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HAPPY 90TH ART! LINKLETTER STILL LIVING THE 'DARNDEST' LIFE.

Byline: DENNIS McCARTHY

The country's favorite wandering grandfather turned 90 on Wednesday - turned it at full speed, taping guest appearance on ``Larry King Live'' before having dinner with his wife of 66 years, Lois, and their family.

After that, Art Linkletter planned to catch a late-night flight up to the Russian River in Sonoma County, where he and 2,200 other movers and shakers attend the exclusive Bohemian Grove retreat every July, brainstorming ideas around the campfire.

``I'm called 'the wanderer' up there, going from camp to camp telling stories and listening to some fascinating people talk and exchange ideas,'' said Linkletter, a 43-year member of the Bohemian Grove retreat.

``I guess in a lot of ways, you could say I've been wandering through the heart of this country, talking and listening to ideas most of my life.''

Yes, you could - easily. Linkletter has wandered through the lives of children, parents and seniors on television, radio and in speaking engagements for more than 60 years.

His hit radio and TV shows - ``House Party'' and ``People Are Funny'' - were an integral, beloved part of this county's family fabric for a total of 44 years, and his book - ``Kids Say The Darndest Things'' - remains one of the top 14 best sellers in American publishing history.

And now that he's 90, Linkletter still can't find time to take a nap.

Three or four days a week, he's out on the stump at colleges, senior citizens centers and symposiums, doing what he does best.

``Making people laugh, then making them think,'' he said.

That's the key, the wanderer says. Surround yourself with interesting people, and never, ever, stop laughing or thinking.

``You have to have a passion and enjoy life,'' Linkletter said. ``It's not a job, it's lifelong learning.

``I always say at the end of my talks that I never want to be what I want to be because there's always something else out there - always one hill higher with a better view.''

Insightful thinking for a kid born July 17, 1912, in Moosejaw, Saskatchewan, Canada, where, as an orphan, he was adopted by a part-time Baptist evangelist minister who brought him to San Diego after a few years in Lowell, Mass.

``We were always poor, so I was always working,'' Linkletter said. ``My first job was as a newspaper boy, which was a great beginning to getting into business.

``You had to map out your route, deliver the papers, than try and collect the money from customers trying to stiff you.

``I had my first business at 11, hitchhiking to a lemon-grove packing plant outside of San Diego. I'd pick up all the lemons that were discarded because they were not fit for market, bag them up, then hitchhike back to my neighborhood and give them to my friends to sell cheaper than the market.

``I was the sales manager who kept the map so we didn't go back to the same spots to sell our bad lemons,'' he said, laughing.

After graduating from San Diego State College in 1934, his planned career as a professor was short-circuited when he was offered a job as a radio announcer with a local CBS affiliate.

The wanderer fell in love with broadcasting and never looked back.

Now, after decades of national fame, two Emmys, a Grammy, 10 honorary doctorate degrees, and a long resume of additional awards, honors and recognitions, the country's favorite wandering grandfather turned 90 with no signs of slowing down.

Today's youngsters aren't any different from those he interviewed on his TV shows 40 years ago, the wanderer says. They're still giving wonderful, innocent answers like this:

``When's your birthday?''

``June 3.''

``What year?''

``Every year.''

But it's the older kids he's worried about - the junior high and high school kids faced with realities and temptations that kids a few generations ago didn't face.

Like the rest of us, Linkletter was sick to his stomach Wednesday morning when he awoke to the news of the discovery of the battered body of a 5-year-old girl who had been kidnapped from in front of her Orange County home earlier in the week.

``There've always been sick people in the world with brains twisted by nature or abuse,'' Linkletter says. ``But now we get instantaneous pictures of their atrocities we didn't get before.

``It's right in our face every day, and you're just not human if your heart doesn't break for that little girl and her family.''

He was recently grand marshal of a parade in Pacific Palisades, where his car couldn't go a block without someone running out into the street to shake his hand and say they had been on his show when they were a kid.

``I had 27,000 kids on my shows, and every one of them remembers that day and has wonderful feelings about it,'' he said. ``It makes you feel great to have been a big part of it.''

His focus these days is mainly on keeping senior citizens feeling young, and trying to find a cure for Alzheimer's disease.

``I realize there are a lot of seniors who just seem to lose their energy for life,'' he says. ``They're not sick, necessarily, but they're just not well. Things keep beating them down. I feel sorry for them.

``It's like what (legendary UCLA basketball coach) John Wooden said to me - things turn out best for people who make the best of the way things turn out.

``I've lost two of my five children to tragedy,'' Linkletter said. ``Things have happened to me, too, but you have to go on.''

In 1969, Linkletter's 20-year-old daughter, Diane, who was involved in the drug culture, died after falling from the window of a sixth-floor apartment on Sunset Boulevard.

Linkletter immediately began a national, well-publicized fight against drugs, including serving on President Nixon's National Advisory Council for Drug Abuse Prevention.

A few years later, Linkletter's son, Robert, was killed in an automobile crash.

Linkletter has seen his share of tragedy, but instead of being beaten down by it, he's lived by Wooden's sage advice.

Even at 90, the country's favorite wandering grandfather is still making the best of the ways things turn out - hitting the road every week to do what he does best - make people laugh, then make them think.

``I feel blessed,'' Linkletter said, getting ready Wednesday to tape ``Larry King Live,'' (the interview will air July 25), before heading north to the Bohemian Grove retreat.

``I've been working all my life, and don't think I'll ever retire.''

CAPTION(S):

2 photos

Photo:

(1 -- 2; 1 color only) Art Linkletter celebrated his 90th birthday this week. In the early days of TV, right, he coaxed often embarrassing admissions out of kids.

David Sprague/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jul 18, 2002
Words:1126
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