Lifelong love and learning

Chico couple share their passion and talents for living fully

Mary McCluskey leads a tai chi class next to the Sycamore Pool in Lower Bidwell Park. (Photo by Ken Smith)

After six years spent sailing down the coast of Central America and around the South Pacific, Mike and Mary McCluskey considered three different cities—the homes of their children—to (figuratively) drop anchor and call home.

The couple, who’ve been married since 1969, came up with a short list of requirements while weighing each location: an art-house cinema; a good used book store; an adult enrichment program; and an alternative newspaper. In Chico they found, respectively, the Pageant Theatre, The Bookstore, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) and, of course, the publication you’re now reading.

Since moving here in 2012, the couple has taken dozens of classes with OLLI, and even started one of their own, teaching tai chi—a Chinese art of movement, meditation and controlled breathing that improves mental and physical wellness. That expanded to facilitating public practice sessions, free and open to everyone, on the south edge of Sycamore Pool in Bidwell Park two mornings each week.

In their landlocked home port, they’ve also found a community of like-minded music lovers. Folk music, especially but not exclusively of the Irish variety, has been a cornerstone of their shared passion since their college courtship.

On Valentine’s Day, the couple sat with the CN&R in their living room, surrounded by keepsakes from their sailing days and 50-plus years together, to talk about lifelong love and learning and the journey that brought them to Chico.

Mike and Mary’s relationship was an adventure from the beginning. They met for a blind date to his fraternity picnic while both were attending San Diego State College (now University) in the mid-1960s.

“I picked her up in my 1962 Volkwagon,” he recalled. “I had the duty of transporting the fraternity mascot that day, a 250-pound Saint Bernard [named OX, for Theta Chi]. We sat next to each other in that tiny car with the dog’s huge head between us, drooling all over the place.

“We got to the park and there was a sign saying ‘No Dogs Allowed.’ So we had to drive around to the opposite side of a baseball field. Mary and I lifted and pushed the dog up and over a fence to my fraternity brothers.”

Mike and Mary McCluskey in their Chico home. (Photo by Ken Smith)

Mary was already an accomplished multi-instrumentalist by that point, playing flute, piccolo and violin. She bought a guitar her freshman year of college and started learning songs by her favorite artists, like Judy Collins and Joan Baez.

“It was the age of Bud & Travis, The Kingston Trio, all that great stuff, and it was just a part of us,” Mike said.

Another formative event during those years, for Mike, was a sailing class he took. He was smitten and dreamed of sailing the high seas, but Mary—having already experienced boat life for part of her childhood—wasn’t so game.

Then, life happened. In the next four decades, the couple biked Europe, raised three children, tried farming and lived in Washington, Oregon and various cities in the California Central Valley. They worked several jobs, with Mary often teaching music and Mike working as a city engineer and eventually as a public works director. He eventually held that position for 10 years in San Luis Obisbo (SLO), where the couple also took tai chi lessons in the mid-1990s.

In SLO, Mike met regularly with other public works directors in the region to talk policy and offer mutual moral support. During one meeting, a member offered to take the whole crew of stressed-out civil servants sailing. Mike’s infatuation was reignited, so he began taking lessons, and soon was able to take their kids on the water. Mary eventually came along, saw the allure of more modern sailing vessels, and was likewise hooked. The couple decided to retire early and buy a boat.

The McCluskeys spent six months fixing up their 44-foot catamaran in Seattle and set sail in August of 2005. For two years they worked their way south, living and sailing off the coast of Mexico and returning to California for hurricane seasons. They made their way to Panama, then to the Galapagos Islands. Then came the roughly 3,000-mile Pacific crossing to the Marquesas Islands.

Two days into that 24-day trek, the boat’s auto-steering went out. Mary explained this wasn’t a catastrophic situation, but it greatly complicated the voyage. Rather than leisurely six-hour watch shifts, the couple had to trade off every three hours and constantly steer the vessel. They had an mp3 player filled with sea shanties, folk music and Irish drinking songs, and they’d sing along during their solo shifts to stay awake and focused.

Mike McCluskey on his seafaring vessel. (Photo courtesy of Mike and Mary McClusky)

Although scary at times, both describe the crossing as transcendental. “It really affected my soul,” Mary said. “I spent hours steering that boat, alone at night, looking at the stars and following the constellations as they moved across the sky. It was very Zen, an introspective and beautiful experience that very few people have had, to be so at one with the elements.”

After the Marquesas, the McCluskeys spent roughly four years island-hopping around the South Pacific. Mary took her violin and would play with anyone she met.

“In some ports, like Tonga, she’d pull it out and the next thing I know she’s sitting around a campfire playing with a bunch of Tongans and drinking kava,” Mike said.

The couple sailed as far as Bundaberg, Australia, before they sold the boat in Brisbane and spent six months touring Australia and New Zealand by land. They returned to the US in 2010, and moved to Chico in 2012.

After taking OLLI classes for a few years, Mike joined the group’s membership committee, and eventually served as president of that panel. Then they started teaching their tai chi class, and expanded that to include the park sessions at the request of former students. They’ve also found musical outlets—Mary plays with Irish “kitchen band” Molly’s Favorite and Mike sings with The Celtic Knights of the Sea.

With their days of working and wandering behind them, the couple seem content with their feet on solid ground, active social life, OLLI classes and astonishingly youthful spryness.

“Now, we just have fun,” Mary said with a smile.

Sign up: OLLI class sessions occur in the spring, summer and fall. Registration is still open for spring. Call or visit site for more info.

Osher Lifelong Learning Institute
Chico State


  1. What a wonderful story. So few people have the courage to follow their dreams that way you two did. Congratulations!

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