Rayford Jimerson is no stranger to hospitals. He’s had cancer and heart problems.
And for the past decade he’s been no stranger to area fitness centers – which attracts the attention of 30-year-olds when they see a 6-foot, 7-inch man of 81 working a ‘cardio’ machine.

His height once helped him on the basketball court, but not in the Army. The tall, friendly Texan got a medical discharge because they had to tailor-make his uniforms.

He was born in Martinsville in Nacogdoches County, and moved to Orange during World War II where he later graduated from Orange High School.

In 1948 he hired on at DuPont. Among other jobs he served as a production foreman, chief shift supervisor and in employee relations; and for a year helped start up a plant in Kentucky.
“When I was 50, I was taking a regular physical they give at the plant, and they found this spot on my lung about the size of a grapefruit,” Jimerson says. “So they took me right on to Houston to Dr. Billy Howell, who’s from Orange – he’s a pulmonary doctor – and that’s when they diagnosed me with cancer. And that’s when they gave me six months to live.”

Doctors started him on a then-new procedure of high intensity gamma rays.

“At the time you could only get that at Methodist Hospital and Texas A&M,” Jimerson says. “They can focus it on a narrow band [instead] of a big area. Everyone from work carried me from Orange over there every day. While I was taking treatment I walked four miles a day. I took treatment from Nov. 1 to Jan. 3. The next day when they completed treatment I went back on a 12-hour work shift.”

Until he was diagnosed with cancer, Jimerson either played or coached basketball. He was a Scout Master for 15 years at First Methodist Church and worked with high school boys at McDonald Memorial Baptist Church.

“[In 1960] we went to second in state in basketball out of about 2,000 teams, then that spring went to ‘San Antone’ with a track team and we won state in a track meet. Then the UIL made a ruling that the boys couldn’t play for a church league during the season if the high school was active  – so that’s where we lost all our boys.”

After he retired in 1990, Jimerson bought an RV and traveled the rodeo circuit with his wife Dot, now 78, whom he met at North Drug Store in the late ‘40s. She is also from Nacogdoches County. The couple have two children and live in Orange’s Roselawn Addition.

It was during one of those trips – in 2002 at a bull-riding event in Las Vegas – where Rayford was treated for heart problems in Laughlin, Nev. He later had a pacemaker put in followed by a triple bypass operation.

“That’s when I really got serious about working out,” he says.

Then in 2008 he had six stints put in.

“When Ike came they closed down the [DuPont] DERA gym. I went from a 38 to a 44 waist and was up to 245 pounds. Then I discovered Anytime Fitness [in Bridge City] was going to open, and I signed on. I dropped six inches off my waist and went down to 225. I dropped my blood pressure and my heart rate down to nothing; they cut my medicine in half, which more than paid for my gym fees. I went to my cardiologist and he said ‘You’re one of the few people I’ve ever told this to – but you’re working out too much.’

“So I cut back on the number of ‘reps’ (repetitions) I do on those cardio machines – and increased the weight – so I’m working all my body mass.”

Dot Jimerson has been treated for cancer as well – three times – losing some tear duct and saliva gland functions because of radiation.

“M.D. Anderson [staff] came over and did some studies,” Rayford says sitting in his Roselawn living room. “And every house you can see from here, people have had cancer … and there’s another spot out in Norwood Manor where the same thing happened – and they never have figured out why.

“The kids see me at the gym and are amazed at what I can do at my age. They’re just really surprised at the shape I’m in.”