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Omaha Magazine

Playing with Mirth and Laughter: Judge Joseph Troia

Mar 01, 2022 11:49AM ● By Jeff Lacey
Judge joseph troia on tennis court

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

Judge Joseph Troia retired from the bench in 2015 after 35 years of public service. Troia was appointed to the Nebraska district court in 1991 and was a well-known judge in Nebraska who presided over several high profile cases during his tenure. But the rigors of a demanding career eventually ran their course, and it was time to transition into a well-earned retirement. 

Troia thought it was important to stay active. He found the solution was to double down on activities that he enjoyed and felt would keep him healthy. He participates in a steady stream of activities, including heavy servings of golf and tennis. 

Looking at Troia’s weekly schedule, one might find the phrase ‘staying active’ too light a characterization. He can recite a litany of pastimes, spanning decades, that he’s done over the years: he started playing softball and tennis in the 1970s, and basketball in the 1990s (he played tennis over lunch, so it didn’t interfere with family time); he has golfed steadily over the last few decades; he regularly listens to live music, and attends athletic events such as Creighton basketball games.

Now in his 78th year, his schedule is as full as ever.  His tennis schedule alone would tire some half his age; he plays an average of four days a week. Troia plays with one group of friends on Tuesdays and Thursdays at City of Omaha’s Hanscom Tennis Center, and another on Sundays and/or Wednesdays at Miracle Hill Tennis Center. The people he plays with range from their 60s all the way to 88 (“That guy’s coming back from an injury,” Troia explained). His self-described court style is infinitely practical: “Chase the lobs, hit winners…try not to rally back and forth.” 

His golf schedule is nearly as rigorous. Troia plays with a group of 12 others in varying rotations a few times a week, as the weather holds. He belongs to Oak Hills Country Club, but also eagerly plays at the municipal courses on Tara Hills and Eagle Hills. The point, for Troia, is being out on the course.

A natural competitor, he occasionally plays for quarter skins, but is often out to challenge himself as much as anyone. “A lot of times, I am just trying to break 90,” Troia explained with a chuckle. In the last few years, Troia has been a part of what he describes as a battle of sorts between two groups he describes as “The Golden Oldies” and “The Brat Pack,” with the former consisting of golfers in Troia’s age bracket, and the latter consisting of a group of 30-somethings. “We won about three years ago, and then we did it again, and the young guys won. Good times.” Other experiences have produced fond memories only in retrospect: Troia recalled one outing at Shoreline Golf Course in Carter Lake, Iowa, when the Midwest weather complicated things. “About 10 years ago [at Shoreline] when we started playing it was over 40 degrees, but the temperature dropped, and by the end it was about 20 degrees with the severe windchill. The weather went south, and so did the round, I guess.”

Troia’s habit of staying active was developed early in life. He played baseball and basketball in high school, and after law school (he graduated in 1969 from the University of Tulsa), he started engaging in a variety of recreational pastimes, including playing softball and golf. He realized that the demands of the legal profession required him to find an outlet that engaged him in different ways. “I realized it was good to get out of your brain and into your body,” Troia explained. Sports were a way for him to engage his brain and physical self, and they allowed him a healthy way to socialize. The habits he formed over the years have served him well in retirement.

Greg Schatz, a fellow judge who retired from the Omaha district court in July 2021, has known Troia since high school and plays golf with him regularly. He thinks that the energy output Troia demonstrates isn’t only impressive, it’s inspiring. “He’s kind of my hero,” Schatz explained. “I can’t believe how active he is. We’ll go out to listen to music, and at 10 I’m ready to go home, and he’ll stay. He’s like the Energizer Bunny.” Schatz said that Troia competes with a sense of joy and gratitude. “He’s competitive, but without being overbearing,” Schatz explained. 

When Schatz was approaching retirement, he saw Troia as a valuable resource, and said Troia’s primary message to him was to keep moving. “The thing he said that stuck with me was ‘you need something to do, or you’ll start to rust.’”

Troia’s attitude about keeping rust-free is in alignment with what health experts know. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, staying active later in life reduces the risk of bone-breakage, heart disease, and high blood pressure. And, according to the American Cancer Society, the most physically active people have as much as a 25% lower risk of developing colon tumors than largely inactive people. Conversely, reductions in physical stamina and strength in seniors are primarily due to decreased physical activity, and being inactive puts seniors at risk for chronic diseases. According to the CDC, in a study of adults 65 to 74 years old, there was a 10% difference reported between inactive adults and active adults when it came to having one or more chronic diseases and having none. That percentage holds true for adults over 75 as well. 

Troia and his tennis colleagues are bucking a national trend towards increased inactivity. A report by the surgeon general shows that currently, by age 75, nearly one in three men and one in two women engage in no physical activity. The CDC reports that if you are over 65 and have no limiting health conditions, moderate intensive aerobic activity at least 150 minutes a week, and muscle-strengthening activity at least two days a week, are ideal. 

Another benefit of Troia’s rigorous schedule doesn’t involve the heart and lungs at all; it comes from the fact that all those lobs and backhands are returned by pals. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that about 6 million American men suffer from depression every year, and, according to the National Institute on Aging, loneliness and isolation are associated with higher rates of depression. Troia is not only keeping his body healthy when he laces up his shoes for a tennis match; he is keeping his soul in shape, too.

Troia’s schedule might make it seem as though he is some kind of human perpetual motion machine, but this isn’t entirely the case (“Sometimes I still spend too much time in my chair watching old westerns,” he said), but he counterbalances his slower days with the sincere belief that engaging with the world in ways that challenge a person and keep them sharp–physically and mentally–are the keys to a life worth living. “You’ve got to have purpose,” he said.

In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the character Gratiano suggests that inactivity is antithetical to being fully alive. “With mirth and laughter,” Gratiano says, “let old wrinkles come.” 

Troia would probably add, “and throw in a nice drive from the white tees as well.” 

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.