with my landlady, and it never came up that I was a woman,” Wally shares with a laugh. “So, I get to the interview and they see I’m a woman. They had done too much work at that point, so I got the job.”

Continuing Education

A few years later, she became interested in attending university. At that time, universities often didn’t recognize degrees from foreign countries, so she would have to repeat grade 12 in order to apply. Not deterred by this, she says of the experience, “I thought ‘well, it’s a bit of a pain, but at the same time, it will help improve my English.’”

After completing grade 12, she got into the University of Calgary, where she developed an interest in
geography. In her climatology course, she was invited by her professor to collaborate on a research project on the Chinook wind in the Rocky Mountains.

Her work on this project led to her Master’s thesis. While pursuing her Master’s in Climatology, Wally
received a scholarship from the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she continued studying
wind patterns.

Wally received her Ph.D. at Boulder, and was offered a job at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“I was teaching in my field, physical environment, with an emphasis on climatology, climate change, and global warming.” Her research was on the effect of climate change variations on the water levels of the Great Lakes.

“As retirement was nearing, I thought, what am i going to do with my time?”

An Active Retirement

At the University of Wisconsin, she eventually became chair of her department, and was the first woman in the department. After nearly 30 years there, she retired.

“As retirement was nearing, I thought, what am I going to do with my time?” recalls Wally. She decided she wanted to do something new so she took classes at Madison College, and eventually joined Madison Bead Society and also bought a sewing machine.

“I really like the creativity of jewelry-making and sewing. I like putting colors together – I never realized how important that was for me.”

Following retirement she also joined the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, and was on the board of organizations related to the outdoors. In other words, she didn’t take retirement as an opportunity to slow down.

While living in Canada, Wally became a Canadian citizen, and had been working in the United States on a green card.

“I realized that because I don’t have any relatives here, eventually I would move into a senior community like Oakwood. And if I was in the position of having someone care for me, I wouldn’t be able to renew my Canadian passport and I would become an illegal alien. I decided I might as well become a US citizen.”

So, in her late 70s, Wally finally became a United States citizen.

Citizenship inspired her to become more involved in local politics, and she joined the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin (analyzing bills and speaking at legislative hearings) and joined the League of Women Voters of Dane County (observing county committee meetings and helped start a local group at Oakwood).

Thriving at Oakwood

Knowing a place like Oakwood was in her future, Wally conducted a survey of Madison-area
communities. Deciding Prairie Ridge was where she wanted to be, she applied to be on the waiting list about 10 years ago.

When Prairie Ridge was starting its redevelopment in 2017, Wally received an invitation to learn about the plans for the campus.

“I had always wanted to move into a place like this while I was still able to enjoy it. I told myself ‘the time is now.’”

Woman paddle boarding

After poring over the information and floorplans, she knew exactly which apartment she wanted. When she got her call to see if she wanted to reserve an apartment in the new buildings, she was delighted to be able to reserve the specific apartment she had her eyes on.

“It’s everything I ever wanted! There’s nothing I don’t have – I mean it’s absolutely fabulous,” Wally says of her top floor apartment. “I still sometimes wake up and say, ‘this must be a dream’ – and I’ve been here for over a year!”

Most of Wally’s creative energy is now spent in her “sewing room” where she is surrounded by four sewing machines. She even has a line of women’s tops that are sold in Door County and at shows in the Madison area.

The pandemic this year inspired Wally and other Prairie Ridge residents to make face masks. A group of about 30 women worked together to create almost 500 masks using donated fabric. The masks were available to residents and employees (before employees were required to wear surgical masks).

Her work with the various organizations she is involved with, in addition to her creative pursuits, is more than enough to keep the average retiree busy. But it’s not enough for Wally. She travels to Mexico and Hawaii every winter and, about six years ago, she observed someone paddleboarding while in Hawaii.

“I thought it would be a great physical challenge, so I went and rented a board. The first hour I was in the water about five times, much to the amusement of the people near me,” she says. “I fell in love with it, and I now have two paddleboards – one regular one and one inflatable one.” She has also been kayaking for 25 years and owns her own kayak, as well.

She is committed to staying active and keeping her body strong. In addition to her watersports, Wally enjoys biking, walking, running and strength training.

“On days when the weather isn’t good, I run from the basement up the staircase to the fifth floor. I have a suspension trainer and do pushups using the handrail.”

Wally demonstrated strong drive and determination to overcome barriers she came upon in her personal and professional life, and it would seem those same qualities are helping her defy conventional ideas about aging. When asked if there’s anything she can’t do, she modestly responds with a smile, “I have good genes, I think.”

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