For Vangie Bender, life is all about being positive, appreciating what you have and not worrying about the future. Her optimistic attitude and penchant for problem solving brought her through adversity from an unexpected injury to a challenging career.
Bender moved to McPherson in 1971 to be close to her sister. Already a mother of two children before she was 18 years old, she wanted to stay active when they went to school. In 1976, she got a job as a meter maid for the McPherson Police Department.
"I loved to be outdoors," Bender said. "I couldn't take an indoor job."
She didn't even like to ride in the department's Cushman vehicle and asked to be allowed to walk for the majority of her shift instead.
When the parking meters were taken out in 1981, Bender became a mail carrier. Her hiring created a buzz because she was not only the first female carrier, she was also Hispanic.
"I got initiated. I was given the wrong directions and the wrong mail," Bender said.
At the police department and the post office, Bender's coworkers were mostly men who didn't cut her any slack whether at work or at play.
"When we'd play golf, they'd say I had to tee off the men's," Bender said. "I said, 'I will. My long game's not as good as your long game, but my short game will kill you.'"
As a mail carrier, she walked 15 miles each day with a 40-pound bag of mail over her shoulder.
"I'd run four miles before work in case I would be too tired afterwards," Bender said. "People going to work would say, 'it's 4:30 because there's Vangie going over the overpass.'"
In 1984, Bender recalls biking to work at 4 a.m. on May Day, but not much else from the rest of the day.
"They used to place wires to stop the traffic for the May Day parade," Bender recalled. "They set it overnight so they wouldn't have to come back early and it didn't have any flags on it."
When her bike hit the wire at full speed, she was flipped into the air and dropped to the ground.
"I remember waking up and the doctor was holding my hand and crying," Bender said. "He said, 'welcome back, little girl.' I said, 'could you call work and tell them I'll be late?'"
It wasn't until later that Bender would learn she had flatlined and had to be defibrillated. She sustained a broken collarbone and multiple lacerations, but her neck wasn't broken thanks to the muscle she built up in her work.
Bender's career as a mail carrier was curtailed in 1995 when she slipped on a patch of ice, resulting in a severely broken ankle.
"I took two years to recover from that," Bender said. "In those two years, I learned the ins and outs of the post office. Instead of feeling sorry for myself, I made myself really useful."
The post office was just starting to add computers and automation to its mail processing. When Bender was given the responsibility for integrating the new technology, she enrolled in a computer class at Hutchinson Community College that very night.
"I knew education was important and, in my worst times, I couldn't turn to drinking or drugs because I had kids," Bender said. "You've got to try and you don't say 'no' to opportunities."
Over the years, she would gain more experience and be asked to go out to other post offices around Kansas to run them when they were without a postmaster.
Bender worked to build up her stamina and began to hike, bike and run again, but in 1998, she started having episodes of blurry vision and an inability to walk. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and given an estimate of five years before she would become wheelchair bound.
Bender was determined to stay as active as possible and didn't tell many people of her health issues.
"I said, 'from now on, I'm not going to miss a day of nature. I'm not going to miss a day of anything, because I don't know when I'll still be able to do this,'" Bender said.
She and her husband hiked the Rocky Mountains and the Grand Canyon. They also traveled to places like Peru and Hawaii to hike and Bender ran multiple half-marathons around the United States.
When she was still experiencing episodes 19 years after her initial diagnosis, Bender asked to be sent to the Mayo Clinic. There, she was told she was in great shape and didn't have MS, but another neurological disease that mimicked its symptoms.
"I said, 'you mean I could have taken a day off and not pushed myself to do every walk and bike ride,'" Bender laughed.
Bender retired from the post office in 2009, but she has not slowed down. She appreciates the time she now has to volunteer and make new, female friends. She is involved in P.E.O. Chapter AY, the Domestic Art Club, McPherson Opera House, Apartment 6 and won McPherson Hospital's volunteer of the year in 2018.
"I still hike a lot on the Meadowlark Trail and at Horsethief Canyon," Bender said. "...I walk around town and I know every roof and every flower."
And Bender also bikes between 600 and 800 miles per month.
"So far this summer, I've biked 2,500 miles of McPherson County roads," Bender said.
Bender celebrated her 69th birthday on Sept. 9 by riding 69 miles. She said she loves seeing the seasons change in Kansas by riding by fields as they are plowed, planted and harvested.
"One time, I finished 40 miles and didn't know how I'd done them because I'd been so engrossed in the plants and birds and farmers," Bender said.
Bender said she is thankful for the wisdom she has gained from her journey.
"If it wasn't for adversity, my life wouldn't have turned out the way it has," Bender said. "If my dreams had come true, they'd have been so small."
Contact Patricia Middleton by email at email@example.com or follow her stories on Twitter at @MiddleSentinel.