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Everyone wants to be like Bea

FARGO -- The Fargo-Moorhead Family YMCA boasts thousands of names on its membership rolls.

But there is only one Bea.

Bea is Bernice Ihlenfeld, a 95-year-old Fargo resident who has been at the downtown Y for 34 years.

"This is my second home, really," said Ihlenfeld, who exercises weekday mornings in one of two indoor pools.

Ihlenfeld does not hold the distinction of being the Y's oldest member. That honor belongs to 97-year-old Minerva Franke, a Fargo resident who exercises in the pool four afternoons every week.

Nor will Ihlenfeld make it into any record book for membership longevity. Members routinely surpass the 40-year mark, according to Judy Whittlesey, senior membership director.

What makes Ihlenfeld exceptional in the hearts and minds of the women who frequent the members' locker room isn't that tangible.

"She is our inspiration and our wisdom," said Karen Bakke, a Fargo artist, athlete and Y regular. "Everybody wants to be like Bea."

Admirers respect Ihlenfeld for her lifelong dedication to physical fitness and bright outlook.

She flashes her trademark grin in the face of arthritic flare-ups and a bad back. Y regulars cannot remember hearing Ihlenfeld complain not after knee surgery, not after hip surgery.

What's more, Ihlenfeld has a kind word for anyone and everyone.

She has an impressive memory for faces and has been known to greet Y members with an enthusiastic "It's great to have you

back" after an unexplained 18-month absence.

The former Fargo North High School assistant principal -- she retired in 1974 -- motivates even the most motivated Y members.

Friend and fellow swimmer Fredrika Monson, 81, of Moorhead exercises four mornings a week.

However, there are days when Monson lies in bed and contemplates staying home. Then, Monson said, she thinks of Ihlenfeld: "If she can do it, I can do it."

Ihlenfeld's impact on the Y community is unmistakable in the locker room where she frequently holds court in the dressing area.

Seated beneath a small "BEA'S CORNER" placard, Ihlenfeld sips coffee from a Styrofoam cup and chats with friends, colleagues and former students. Ihlenfeld was a girls' physical education teacher and counselor at Fargo Central High School in the 1950s.

Over the hum of hairdryers, the women chat about travel plans, upcoming weddings and anticipated graduations.

They share news about their spouses, children and grandchildren. Ihlenfeld has two daughters, both of whom live outside the area, and five grandchildren. Her husband, Fred, a Lutheran pastor, died in 1949.

Sometimes the exchanges aren't really a conversation at all, rather the briefest of friendly greetings.

It's here that Ihlenfeld has formed a family of women who cannot imagine the locker room with its matriarch. They will ensure Bea never misses her weekday swim.

"I've had the girls say, 'If you (ever) need a ride, just call us,'" Ihlenfeld said. "I'm depending on them -- in future years that is."

The Forum and The Dickinson Press are both owned by Forum Communications Co.