Charlie Digges Sr. doesn’t seem to like attention. He’d rather hear your story. His genuine interest is apparent as he listens and studies you. As he begins to share his story, you become acutely aware of what a small world it can be because it shrinks until you feel as if you’ve known Charlie forever.
“I’m not much on having too much publicity,” he says, shaking his head. “You can overdo that kind of thing.” As someone who counts men like the late Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, and Joe Beaulieu, Elvis Presley’s father-in-law, as close friends, his stories are fascinating. But on this day, he doesn’t want to talk about the past as much as he does about the present, though it creeps in from time to time.
His wife of 45 years, Kathy, smiles and calls him “low key,” to which he quickly agrees. But Charlie and Kathy don’t let too much dust settle under their feet.
“It was just on a fluke that I met Charlie,” Kathy says. Charlie’s first wife, Margaret, had passed away from breast cancer at 48, and Kathy’s parents knew Charlie and invited him over for a dinner party, at which Kathy had volunteered to help serve. The blind date they had set up for Charlie didn’t have a chance, Kathy says, because “Charlie and I looked at each other and that was that.” That was 1967.
“I like having an age difference because every day we live in a heightened relationship,” Kathy says, adding, “this could be our last day and we have to enjoy it. So we still hold hands watching the news at night. It’s just been a true blessing for both of us.”
Charlie, now 96, and Kathy, 69, are arguably more active than most thirty-somethings.
“I play golf a couple of times a week and still fish when I can,” he says. “Kathy and I floated the Piney River last week, fished for small mouth.” In addition to golf and fishing, Charlie attends Round Table lunches three times a week. This group, made up of prominent businessmen, has met since the 1920s. Over the years, typical discussions consisted of local business issues, and still do, though these days they have a good dose of “whose been where and done what,” golf games and a little city politics on the upcoming mayoral race sprinkled in, Charlie says.
It was at a Round Table meeting 50 years ago that Dr. Jack Modlin from the Columbia Surgical Group encouraged the members to start exercising and gave them all a copy of the Air Force exercise book. Charlie took his advice to heart, and regular exercise is a large part of the Digges’ daily routine to this day.
“They didn’t have all the exercise facilities at that time,” Charlie says. “Back then, it was up to you.”
So for a long time, they exercised at home in their basement with weights and such for 45 minutes several times a week, Kathy says.
Over the years, they’ve had health ups and downs, too, but their exercise regimen is what they credit with getting healthy again and moving on, that and their friend and doctor, Jerry Kennett. When Kathy had open heart surgery to repair a heart valve in 2010, “Nurse Charlie” took care of her. As part of her recovery, 30 minutes of walking per day was required.
“It occurred to me that that was a good thing,” she says, “and even though I’ve always exercised, I started walking. And I then made my goal to exercise 365 days a year—30 minutes either walked or on a treadmill or biked.
“It’s turned out that we have fun. We encourage ourselves to think of it as fun, and it really works,” Kathy says. “That’s why we’re still here.”
“If it wasn’t for Kathy, I wouldn’t probably do all of those exercises,” Charlie confesses. She is his motivation.
So maybe not always fun, but necessary. “You know, if you exercise three or four times a week, then you say, ‘Well I won’t do it today, but I’ll do it tomorrow,’ ” Kathy says of her daily regimen. “Then maybe tomorrow you say, ‘I don’t think I’ll do it today.’ So, if you exercise everyday, then there are no excuses.”
In its simplest form, Kathy’s definition of “fun” is really one basic concept. “I work very hard to keep Charlie healthy, happy upright and alive,” she says laughing, “especially through November 14, at the gala.” She’s referring to the annual event held by the Boone Hospital Foundation, which she and Charlie both believe does great work for the Columbia community. They will be recognized at this year’s gala as Boone physicians have helped Kathy and Charlie live a healthy lifestyle.
For Kathy, the foundation’s outreach is one of the most important things it does, specifically through health screenings. “I’ve always been very intrigued with knowing your ‘numbers,’ ” she says. “That’s really important to encourage people to get healthy, stay healthy. The foundation supports the hospital’s inpatient services, too.”
Part of staying healthy for the Digges involves having a personal trainer at their home twice a week and working with Dan Smith, another personal trainer with whom they meet once a week at Optimus Fitness. Smith knows to work Charlie at his speed and Kathy at hers, she says. Indeed, Charlie is quick to point out that Smith knows he’s 96 and takes care to adjust his exercises accordingly.
They also walk on the University of Missouri campus on weekends. Well, Kathy walks, while Charlie walks and rests now and then on one of the benches on Carnahan Plaza. “I can walk as long as I want, my 30 minutes, and Charlie can walk a little bit and rest on the bench admiring the flowers and grounds.”
The beauty of the MU campus appeals to Charlie. He was born a couple of blocks from the plaza where they walk, and over the years MU has been a large part of his life—he’s been going to university athletic events since he was five.
Though his love for MU sports, golf and fishing, exercise and Round Table lunches keep Charlie busy since he retired 23 years ago, there are still some things he misses about going to work every day at the company he helped build, The Insurance Group.
“Our office was right downtown in the Landmark building. All of the businesses on Broadway were owned by local people, and they had great stores,” he says. “We wrote the insurance for most of those businesses. That was the most rewarding thing. We helped those people. They were good friends. The Insurance Group continues to insure some of those same stores today.”
These days when he visits the office, now located in the same building as Optimus Fitness just south of Rock Bridge High School, it’s hard for him to keep up because the business has grown and has new employees. Granted, he only makes it in about once a week to check in with Skip Grossnickle and his son Charlie Digges Jr. who has followed in his dad’s footsteps.
But truth be told, meeting new people and continuing to foster and grow existing relationships is perhaps just as big a part of what keeps both Charlie and Kathy going as any activity they do. They go hand-in-hand, just like Charlie and Kathy.