Fitness buff led others to dive in

CorrespondentNovember 28, 2011 

  • Born: July 21, 1926

    1950: Marries Bruce Poulton in N.J.

    1956: Moves to Orono, Maine

    1975: Moves to Durham, N.H.

    1981: Moves to Raleigh

    1990: Accepts position with Encore program at NCSU

    Died: Nov. 13, 2011

During the seemingly endless winters of New England when her children were young, Elizabeth Poulton made sure the entire family stayed moving by developing a program she called "Family Fun and Fitness."

She ran the program from the gymnasium at the University of Maine, where her husband, Bruce Poulton, was a professor. Soon, other faculty members were happily bringing their broods to the gym on winter weekends to stay active and avoid cabin fever.

"The fun part was of great importance as a selling point with the kids - at any age," her husband of 61 years said. "Slowly but surely we filled the place up."

Poulton had four children of her own, and at the time they didn't consider it unique for their mother to be so engaged in sports and fitness. It was the 1950s and '60s, and Poulton was always right there beside them on the ski slopes, leading them on mountain hikes and even teaching them archery.

As adults they gained a better appreciation for how ahead of her time she was - a woman deeply passionate about athletics, who never thought twice about teaching her sons a thing or two about how to swing a golf club.

"The conclusion I came to, when I started reviewing my mother's life ... you really figure out how much she did, how much good she did," said her eldest, Randy Poulton. "It's almost like raising four kids was a minor part of her life."

Betty, as she was better known, died this month at the age of 85.

Through the summer, she was still getting in and out of boats by herself, rowing through the cold waters of Maine near the family camp on the shores of Long Pond in Somesville, Maine.

Betty Poulton was born in New Jersey to German immigrants in 1926, and she was always deeply involved in athletics.

She earned a bachelor's degree in physical education from Douglas College, and would later teach high school gym in Ridgewood, N.J.

She played semi-professional softball during the war years, just like in the film, "A League of Their Own," her husband said.

After having children, she also played competitive amateur tennis and was an incredibly accomplished swimmer. She would go years on the slopes between falls.

"I'd say she was pretty much an all-around athlete," Bruce Poulton said.

Randy Poulton admits she could beat him in golf in her 60s, still convalescing from major surgery. She survived breast cancer twice and underwent two mastectomies.

"My mother didn't sit still very long, that's for sure," he said. "I think that once the kids were out of the house, she was immediately bored."

As an empty-nester, Poulton decided she would volunteer as a ranger for Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island. She would hike each morning to staff the fire tower, something many considered a day's work.

The Poultons moved around quite a bit for Bruce's career. After their time in Maine, he became chancellor of the University System of New Hampshire and eventually was awarded the same position at N.C. State University.

She spent decades entertaining and attending events as the first lady of these schools, but her favorite part of that job was meeting new people, her husband said.

Maine was always their touchstone - they had purchased a home on Long Pond early in their marriage, and she spent summers there as much as possible.

Later in life, she was accepted a position as program director for the newly established Encore Program for Lifelong Enrichment at NCSU. She and Bruce were able to travel thanks to that position, and the couple saw every country in Europe during her tenure.

Her family considered it a perfect fit - she was a lifelong learner, and her ability to organize and motivate others proved ideal in orchestrating that program early on.

She had the rare ability to rally the team without pushing anyone beyond their limit. She was always proper, still scolding her grown children should a foul word slip from their mouths.

"She led by example," said Peter Poulton, her youngest child.

That example was one of making the most out of life.

"It was: Never stick a toe in the water," Randy Poulton said. "It was: Dive into the deep end of the pool."

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