Nearly every day for nearly 47 years, Sara Grandy exercised at the YMCA in downtown Raleigh. In recent memory, Grandy usually showed up in her convertible at about 10 a.m.; she hated to miss an aerobics class.
When she was diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer this summer, the 86-year-old kept to her course.
“Two weeks before she died, you know, she had cancer and weighed 90 pounds, she was down on the floor doing pushups. She was a very tough lady,” said Bruce Ham, chief development officer for the YMCA of the Triangle.
Ham befriended Grandy years ago when he was director of the Raleigh location on Hillsborough Street. He was one of the eight directors Grandy had gotten to know since joining the Y in 1967.
“She was eaten up with cancer and getting people to drive her to the Y to take classes, and hanging with everyone else in the class, doing pushups and planks,” he said.
Grandy died this fall, just two months after her diagnosis.
She was more than an inspiration to stay fit. Though Grandy was remarkably committed to exercise and healthy living, it was the way she cared about people that really left a mark.
Following her many workouts, Grandy could be found sitting on a bench near the main lobby, sipping coffee. She’d call folks over for a chat, ask how their children were doing or how a sick relation had fared.
Her absence will take some getting used to.
“I’ve heard a bunch of people say it just feels so strange to walk out of class and not have Sara on that bench,” Ham said.
‘Fanatical’ about exercise
Grandy was raised in Dillon, S.C., just over the North Carolina border. Her family was deeply rooted in what was then called Marion County, now Dillon County, and her father served as mayor of Dillon for eight terms.
She met her husband, Malcolm Grandy, while an undergraduate at Wake Forest College, now Wake Forest University. She settled into life in Raleigh, where she and her husband raised their son, Dana Grandy. When he was in college, she began a career as a legal secretary.
Dana Grandy remembers his mother as a health nut, but that was not always the case.
“Once she stopped smoking she really became fanatical about exercising and taking care of herself,” Dana Grandy said.
The Grandys often took their son to run around the track at North Carolina State. She was also an avid tennis player, and they frequented the courts at Pullen Park. Grandy won the state mixed doubles senior championship in 1988, her family said. She worked in the tennis pro shop at North Ridge Country Club for years.
“She played a lot of golf, but it was really too slow of a game for her,” he son said with a chuckle.
It was the YMCA where she really sank her roots.
A dedicated friend
Ham calculated from Grandy’s records that she attended the YMCA 12,088 times during her 46-year membership. This equates to using the YMCA 72 percent of the days when it was open.
For many at the downtown Raleigh Y, this was a gift.
“Sara really listened,” Ham said.
Once Ham got to know her as a Y member, he realized they both attended First Presbyterian Church in Raleigh. Grandy was a creature of habit and always sat in the sixth pew, rarely missing church – much in the way that she rarely missed a workout.
Ham’s relationship with Grandy deepened when his wife, Lisa, was diagnosed with cancer.
“When Sara found out, she didn’t avoid me. She didn’t give me trite advice. She sincerely and genuinely encouraged me,” Ham said at Grandy’s memorial service. “She asked about my girls. She asked about Lisa. She asked about my in-laws. She asked about me. She wanted so badly to help.”
When Ham’s wife died, Grandy continued to show special care for his family.
“She said, ‘You know Bruce, you can get through things that you can never imagine you can get through,’ ” Ham recalled. “She gave me an incredible amount of support emotionally.”
She did the same for others, including caring for her ex-husband in his years of illness before his death. Loved ones say she was simply ready to help out at any time.
“If any regular member of a group fitness class was absent, she noticed. She wanted to know where you were, if you were OK,” Ham said.
“In Sara’s mind no one would miss working out unless there was something awfully wrong going on.”