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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Longevity Has Its Place

Air Date: Week of

There are 72,000 Americans who lived through the first and last days of the twentieth century. Living On Earth sent Anna Solomon-Greenbaum around the country to talk to some of these centenarians to find out what it’s like to look back on the last hundred years.


CURWOOD: As the new year has begun, most of us are looking ahead into the twenty-first century and the coming millennium. But it's also a good time to look back. So, we decided to check in with folks who have witnessed some of the most rapid and profound changes our planet has ever seen. They're called centenarians, people who are 99 or older, and there are about 10,000 of them in the United States alone who continue to lead full and active lives. Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum traveled around the country to meet a few of these elders, and to look at the past 100 years through their eyes.
WOLF: My name is Hazel Wolf, and I was, I’m well along in years, 101 I think. Anyway, I was born March the tenth 1898.

REPORTER: ... Channel Seven Eyewitness News. No WTO, says one sign. Fair trade.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: I meet Hazel Wolf in a Seattle hospital room, just a mile east of downtown. She's sitting up straight in a chair. Her pale brown eyes are fixed on the World Trade Organization demonstrations being broadcast live over the TV hanging from the ceiling. On her collar there's a button: Protest WTO '99 Be There. Hazel wants to be there, too, on the streets. But she had to come in for surgery.

WOLF: They have to put a new hip in there. Throw out the old one, or recycle it, or whatever they do with old hips. (Laughs)

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: For 34 years Hazel was secretary of the Washington State Audubon Society. She stepped down a few months ago to edit a publication called Outdoors West. She's anxious to get home and back to work. The winter issue is already late. The newsletter is Hazel's latest passion in a long and active life that began in her hometown, Victoria, British Columbia.

(Music up and under: intro to "Union Maid")

WOLF: My mother was widowed early on. She had three of us. She had little education. One of the places she worked was an overall factory, which was organized by the IWW. She was secretary. I come from a long line of secretaries. And I went to union meetings with her. So I got this working class background, for which I am very grateful.

GUTHRIE: (Singing) There once was a union maid. She never was afraid of goons and ginks and company finks and the deputy sheriffs and made the raid...

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Hazel moved to Seattle in 1923. She was a member of the Communist Party, fighting deportation and organizing labor unions. She didn't seem bound for a life devoted to the environment, until a friend dragged her out on an Audubon bird watch.

WOLF: And there they are, there's a big fir tree. And here's a little bird going chip, chip, chip, chip, chip, eedie, eedie, eedie. Invisible things. Down to the first, when they get to the first lateral branch down at the bottom of the next tree, dip, dip, dip, dip. I thought, that little guy works hard for a living, just like I do. And they told me he never goes up the tree, always down the tree. Ah, he's got a lifestyle. Always one way on the tree, not the other way on the tree. My kind of lifestyle. I get up in the morning, eat breakfast, take a bus, go to work, eat lunch, come back. Always on the right time. I have a lifestyle. So this little bird and I, we were pals. (Laughs)

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: I ask Hazel what she's most proud of. Easy, she says. Beginning a dialogue between Native Americans and environmentalists concerned about the impending Alaska pipeline. That was in 1979. I do the math. She was 80 years old.

WOLF: And I did it by getting in my old jalopy and visiting every tribe in the state of Washington and a couple in Idaho. I just had a feeling that we had a lot in common. We should be together. It worked out. They came, we had a wonderful conference. First thing we do is file a lawsuit. (Laughs) We've never needed another conference. It wasn't necessary. It's just, I know every time at Audubon we have a board meeting, we being talking about issues, what do the tribes say?

(Crowds in the background)

REPORTER: Labor unions and environmental groups and any number of any number of other groups, they believe that this WTO does not have a moral conscience, and that there is much more than just profits to be had...

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Hazel and I sit next to each other in the hospital room, watching a new generation of labor leaders march arm in arm with environmentalists in protest of WTO policies. For Hazel, it's like coming full-circle.

WOLF: A lot of good things, you see, are happening. This thing that's going on in the Seattle streets, they were just getting ready because labor was beginning its march. So, it's a very different world, a very hopeful world.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Hazel is the only centenarian I met who uses the term environmentalist to describe herself. But it's impossible to hear the stories of the other folks I interviewed without hearing tales of the land. Of people and their culture and beliefs. Everything that is in the broadest sense our environment.

(Music up and under)

HAZARD: My name is Joseph McKinley Hazard. Born September the ninth, 1901.

ELLIS: My name is Ruth Ellis. I was born in Springfield, Illinois, in July the twenty-third 1899.

ROSENBAUM: My name is Polly Rosenbaum, and on September fourth I was 100 years old.

LEVINSON: My name is Ben Levinson. I was born in Chicago on March twenty-seventh 1895.

STUBBART: I am Audrey Stubbart. I was born in the seventh day of June in 1895.

SCHAEFER: My name is Lenore Schaeffer. I am 103 years old.

(Music up and under)

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: It's different talking to people who are four times my age. It's humbling. It's slow. It makes me patient. Makes me listen. And it wasn't always easy. There was hard news, like when Nanny Lackey came down with pneumonia a week before I planned to visit her. Or when Ollie Wells, in his bed at the VA Medical Center in Detroit, just couldn't get his words out clearly enough the day I came by to record him. And I have to admit, when I was flying home after my final interview, I couldn't quite see how these people belonged in the same story. They're as different as people can be. Married, single, rich, poor, urban, rural, college-educated, eighth-grade dropouts. But I listened. And I listened some more, until out of their voices grew patterns.

(An engine revs up)

SCHAEFFER: The Ford car was born the day I was born, 1896. And I was around five or six years old, and I saw someone cranking the car. And all of a sudden they jumped in the car and the car moved. And I just stood there.

(Music up and under)

SCHAEFFER: My father had a horse and buggy. The horse moved the buggy. How did that car move by itself?

ROSENBAUM: My father had one of the first automobiles in a little town.

HAZARD: I remember one time, from here down to the pier, a fellow had an old Model T Ford. And you could hire him to take you anywhere. And so, my mother, and so my grandmother, she wanted to ride. "Oh no, I ain't going to ride in them old contraptions!"

ROSENBAUM: And they were either black or red, no other color.

HAZARD: I had an old Model T Ford one time, I remember. And the gas, they called it gravity feed. When you're going uphill, well, the gas would run from the carborator and if it didn't go back fast enough, why, it stalled. Wow, that is some car.

(Music up and under)

ELLIS: We didn't have paved streets and sidewalks. We had maybe a wooden sidewalk. So later on in life they started paving the streets in brick. The fellows could lay brick, some of them could lay brick so fast.

ROSENBAUM: They put in the sidewalks, and the streets were paved. But when it rained, you couldn't go out and wade in them and wiggle your toes and get the sand through them after they paved the streets. We missed it for a while, and then we forgot about it.

HAZARD: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Virginia. I’ve driven a car in all those states. Yeah, I think it’s a good thing to know about different places.

(Music up and under)

ELLIS: Where are you going to put all these different cars? There are so many automobiles, they don't have room to put the automobiles. So they take spaces that should be for people. So, that makes the country expand. People have to move out further.

ROSENBAUM: Phoenix has grown so fast. There was a time, we lived up in the mining camp of course. We came down. We knew lots of people here. We did lots of shopping in Phoenix. And nowadays, nobody knows anybody any more. It's just a big city.

(Music up and under)

ELLIS: I saw that progress was making the poor classes of people move, keep moving, on the move. If they decide they want your property, they take it. That's what you call progress.

ROSENBAUM: When I see beautiful desert land being broken up for apartments, it's getting close to being out of control.

LEVINSON: We used to have clear days out here, see the sky. Now you can't even see it, except rarely. And the same is true in many other places; I found it in other parts of the world. Resources being used up. They're forgetting about so-called tomorrow.

(Music up and under)

STUBBART: If you mine, cultivate it, see what's there, it isn't going to ever go back again. Some part, we're going to throw it away.

(Music up and under)

ROSENBAUM: You raised the food you ate. If you raised string beans and picked them, you were going to eat them. They were yours. We were just a part of the family.

STUBBART: When I got big enough to have my own cattle ranch, we had 5,100 acres.

ELLIS: Just a regular house, upstairs and downstairs. Big back yard. My dad had horses and we had chickens and things like that.

ROSENBAUM: You never thought of buying milk at a grocery store. You bought from people who had cows there. Rich Jersey milk and cream.

ELLIS: I don't know what they're doing to the food. The food don't taste right. All the different chemicals they put in the soil, things like that. You take a hothouse tomato, doesn't taste like a tomato off the vine.

ROSENBAUM: You were a part of the land, a part of the people. And you got your living from the land.

HAZARD: Sweet corn, potatoes, turnips and carrots and onions ...

ROSENBAUM: You planted seeds, you watched them sprout. You watched them grow. You sort of got an idea that youngsters nowadays don't know about. There was sort of a communication with nature that's gone, I think, now.

ELLIS: I think people are getting too smart. They're going to outsmart themselves. Some big catastrophe is going to happen, I don't know what. Then we'll have to go back to where we started. You just go so far, then you have to come down. You go up, you have to come down. That's my philosophy. I'm no scientist or nothing, so I don't know. Just how I think.

(Music up and under)

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The twentieth century wasn't sounding like the success story I was taught growing up. I asked Ruth if it scared her: the weird tomatoes, the impending catastrophe.

ELLIS: Well, I don't think so much about it, you know, that I'm afraid of anything. I just go along. Because I won't be here that long. (Laughs) That will be for you young people.

(Music up and under)

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: It turned out most of the centenarians had something to say about my generation.

ELLIS: I don't know about families nowadays. There's not too much togetherness. Not too much togetherness.

WOLF: People lived more or less in the same spot earlier on than they do now. They spread around a lot, because of jobs and because of educations. Don't you think so?

ROSENBAUM: I never came home from school in my life that my mother wasn't home or I knew where she was. Everything revolved around the family.

ELLIS: Now they've got all these fast food places. This one wants to go this way, the other wants to go that way. And the mother has to cook two or three different foods. It seems like people don't know how to raise their children now. They let the children raise them.

ROSENBAUM: They have different ideas, different ideals. I don't know that they have ideals too much any more.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: In case you're wondering if at times I considered running and hiding my youth, I did. But I just kept on listening. And I didn't hear blame, just a kind of acceptance of the technology, the mobility, the sheer amount of stuff to own and things to do. They'd witnessed the arrival of modern times.

ROSENBAUM: It was World War II and air conditioning, which changed Arizona, but it changed life because before that everybody had porches. You sat out on your porches at night. You talked with your neighbors. With the air conditioning you stayed inside and shut the doors.

SCHAEFFER: When you get a TV, you just go to the TV, turn it on, bingo. Your face is in the TV. You're not talking to your mother. You're not talking to anybody in the family.

(Music up and under)

LEVINSON: One time my wife and I, we're in New York together. We took a tour of Rockefeller Center. There were some other people in the group. We were separated, and each one went to a different room. Something strange was happening. They put on a machine of some sort, and we could see the person in the other room. We don't understand that. We were dazzled by it, amazed. That was, insofar as we were concerned, the beginning of TV.

(Music up and under)

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: We all know what happened after that. There was Sputnik, and men on the moon. Microwaves, computers, and the World Wide Web. VCRs, CNN, DVD. But technology was only a high-speed backdrop for something else: Social movements that were changing the landscape and its inhabitants in slower, but more profound ways.

(Music up and under)

WOLF: The first organizing job I did, you'll never guess what it was, was a girl's basketball team. And I went up to the principal. "Mr. Campbell, would you furnish a basketball for girls like you do for the boys?" And he said exactly what I thought he would. "Oh, I'm sorry, my dear, but girls don't play basketball." I said, "No, of course they don't. We don't have any basketball." (Laughs) "That’s what we want, a basketball." "Well," he said, "you go away and see if you can get a couple of teams together and you come back and see me later." I said, "Okay." We came back that afternoon. Total victory.

(Laughs) Total victory.

CHRISTABEL PANKHURST: Women have not been able to bring pressure to bear upon the government, and government rules only in response to pressure. We have waited too long for political justice. We refuse to wait any longer.

STUBBART: The people in Wyoming were the first ones to give women the right to vote. And I was so proud to think that I was in Wyoming, and I knew what they were doing and they knew what they were doing. And I was so proud to be in… (Laughs)

ROSENBAUM: Women did not get suffrage in Arizona early. They could scrub the floors. They could bake the bread. They could raise the children. They could do everything else, raise the gardens, milk the cows, make the butter. But they couldn't vote. So then they got out with initiative petitions. And it went on the ballot the same year whether they would ratify Arizona's statehood. And I'm sure that every man was told that morning by his mother, his aunt, his sisters, "You vote for statehood and you vote for women's suffrage or don't come home."

(Music up and under)

WOLF: I came to Seattle in 1923, and I wanted to swim. I love the water, I used to swim in it. And I went to the woman at the desk and said, "I'd like to go swimming." "Well," she said, "this is Negro day." I said, "Oh. Can I go in?" She said, "You wouldn't want to, would you?" I said, "Sure, I want to go swimming." "Go ahead, then," she said. I said, "Hey, wait a minute, maybe they don't want me there. I'm going to check this out." I go to the swimming tank, and five or six women came over. I said, "Do you people mind if I come swimming?" "No, come on in." So then I grinned and I said, "Hey, are you colorfast? Am I going to come out all over brown spots?" (Laughs) "No." I said, "I'm colorfast, too. You won't come all over white spots."


WOLF: Nineteen-twenty-three. We've come a long way. A long way since this was Negro day.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Do you think we have?

WOLF: Well, it's more fun to believe that way.


WOLF: Yeah, it's more fun to believe that way.

(Cheering crowd)

KING: I have a dream this afternoon, that one day right here in Detroit, negroes will be able to buy a house or rent a house anywhere that their money will carry them. And they will be able to get a job.

ELLIS: When Martin Luther King came to town, we got together and had a big march, and I was in that march. I'd never seen so many people. That was a great day.

KING: In a real sense, we are through with segregation now, henceforth and forever more.

(The crowd cheers)

ELLIS: Things changed quite a bit. Yeah, they changed quite a bit, on account of civil rights.

ROSENBAUM: I think it was a good thing for those involved. Made life a little bit easier for them, I guess.

ELLIS: We're not equal yet. I don't think we'll ever be. Never be.

STUBBART: I know. We have seen it in action: everything that's needed to be accomplished has been done by a black man or a black woman, probably just as good as the white person could do… You see, you touched a tender spot with me. I hate to admit that I have one bit of prejudice, but if you are honest, you will admit it, too.

(Music up and under)

ELLIS: I wasn’t any different from anybody else, unless it was sex, that's all. And that wasn't a big deal.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: I should mention, not only is Ruth Ellis a woman, and a black woman, she's a lesbian. Ruth lived with her partner Babe for more than 30 years. Their home was a central meeting place for Detroit's gay black community.

ELLIS: Used to be you couldn't tell anybody you were gay. Of course, we didn't know about the word gay then. It was woman lovers. We're working hard, trying to get the law people to make us feel like real citizens, because they don't think we are. They don't want us to do this, they don't want us to do that. So I don't know why, but what I try to do, I try to bring straight people and gay people together, so straight people can see that we're no different than anybody else.

(Music up and under; fade to news broadcast)

REPORTER: ... throughout the course of this day. And right now, the protesters are winning the battle. Seattle police chief Lawrence Stamper saying that yes indeed, the protesters have succeeded in temporarily stopping the WTO conference ...

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: It's three in the afternoon back in Hazel Wolf's hospital room. I get up the courage to ask the question I've been waiting to ask since I got here. After watching the world for 101 years, where does she think we're headed?

WOLF: I don’t know how sound this is, but it's my observation that no creature has knowingly destroyed its environment, not knowingly. And I don't think the humans will, either. We will follow the general rule of nature. They will find a way.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: I called Hazel a week or so later to see how her hip was mending. "Were you the one who brought the button?" she asked. "No, I was the one with the microphone." And I went back to Joseph Hazard's house to ask him a few more questions. He didn't recognize me. And then I learned that Ollie Wells, the World War I vet who wanted so badly to tell me his story but was too weak to get the words out, died two days after my visit.

In these lives that span three centuries I must have been like a blip on the screen. But they remember what's important, and they're passing it on.

I'll have to remember this. That maybe memory isn't a choice. Maybe it chooses you, just what's needed, what there's room for.

(Music up and under)

ELLIS: You don't know. You just live from day to day. Day to day. No, I never dreamed I'd be 100 years old. Unh-unh.

STUBBART: I never thought of anything else. I just accepted it as, why not? I'm here.

WOLF: You know, I really don't think I did realize that I was going to live for 101 years. I never saw anybody around me living 101 years. (Laughs)

LEVINSON: At times, I feel like a recycled teenager.

SCHAEFFER: Sometimes I feel, why? Why am I living this long? I'm not the happiest person in the world.

ELLIS: And here I am, still kicking but not high. Look like the older I get, I have a better time. (Laughs)

WOLF: Did I tell you about the postcard I got from a little girl? She said, "I hope you live 111 years, because in 111 years I'll be old enough to drink a toast to your birthday in wine."

(Music up and under)

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: For Living on Earth, I'm Anna Solomon-Greenbaum.

CURWOOD: Thanks to our centenarians Hazel Wolf in Seattle; Ruth Ellis in Detroit; Joseph Hazard of Charlestown, Rhode Island; Polly Rosenbaum and Lenore Schaeffer in Phoenix; Ben Levinson in Los Angeles; Audrey Stubbart in Independence, Missouri; and to Ollie Wells. Thanks also to Lynn Adler and the National Centenarian Awareness Project, and to the New England Centenarian Study. Our final word goes to Hazel Wolf, who, with her unusual insight, summed up the entire century this way:

WOLF: The biggest change I've seen is in swimsuits. You'd better believe it.



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