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Golden oldies.


Somebody smarter than I'll ever be once said that age is a matter of mind-- if you don't mind, it doesn't matter. I am reminded of this all the time, and I am reminded of it again now as I sit down to write this. I am on the Concorde, heading across the Atlantic from London to New York. They tell me the whole trip will take just under 3 1/2 hours, and there is a feisty old woman sitting in front of me who seems determined to keep eating and drinking for the buration. Her ticket cost her $5,000, and from the way she's going, it looks as if the price will just about cover her food and drink.

I first noticed her back at the airport--they've got a luxurious lounge at Heathrow for Concorde passengers --and she made four trips to the complimentary buffet table they'd had set out there, and then she stuffed her purse with four or five candy bars. Here, on the plane, she's already sampled everything on a roving cheese tray, and she's got a brandy set up next to her second gin and tonic. She even took a cigar from the flight attendant who offered them, and I confess I was mildly surprised when she didn't light up; instead she tucked it away in her purse, presumably for later.

I flagged down a passing stewardess. "This lady is incredible,' I said. "How old is she?' I thought from the way she moved and carried herself maybe she was 65, perhaps 70; it's possible she was a terrific-looking 75.

"She's 93,' the stewardess answered.

Ninety-three? At first I couldn't believe it. I mean, this old lady has the spirit, fight, and gumption of a woman half her age. But then I stopped to think about it, and I wasn't really surprised at all. More and more I hear incredible stories about the most senior of our country's senior citizens, and what was once disbelief on my part has turned to sheer wonder. Talk about amazing stories! Steven Spielberg could learn a thing or three from the tens of thousands of centenarians who were born long before the very idea of color pictures (let alone moving ones) had caught on in this country.

When it comes to centuries-old traditions, there are none grander than the hundreds of men and women I am lucky enough to meet and congratulate on the occasions of their 100th birthdays. And from the looks of things, I'll have my work cut out for me in the years ahead. Centenarians are among the fastest-growing age groups in America; there are some 25,000 people in this country now over the age of 100, and by the year 2000 there figures to be over 75,000. People are living longer than ever before, and this alone is changing the face of many of our social systems in this country. The nuclear family is undergoing a late-in-life shift as more and more children are faced with taking care of the parents who once cared for them. And the residential facilities once designed simply for prolonged care of the elderly are now offering resident seniors a fuller, richer life than they've had to before. Of course all this puts an extra burden on taxpayers, and on our Social Security system, but I think it is a small price to pay for the privilege of peopling our communities with the folks who've been around long enough to help put our modern world in some kind of perspective, to help us understand where we're going by teaching us where it is we've been. For too long, old people have been this country's greatest untapped natural resource, and I for one am thrilled that the needs and triumphs of this growing group are coming to greater attention. It is through them, and only through them, that we will be able to build an effective bridge from our past to our future.

Like every good thing that's ever happened to me in my career, my involvement with senior citizens happened almost by accident. It was a fluke, really; I just kind of backwarded myself into something that would change my whole life. Here's the story. About six years ago, a friend asked me to wish his Uncle Clarence a happy 100th birthday on the air, the sort of request I received all the time but always had to decline because of the perceived ethics of network news. But then it occurred to me--hey, somebody is turning 100; if that's not newsworthy, then I don't know what is. So I went against standard practice, against the advice of the network, and wished old Clarence good health and good wishes over the air. But there was no way to prepare for what happened next. I thought maybe I'd get the old hand slap for bucking the system, but instead what I got was a slow stream of similar requests. Actually, it started out as little more than a drip. (And if you asked some people, they'd tell you that's how I started out, too. Ba-dump-bump.) Two weeks later the drip turned to a trickle with two or three requests. I had struck a chord. Here was something--sending out birthday greetings across the miles to people who truly deserved a tip of the hat--that nobody else was doing. It was different. It was also folksy and homey and patriotic, and it fit me like a glove. And the network left me alone to do my thing. All because of Uncle Clarence, God bless him.

Now I receive as many as 40 requests a day, and I try to verify and announce as many as I can; hopefully I'll get to at least one in each of my four segments every weekday morning. Those I can't mention on the air I send my good wishes to in the mail. (A note to the social scientists among you: requests are heaviest during the months of November and December, and I suppose from that we can extrapolate some pretty interesting theories about how and when our forebears got down to business in the years leading up to the gay 1980s.)

It's fitting, I think, that someone named Clarence was the very first centenarian I celebrated on the "Today' show; Clarence, you'll remember, was the name of the angel in Frank Capra's movie It's a Wonderful Life (it's a wonderful movie, by the by), the angel who turned Jimmy Stewart's life around by showing him the many good things in his world that went unnoticed. My Clarence never knew it, but he was an angel, too; he changed my life. My work with old people in this country has rewarded me like nothing else I have ever done. I have visited dozens of nursing homes and retirement communities, and I am always moved by the impact I am able to make with my visits. I think I always will be. Most of the old folks I've met are caring and sensitive and desperate for affection; they're lonely, unfortunately-- many of them have outlived most of their immediate families--and I like to think my reaching out to them has made a difference, has made them feel more a part of the world they live in, a world that for too long has taken them for granted.

As for the birthday greetings themselves, they've quickly become an American tradition. My office has turned into this country's unofficial clearinghouse for soon-to-be centenarians. (There is also this place in Washington called the White House, perhaps you've heard of it, where they do a fine job of identifying and congratulating 100-year-olds in this country. But they've got to take care of some other business as well, and I am happily easing their burden in this area.) I'm known for my birthday greetings to the senior set more than anything else I've ever done in my 35 years in this business. Viewers of all ages, I think, are uplifted by my celebration of these grand old folks; there is a deep-seated respect for age in this country, a respect that cuts across all issues of race and social and economic class, and it seems I've plugged into something through which we can all draw quiet inspiration. Everywhere I go, people trot out an elderly relative they'd like me to meet. Once, when I was in Lansing, Michigan, a big yellow school bus pulled up to where we were doing our remote, and one of the kids stuck his head out the window and hollered, "Hey, Willard! Will you mention my birthday in 85 years?' I get reactions like this all the time, and it thrills me to see the kind of impact you can have through the power of television. It also keeps me humble.

Myron Cohen, the late, great borscht-belt comic, who himself lived to a ripe old age, used to tell a wonderful story about a 104-year-old man, a joke that bears repeating here. As Myron told the story, the old man stopped by his doctor's office one day for his annual checkup, and after being presented with a clean bill of health, he turned to the doctor and said, "See you next year.'

"That's wonderful,' said the doctor. "Not to alarm you or anything, but here you are, 104 years old, and yet you're so confident you'll be healthy for another year. Tell me, how can you be so sure?'

"It has nothing to do with confidence,' replied the old man in a thick, rich Yiddish accent, an accent I could never do justice to in person, let alone on paper. "It has to do with statistics, and statistics say that between the ages of 104 and 105, not too many people die.'

I love that story. Not because it's side-splittingly funny (sometimes it doesn't even register a laugh when I tell it, although that probably has more to do with my bungling attempt at a thick, rich Yiddish accent than anything else), but because it speaks to a deeper truth about age and reason, about the keen insight and rare perspective you'll find among this country's only priceless antiques.

Another old joke, and you can take "old' to mean whatever you want in this case, has it that a 100-year-old man named Goldfarb walked into a church and sat down in the confessional. "Father,' he said, "I make love every day to a 25-year-old girl.' The priest whispered back through the confessional door: "But, Mr. Goldfarb, you're Jewish. Why are you telling this to me?' To which Goldfarb replied, "Are you kidding? At my age, I'm telling everybody.' This one holds nothing in the way of redeeming qualities, but I love it just the same.

There are some wonderful jokes about old folks, but the funniest stories of all just happen to be true. Oh, I've met some terrific old characters on the road, folks we'd all love to have as our own crotchety old aunt or curmudgeonly uncle. Boy, can I tell you stories! Like the time I asked a woman if in her 100 years she'd ever been bedridden, and she told me, "Oh, yes, thousands of times, and once in a buggy, but don't you dare mention that on television.' (I think she rehearsed that one.) Or the time a sweet old man took me aside and confided in me that he still likes the girls, although he said, "I can't exactly remember why.' Then there's my favorite retired army colonel --Charles Norris of Charlotte, North Carolina--who told me how he can't abide the anxious stockbrokers who try to sell him on municipal bonds that won't mature for 20 years: "H--,' he said, "at my age, I don't even buy green bananas.'

Somebody wrote to me once about a 95-year-old aunt, who used to drink four to six ounces of gin a day, until her doctor told her she had to give up gin. She did, and now she drinks brandy. Or the 92-year-old renaissance man who really, truly, is my honest-to-goodness neighbor down in Delaplane, Virginia--Eddie Strother --who lives by himself and still keeps his farm going all winter long. I ask Eddie all the time when he plans to retire, and he asks me back: "Retire to what?' His perspective on life is more than refreshing--it's vivifying; one of his favorite expressions is "You rust out a h-- of a lot quicker than you wear out.' These are the kind of old folks I love, the ones who live their lives the way they please; they've made it this far, so by golly, let's leave 'em alone to keep doing what they're doing. They must be doing something right.

Recently, I ran across a good-looking woman in Terre Haute, Indiana, the kind of woman who, even in her later years, is very vain about her appearance. She took me aside after we were introduced, looked at me shyly and girlishly, and said, "Willard, how old do you think I look?' Now if ever there was a real stumper of a question, that was it. Keep in mind, this woman was 103, but I played the diplomat in the thing and told her she looked about 70, just to be on the safe side. "Oh,' she said, patting her hair in obvious disappointment. "Most people say I don't look a day over 60.' Sometimes you just can't win, but in a case like this one you don't really mind losing.

Two of my favorite centenarian stories took place at the "Today' show. In the first, my celebration of the 100-plus set almost backfired, and I mean literally backfired. We brought on a lovely man from New York City, a man who went to work every day up until his 100th birthday, and somebody got the bright idea of doing up a little birthday party after our interview. Well, this being morning television, we trotted out a cake with 100 blazing birthday candles. Now, I don't know about you, but I'm not the sort of guy who should stand too close to 100 blazing candles, whether birthday or otherwise. One candle would have served quite nicely, thank you very much. There I was, cake cradled cautiously in my arms, and the heat from the 100 candles started to melt the glue underneath my toupee. No kidding. Talk about a throw rug! I saw the tapes after the show, and you should have seen me struggle to hold on to the cake and to my store-bought hair with something resembling professional dignity. (Who knows, you're liable to see that clip turn up on one of those prime-time bloopers-and-blunders shows.) Now, whenever I'm wearing my ear-to-ear carpeting, I steer clear of birthday parties for anyone older than sweet 16!

The other "Today' show incident took place years before I arrived on the scene, but it's been passed on to me like an old family heirloom, so I'll just pass it along here. It seems that when the Surgeon General's office first issued its warnings on cigarette packages in the early 1960s, someone at NBC thought it would be a good idea to find an oldster with a lifelong smoking history; leave it to a TV newsman to play devil's advocate in these things. Well, somebody tracked down this 100-year-old man from down south, and NBC flew him to New York to appear on the show the next morning. When the producer of the show finally met the old man and explained the idea behind the segment, the old man started to shake his head as if he couldn't deliver.

"You mean to tell me you want me to get up at seven o'clock in the morning and tell a national television audience I've been smoking two packs of cigarettes a day since I was 12 years old?' the old man asked, incredulous.

"That's right,' the producer said. "That's the truth, isn't it?'

"Of course it's the truth,' the old man replied. "The trouble is I don't stop coughing until 11:30 at the earliest.'

I never fail to get a laugh with that one.

I am always happily astonished by the spit and pluck of some of the old folks I am lucky enough to meet, even though I've seen and heard enough to leave me way past the point of wonder. I look over at this little old lady seated in front of me on the Concorde, this fireball with the appetite of an army, as she fidgets with the cigar she had packed away in her purse, and I wouldn't trade my seat for anything in the world. (I won't tell you whether or not she lit up--I am, after all, a gentleman--but I will tell you this: I flew back the rest of the way with a smile on my face and a song in my heart.)

Let me close this with my own variation on a popular birthday toast: may you all live to be 100, and when you get there may mine be the loudest voice of congratulations you hear.

Photo: The spirited weatherman of NBC's "Today' show brings us along to meet some of his favorite folks in America.
COPYRIGHT 1988 Saturday Evening Post Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1988 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:centenarians
Author:Scott, Willard
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jan 1, 1988
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