RALEIGH — For more than 30 years, Petrice Bass worked for the N.C. Department of Agriculture in the motor fuel laboratory. She held various positions, for years running quality control tests on an octane engine to make sure the diesel and gasoline being sold in the state were clean and pure.
And at the end of the day, four days a week, Peaches, as she was known, left work and headed for a pool.
For more than 20 years, Bass proved to countless women and even some men that water aerobics was not for sissies. The classes she taught were not for any stereotypical grandma more interested in gossiping in a heated pool than breaking a sweat.
Her classes, both at Golds Gym and Fitness Connection in Raleigh, were jam-packed, often sporting three and four times as many believers as other classes in the area, and they drew a diverse crowd. They were the stuff of legends a Peaches class was something to seek, and to brag about if you could get through it.
But it seems that those who took a water aerobics class from Peaches often left the pool with far more than toned arms and strong legs. Long before she began her losing battle with cancer, she was known for her encouragement and motivation.
She had a way of doing it without being better than anybody. It was an inclusive kind of thing, said Debra DeCamillis, who first took the classes after a hamstring injury rendered her unable to do much at all for six months.
Inclusive, but tough.
The first couple of times I went to her class I could hardly walk to the car, DeCamillis added with a chuckle. She changed my life.
Bass supported everyone from the weakest to the strongest, making sure no one ever felt left behind.
This was her way, her friends and family said, both in and out of the pool.
When she died in December, many of her students simply could not believe it was true. Bass, 54, never let on to anyone that she would be anything other than healthy, despite her stage IV cancer diagnoses.
Raised at the gym
Bass was raised in Raleigh as one of 14 children, her husband said, and she was among the youngest. Like most of her siblings, she went to college, where she met Logan Bass during their freshman year at North Carolina Central University. After graduation, they married and quickly started a family. She had two daughters 18 months apart, and 15 years later had a son.
Her children say they were raised at the gym. Her older daughters, Gwendolyn Jones of Greenville and Ashley Mitchell of Raleigh, recall being dropped off at the gym day care center as children. When they were teens she helped them get jobs working at the nursery.
She always kept us close to her, Jones said.
More recently, she spent Saturdays at the gym with her teenage son, Logan Bass Jr. Her husband said they would take off in the morning and often not come home until after 4 p.m.
In recent months, as her illness progressed, she quietly made phone calls to her sons teachers and school counselors to let them know what he was dealing with at home. She wanted it to be clear that if he struggled, it was for a reason, and they should be extra supportive of him after she died.
She was like the backbone of our family, Mitchell said.
All were welcome, encouraged
In the pool, Bass made the same efforts to ensure all of her students were taken care of as well. It was not unusual for her to spend time afterward, dripping wet in her bathing suit, talking in the locker room with a woman in need of a kind ear. Her students enjoyed being called baby and precious, as she reminded them to hold their arms out straight.
She welcomed people with disabilities to her classes, her husband said, working with students in need of a wheelchair with gusto and encouragement. There were sometimes students who were also fighting cancer, and when Bass spoke about her own battle, it was inspirational to everyone.
She was so proud of being a survivor. She was so open about what she went through, DeCamillis said.
Bass was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer in the fall of 2011, and knew it would never be cured. But her students say she became all the more positive during her workouts in response to the diagnoses, if anything.
She took a few months off following a major surgery, but continued to teach the classes even as she used a port to receive medication. It became infected at times, causing her to take additional breaks, but she taught until about six weeks before her death.
She had a saying, her husband said. She always thought she was dancing in the water.