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Life lessons in geriatric journalism | Andy Hobbs
America's elders always open windows into history.
It was an honor to meet Otis Clark, the 106-year-old South King County resident recently featured in The Mirror.
Clark defies the conventional rules of aging, not just physically, but in his outlook. Clark may owe his longevity to luck, genetics, healthy choices or a combination of all three. Regardless, after 106 years on Earth, the traveling evangelist still sits in the driver's seat. Case in point: Clark drives a car and, in the past few years, caught his first two flights to Africa.
Amid recollections of Clark's life came a history lesson that likely falls under the radar in most schools. Clark survived the Tulsa race riot of 1921, considered the worst race riot in U.S. history. The riot resulted in nearly $21 million worth of damage in today's money. An estimated death toll ranges from 39 to 3,000 — depending on whose report you read. Clark spoke candidly about the experience as well as hostilities toward African Americans in that era, even using now-defunct terms such as Negro.
Centenarians harness a lifetime of history that's ready to tap. They have witnessed a monumental shift in humanity and culture, coming of age before television and World War II, then heading into the twilight alongside global warming and the Internet.
People like Clark confirm that in life, there is no better school than experience. To soak up some of that wisdom, there is no better tool than listening.
Meeting with Clark resulted in my own trip down memory lane.
In 2001, soon after starting my career at age 22, colleagues in Arizona nicknamed me the "Geriatric Journalist" because of my random interviews with people who turned 100 or higher. Usually, a local family member called our community paper with the news.
Seasoned journalists snubbed such fluffy assignments, but I loved these stories and so did readers. I'd head out with my notebook and curiosity, eager to dip from these elders' wells of wisdom.
Some centenarians lived in nursing homes, barely aware of the outside world as their health deteriorated. Relatives would speak for them, recalling milestones and anecdotes from the past 100-plus years. One man who played a handful of pro baseball games was the oldest living former Major Leaguer at the time; he died a few days after the article ran. Another woman credited her mother's longevity to daily doses of bacon — lots of bacon.
Other centenarians refused to sit idle. At age 102, one man still drove his car every day, and even received a patent for his "roller cane," which resembled a roller skate with a long handle.
I'll never forget one particular subject: A Brazilian-American who had just celebrated his 104th birthday. He moved and talked like a 65-year-old retiree, with shiny wrinkle-free cocoa skin and a devotion to an organic nutrition supplement called SuperFood. He looked younger than his much younger wife. So "youthful" was his appearance and demeanor that I half-wondered if this was a "Candid Camera" prank. I finally accepted the truth about the man's age after seeing a trophy from the 1950s, which honored him for 30 years of service as a chef.
After countless interviews with centenarians, I learned that the secret to longevity is not really a secret. Not all centenarians stayed sober, ate healthy, lifted weights, ran marathons or avoided smoking. Not all centenarians surrounded themselves with loving family members because some were the last ones alive in their family.
The sharpest and happiest centenarians lived in the present, embracing each day with a positive attitude. Wherever their own two feet stood, then that's where they stood. They didn't seem too worried about dying. They were too busy being born.