Still doing the heavy lifting at 100

Publish date: 10 September 2023

It’s Tuesday morning and Russell Hosken is at his regular gym workout, doing his stretches and lifting 27kg. Not bad for someone whose years on the planet add up to almost four times the kilos he hauls each week.

“I do it from squatting to lifting it up straight - I don’t lift it above my head or anything,” the newly minted centenarian says, almost apologetically. “Your legs have to do the work. And I’ve got it booked up every Tuesday at 11.30 right up until the end of the year.”

The year Russell was born, work was just starting on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Stanley Bruce was prime minister, and the first Anzac service was held on April 25 in Albany. He was born the same year as household names such as actor Bud Tingwell, poet Dorothy Hewett and architect Harry Seidler – and has outlived them all.

So what’s his secret? Russell, who celebrated his 100th birthday on June 28 with friends and family at Bethanie Warwick Retirement Village, may still be as sharp as a tack but he’s not sure he holds the key to a long life. “I just live day to day, go to the gym, keep busy,” he says.

Perhaps it was the years of hard yakka on the family farm in the Wheatbelt where he grew up and which he eventually took over with wife Ailsa. “In the early days you did everything by hand, there was no bulk handling of the wheat when you took it off the harvester – you had to load those bags yourself onto the back of the truck,” he says. “You were working all the time, doing something or other. Going to the gym just seems to be a continuation of what I used to do.”

Whatever the reason for his longevity, Russell has certainly led a busy and interesting life.
Called up for service in World War II in 1942, Russell did his rookie training in Northam, though he would not follow in the footsteps of his father, who served in Egypt, Gallipoli and France in World War I. “Myself and a few others went to Rottnest Island and spent most of the time over there – we were on the big guns in the middle of the island,” he says. Later, he was transferred to the army service corps in Victoria, where he was packing supplies into padded bags to be dropped by parachute to the troops.

After the war, Russell returned to the farm and married local girl Ailsa in 1949. The couple had four children, though their third baby, Kathy, died when she was three weeks old. “She was perfect when she was born but the autopsy showed her heart had grown to the size of a full-grown adult,” he says.

Russell also vividly remembers his eldest Bevan contracting polio. “He was the only one in Wickepin to get it; he was stiff as a board, and we ended up taking him to Princess Margaret Hospital,” he says. “My wife being a nurse took him to a chiropractor in Kalgoorlie; he could do a lot of things after he left there that he couldn’t do at hospital.”

The family enjoyed farm life until about 1960, when Russell was suffering the after-effects of heatstroke. “There was no air-conditioning in the cabs like machinery has these days and you’re just sitting out in the sun cooking,” he says. “So we ended up selling the farm and moving into Wickepin.”

There they stayed for a few years, where Russell drove the school bus and worked in the local Golden Fleece service station. Then one day, Ailsa spotted a poultry farm for sale in Gnangara Rd, Wanneroo.

“There was a brand-new house all fitted out with electricity but there was no electric power,” he says with a laugh. “So we went back to the old kerosene lamps for a few years until we got the poultry shed up and running."

The couple ended up running about 5000 chickens and supplied eggs to the WA Egg Board, as well as doing a steady trade with the airforce crews wending their way to and from the Pearce air base.

With St John Ambulance not coming out to Wanneroo in the 1960s, they also found themselves on the weekend roster of volunteers who would park the ambulance in their driveway and be on call to take those in need to hospital. “Some people treated us like a taxi service. I remember one night going out to someone’s house; it was getting near midnight and he said ‘hang on, I just need to have a shower’!”

When the poultry farm became a bit much for them, Ailsa found Russell a job hanging curtains, often accompanying her husband to help fix them up in display homes. Though Russell officially retired in 1984, the curtain-raising days giving him carpal tunnel in one hand, he always found something to do.

The couple moved into Bethanie Warwick Retirement Village in 2007, where they spent another seven years together before Ailsa died on New Year’s Eve in 2014, aged 91. They had been married for 65 years.

But Russell is far from alone. Between them his children, Bevan (73), Chris (72) and Diane (67) have 10 children, who have so far given Russell 20 great-grandchildren.
The extended clan enjoyed another big celebration, with Russell estimating 99 percent of the 110 expected guests are part of the family.

And he probably won’t look the oldest there, either - something he attributes to skin treatment he had a few years ago. “I never got any more wrinkles. There’s one old chap here who’s 20 years younger than me and he says ‘how do you keep yourself looking like that’,” he says with another laugh. “I can pass myself off as being in my 80s.”
Happy 100th Russell!

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