Mary Schmich: Oldtimer offers wisdom and time travel

I routinely get emails from readers telling me about an old person they know -- a father, a grandmother, an aunt, a neighbor -- who deserves to be written about.

I've received two such emails in the past few days alone. One was about Chicagoan Minnie Solomon, who turns 100 this month.

"She's smarter than both of us combined," wrote a much younger member of Solomon's Temple Sholom congregation, "and her memory (for history, politics, you name it) is phenomenal. She also has really good skin, dammit."

The other email was from Annilise Flanagan, about her uncle, Gerard Radice.

"Gerard turns 95 in December," she wrote, "and continues to work every day in his CPA business (still taking yearly classes because 'there are all these new rules,' he says). Still ushers at his church almost every Sunday, still mentoring young people who contact him from his long years of teaching at DePaul University."

I can't write about all, or even most, of the people I hear about, and yet for some reason I keep a lot of these emails around for a while, like this one from a woman who wanted people to know about her 97-year-old neighbor, Erwin, known as Irv.

"He served two tours of duty in Europe during WWII," she wrote. "He fought with Patton. He is the winner of 5 Bronze Stars. He is full of amazing stories that should be told. ... Irv has great stories to tell of working on an ice truck, delivering ice blocks around the neighborhood."

Great stories to tell.

That line, or something like it, figures into most of these emails, all of which also carry the unstated message: Let's honor our elders. Be amazed before it's too late. Be aware that being old can be inspiring.

At some point in life, if you're lucky enough to know an old person well, you recognize that that person's stories are the closest you can come to time travel.

Ice delivery. World War II. Life in the 1920s.

We can read about such things in novels and biographies, we can watch the documentaries and the miniseries, but hearing about such things from living people makes the past more than dry history.

"Wait a minute," someone out there is saying. "Old? Isn't 'old' an insult?"

Old may not be a category coveted by advertisers, but taken at face value -- "having lived for many years," says Merriam-Webster -- it's a fine word.

On the other hand, old isn't what it used to be. The number of people living into their 80s and 90s continues to grow significantly; so does their percentage of the population. According to the 2010 census, there were 53,364 centenarians in the United States, up from just a little more than 32,000 in 1980.

To qualify as truly, amazingly old these days, you have to be 105.

Here's another email, from a reader who wrote me a while back about two friends, ages 104 and 107.

The 107-year-old, she wrote, "reads three newspapers a day, is part of a women's knitting group that gives blankets to sick children and has strong political views still influenced by her dad's teachings from the early 1900s."

The 104-year-old was an ardent knitter who still loved to shop for clothes, powder and lipstick.

Reading these emails, I'm struck not only by the stories that the old people have to tell but also by how lucky they are to have friends and relatives who want to hear them.

Many old people aren't that fortunate. So here's a thought for the holiday season.

If you know an elderly person -- in your family, your neighborhood, where you worship -- ask to hear a story. Or ask what they think of the world today. Listen. Travel to the places that only an older person can take you.

On a final note, there's this, from the woman who wrote me about Minnie Solomon, whose birthday is Nov. 16:

"Here's my favorite recent quote from her: 'Life's too short to hold grudges.' I guess at 100 she would know."

Mary Schmich columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Email, You can follow her on or contact her on