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Bertram Pickell on Embracing a Life of Volunteerism

Bertram Pickell, a twice retired, 30-year veteran of the United States Air Force, and survivor of stage IV cancer, is busier now than he ever has been before. 

Bertram is a fierce advocate for health and wellness for all citizens of San Antonio, but especially older adults. Whether he’s coaching endurance walking, volunteering as a member of the Mayor’s Fitness Council (MFC) in San Antonio, managing the San Antonio Walks Program,  or working with the nationally-recognized youth walking club – The South Texas Walking Club – he co-founded, Bertram is always leading by example. 

What inspired your passion for spreading awareness about fitness and wellness, especially when it comes to older adults? 

“In early 2004, I went into surgery to get a dime-sized cyst removed from my neck. However, in waking up from the surgery, I still felt the cyst on my neck. When my surgeon finally visited me a few hours later, he told me those three words: “You have cancer.” It was tonsil cancer, stage IV and a future operation and radiation was scheduled. That was 17 years ago. The radiation still affects my swallowing and voice projection but I gradually got my health back and participated in the Boston Marathon the following year.  

“In effect, I beat a grim diagnosis:  only 40 percent survival rate in 5 years. Every year I visit the same surgeon, and while he checks everything out and gives me flying colors, he normally has students with him so I banter with him, asking him but knowing the answer, “Why did I survive?”  His response is always the same: “It’s your passion for fitness (primarily endurance training) and being focused on your daily well-being.  You are always moving!” 

  “I spent 30 years in the United States Air Force… and still carry the same three core values with me: Integrity, Excellence in all we do, and Service before self.” 

What is the primary goal you are trying to achieve with your work with the Mayor’s Fitness Council in San Antonio?  

“Partners fully embracing our vision of making San Antonio healthy through open teamwork. I focus on community outreach and community engagement to achieve this. The energy of the community volunteers, (many whom are seniors) I work with is contagious; it helps build relationships and consensus in confronting the wellness challenges we have throughout our many communities. 

Why is relationship building so important to the work you do? 

“It is the key to success if openly developed, nurtured, and enriched. To me, relationship building is the difference between leadership and management.  A manager is tasked with getting the job done or achieving some type of outcome. A leader influences others to embrace the tasks and perform tasks – but not only on their own. If the relationship bonds are strong, partners will look for ways to make the situation even better.   

“Relationship building can succeed with any demographic imaginable IF your connecting thread is wellness.

“When dealing with MFC partners, I am primarily a meeting facilitator and also a “connector of dots” in bringing together diverse elements of communities and organizations.  Relationship building can succeed with any demographic imaginable IF your connecting thread is wellness. Relationship building can lead to success if the seeds you are planting are nurtured and engaged.   

 What does it mean to you to be an advocate? 

“Coming from a long military career, and now twice-retired, I am driven to give back, especially with the experiences and skills that have allowed me to succeed in many circles.

“I fully embrace being a volunteer, which comes with the personal obligation to lead by doing, to always promote (24 X 7), and to be the inspirational voice with testimony and mentorship to help others.  As seniors, we have an awesome opportunity to advocate in so many ways. 

 What lessons from your time in the United States Air Force do you still carry today? 

“I spent 30 years in the USAF, most of it overseas working in intelligence compounds…usually in very technical duties, and eventually managing workforces. That was 18 years ago but I still carry the same three core values with me: Integrity, Excellence in all we do, and Service before self.   

 What does “aging with attitude” mean to you? 

“I am probably busier now than when I was in uniform. I am living each day trying to make the best of what I can! Time management and prioritization of activities (as well as rest) can be challenging. But – I feel I am at that age of doing almost anything I want! Taking classes online, entering events, sharing experiences with communities, learning new ways to do things, teasing grandkids, and offering comfort to family and friends!   

“In essence, Aging with Attitude can mean applying all the skills, experiences, and mentorships you’ve acquired (and continue to acquire) to still grow and offer impact to your community.” 


5 responses to “Bertram Pickell on Embracing a Life of Volunteerism

  1. All I can say is WOW! Bert’s story is inspirational and life-affirming. As one of Senior Planet’s 2021 sponsored athletes, I advocate for adaptive functional fitness training for disabled seniors like myself. I get a lot of encouragement and inspiration from cohorts who have squared off against daunting challenges and prevailed. And a big THANK YOU to Bert for his service to our country!

  2. This article is the epitome of Bert Pickell-strength,endurance,fortitude,positivity and never give up attitude!!! Ive has the honor of being trained by this awesome man and there’s no one like him! Courage and grace personified!!!!!

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