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Coming of age:
Ten Chicagoans master the art of growing older
(print version)

Interviews by Charlotte Snow

The men and women featured in these interviews are lifelong Chicagoans in two significant ways. They are alumni of the University, and they have spent most of their 90--plus years living and working in the city of Chicago. Approaching their own century marks, they sat down with the Magazine to talk about what has mattered most.

Alexander Coutts, 95  Four days a week, sociologist Alexander Coutts, PhB'31, commutes from Hyde Park to the Loop offices of the Chicago Area Project, where he organizes local efforts to curb juvenile delinquency. A singer since his University days, he took up formal voice training in his 80s and recently performed a recital of Scottish folk songs at Chicago's Fine Arts Building.

"I was born on a round oak dining--room table in a home just west of Lincoln Park Zoo. When I was growing up, we were able to play games like paper, rock, scissors in the middle of the street. There were few automobiles then. I had a rich uncle who drove up in a Rolls--Royce once, and the whole neighborhood showed up.

"My father was a bookbinder, and he sent me to a two--year electrical course at Lane Tech High School. I made an electric iron in shop and it blew a fuse; I made a toaster and that blew a fuse. My father was ready to give up, but I went on to the University of Chicago and got a bachelor's degree. I was out in '31, just when the depression began to hit. Jobs opened up in relief programs, and I got into the vocational end of it. I later worked in personnel management for the state and federal governments. I retired in '65.

"I got tired of retirement, so I took some sociology exams and was hired at the Illinois Youth Commission. It was affiliated with the Chicago Area Project, which was based on the community--organizing ideas of sociology professor Edward W. Burgess [AM'47]. I retired from working for the project in '79 and became a part--time consultant. One of the finest things about the project is that it hires staff members from within the communities it is trying to help, rather than relying on outsiders.

"My major interest outside of work is singing. I was the lowest bass in the College Quartet. I've been singing ever since. I quit smoking after one week in 1920--that's why I can still sing. I enjoy it, and people say I have a good voice. My friends encourage me.

"I would tell today's students to take things as they come. I grew up under a dour Scottish father, and he drilled into me to accept what was going on. I can still hear him say, 'Put up with what you've got. Don't worry about something you don't have.' Having heard that all the time, I still have problems buying something new until what I have is worn down."

Marian Alschuler Despres, 90, and Leon Despres, 91  In the evenings before dinner, the Despres enjoy one of their anti--aging secrets--a margarita in the summer, a manhattan in the winter. They also recommend staying involved with longtime interests: Marian Alschuler Despres, PhB'30, PhD'36, continues to lead preservation efforts at Henry Hobson Richardson's Glessner House, where her family funded the restoration of the library. Meanwhile, each weekday morning, former Chicago alderman Leon Despres, PhB'27, JD'29, catches the Jeffrey Express in front of their South Stony Island Avenue co--op. He gets off downtown at the University Club for a swim, then heads over to his law office.

Marian: "We've influenced each other. I've learned about politics from him, and he has learned about art from me. Chicago has changed a lot culturally during our time here. It's much more of a cultural center with all of the plantings, the Cows on Parade public--art display, and the growth of the theaters, particularly the community theaters. In the '20s, Chicago was a cowtown in a different sense. It's really flourishing culturally today.

"I grew up in Winnetka. When I was 16, I felt that I had had a privileged childhood, and I decided that the best way to give back was to become a teacher. I used my experience teaching for a number of years to help develop the docent program for the Glessner House on Prairie Avenue. I've been involved in preserving the house for some 25 or 30 years.

"When I was 20, I went to a church convention and someone said that if you want a good old age you have to prepare for it in your youth. I thought that was ridiculous, but it's true. Establish your interests when you're young and pursue them."

Leon: "As I've grown older, my goals have been trimmed. I have come to terms with the fact that the world cannot achieve perfection. I think there are lots of things you can do, and it's a disgrace not to try. But I thought it might happen--perfection. I lived through World War I to make the world safe for democracy, and then along came World War II. I thought that now we would have an organization to stop conflicts, but just awful things have happened. Even so, life is also much easier. We have medications now for some of the things we were afraid of when we were young, and the changes caused by computers are just overwhelming.

"Both of us have felt that our lives should be useful, and that hasn't changed. Polonius advised, 'To thine own self be true.' Though Polonius wasn't true to himself--he was a pretentious and hypocritical old fool--you do have to follow your inclinations."

Catherine L. Dobson, 90 Catherine L. Dobson, MD'32, practiced obstetrics and gynecology for nearly 70 years, retiring three years ago as a clinical associate at the University of Chicago Hospitals. During her career, she spent a month each in Afghanistan, Tunis, Honduras, and Vietnam providing charitable medical care. Over the sofa in her Hyde Park retirement--home apartment hangs a painting of a young woman. Though the portrait is of her, she's quick to point out an inaccuracy: "You don't wear beads when you play the violin."

"I was born on the West Side of Chicago, and I attended a boarding school in Davenport, Iowa. While there I made up my mind that I wanted to be a doctor and that never changed. Becoming an ob--gyn seemed the natural choice in a profession that didn't really recognize women. I was a resident at Cook County Hospital. Nothing was rare there. You saw everything.

"I stopped playing the violin when I started my medical practice. I was too busy. But I liked my patients. I loved the positive feeling of caring for them. It's very hard to say that any one particular medical advance stands out. Now the fathers are invited into the delivery room, whereas before they were not. They're part of the picture, as they should be. The more they understand, the better off the whole family is.

"The fact that you could be original, original in what you do and for whom you do it, has guided me. I worked in Vietnam during the war doing medical work. It was a completely different world. Part of the time you were afraid--afraid of getting in a taxi, afraid of being involved with the war effort. That was the main one. We didn't know it was going to be a war effort. I learned that people are not important to governments as individuals.

"I would tell young people to take it easy. Things are not necessarily what they seem. They should not be too worried about what they see, because they might be wrong. You're never through learning, really. Your work helps you develop and then you realize you've made it. You've been there. Your life's experienced."

Hortense Friedman, 98  On a chilly autumn afternoon, Hortense Friedman, PhB'22, heats water for tea on the Universal stove she's used since moving into her Evanston apartment in 1953. A financial officer at the University for more than 40 years, she still reads the Wall Street Journal "pretty thoroughly every day." She has set the day's edition on her coffee table next to a photo album chronicling a July 1937 pack trip along the Sierra Nevada Mountains' John Muir Trail. It's one of the many camping and riding trips Friedman took for her vacations.

"After graduating from the University of Chicago, I tried to get jobs in business and couldn't. Women had to be a nurse or a stenographer. After I mastered Gregg shorthand, I became secretary to the University's assistant business manager, George O. Fairweather [SB'06, JD'09]. After one year as secretary, I started playing with investment analysis. Instead of firing me, they put me in a private office and said, 'Go do it.' They set me on the endowment list, checking up on individual securities.

"In '38 they made me assistant treasurer. It was that way for another three decades. We branched out into high--yielding, unconventional endowment investments, like an oil tanker that we bought hook, line, and sinker. We also had an interest in one company in Denver that was making parts for traffic signals just when the national highway system was in the making.

"President Hutchins wanted younger treasurers more willing to reach for higher endowment income. He wanted that income pretty intensely. There were always interesting things to examine and select. I retired in January 1969. I worry now that I've been existing on a University pension for much longer than anyone would have expected!

"It was comfortable to work very hard at my salary, which was not competitive with business salaries, for something I believed in. I was willing to give a lot of my time and energy in excess of what was required because I believed in the University. I liked what I was working to accomplish, that it wasn't for some stockholder's profit. And the working atmosphere at the University was different from that of some of the legal and advertising offices around town that were always having rowdy parties. The University was a mannerly place.

"My advice is to buy stocks to stay a holder, not for a quick profit. Enjoy ownership and pay attention. Sell when it no longer seems to have promise."

Hortense Friedman, 98  Ferdinand Kramer, PhB'22, sits at his desk in the Monroe Street offices of the real estate firm Draper and Kramer, Inc., where he is chairman emeritus. An array of keepsakes includes a black--and--white photograph of Kramer shaking hands with President John F. Kennedy; Henry Kissinger's profile is visible in the background. Two canine figurines remind this two--time judge of the Westminster Dog Show of the internationally recognized English bulldogs he used to breed. A senior doubles tennis champion on all four surfaces, the dapper Kramer sports a tie adorned with a pin of two gold tennis rackets and a tiny pearl ball.

"I've always had a particular interest in the rehabilitation of the South Side as a wonderful place in which to live. I spent the first eight or ten years of my life at 2912 Prairie Avenue. In those days, that was the place to live. The Marshall Fields, the Pullmans, the Logans, the Swifts all lived within a stone's throw of where I lived. My wife and I now live in Dearborn Park.

"One of the events that got me started in the development of the South Side was a call from Bob Hutchins. He was having difficulty after the war getting young, bright professors to the South Side because of a shortage of housing, and wanted to know if I could help. I said that if they provided the land, we'd provide the buildings.

"An abandoned church at 56th and Dorchester was torn down, and so the land was sold by the University to us at its reuse value--at a loss of $12,000 on the transaction. We then drew up plans for and built a residential building that gave a priority of occupancy to faculty and University staff. It is now over 80 percent occupied by people affiliated with the University. It has achieved its original purpose.

"The so--called golden age isn't all milk and honey. I have a hip that should be replaced. Tennis is now out of the realm of possibility. The past 30 or 40 years, tennis took up a third of my life, business a third, and family a third, so a third of my life is kaput. That's hard to take.

"But I'm pleased that the United States Tennis Association is now hosting a tournament for 90--year--olds that began about seven years ago as a round--robin competition organized by myself and two of my doubles partners and sponsored by Jay Pritzker.

"I wouldn't give students today any advice other than to study hard. I'm sure they figure things out on their own or they wouldn't be admitted to the University."

Madeline Stratton Morris, 93  New condominiums are going up across the street from the Hyde Park flat where Madeline Stratton Morris, X'42, has lived for 46 years. A retired teacher, she's credited with introducing the study of African--American history to the Chicago public--schools curriculum. In her solarium warmed by the afternoon sun, she sets Louis Armstrong's Hello, Dolly LP spinning on her Magnavox turntable.

"The issue of race has encompassed my life and that of other black people. It narrowed the kinds of experiences we could have and even our right to be a human being. Certain things were just expected. When we moved into this apartment, there was what was called a 'colored price' and a 'white price.' That was expected. But we were friends with a white couple who bought the whole building at the better price and then sold our place to us at a fair price. When something decent like that happened, it was a surprise.

"Teaching was one of the few things a black woman could do. I taught at Emerson School on West Walnut for about 15 years, and later at A. O. Sexton School on South Langley for another 17. Teachers were trained better when I came along, and children weren't as unruly as they are now. Parents were more involved with the school and taught their children to be polite. My father expected all six of us children to be sitting at the table at dinnertime--and to be early at the table on Sundays. The expectations of parents are different today. Social promotion is bad, too, for children, because they aren't encouraged to feel that they have accomplished something.

"I wrote two textbooks--Strides Forward: Afro--American Biographies and Negroes Who Helped Build America--because, as a group, black people would never be accepted if no one had ever seen us or heard about us. One of the important reasons for writing these books was so that young black children could know some information and take pride in themselves.

"When I give advice, I emphasize education. It's how much education you have and what schools you attend that matters. Go to the best school you can afford and study, study, study--because that's the entrée to whatever you want to do. Enjoy the challenges; there must be some joy in it all. And have some feeling about God--a belief in some force beyond ourselves."

Wallace Rusterholtz, 90  Wallace Rusterholtz, AM'56, has stacked on his coffee table more than a dozen books, including Donald L. Miller's City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America and Six Centuries of Great Poetry, edited by Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine. The City Colleges of Chicago history professor emeritus boasts a library of a "couple of thousand" texts that share shelf space in his Hyde Park retirement--home apartment with rows of hand--blown glass and crystal sculptures.

"When I was stationed in Iran during World War II, I spent all of my Army pay on original Persian miniature paintings and other artifacts. With all of the glassware and other art objects around, I would know immediately that a gay man lives in my apartment. I'm gay, and I've known since I was 12. I didn't have a steady companion until I was 70, and I didn't come out of the closet until I was 85.

"I did propose to a woman on New Year's Eve, 1945. Seven months into our marriage, I realized I had fallen in love with my wife. After suffering terribly from diabetes, she committed suicide about 12 and three--quarters years later. My male companion is now in an Alzheimer's care unit in this building. I visit him every day.

"As a former history professor, I consider that I was teaching a subject that was vital, not peripheral. How people lived is the most important thing to understand about history, and that includes politics and economics. History should rate with the three R's as one of the basics necessary for a good education because, as the late Harvard University professor George Santayana put it, 'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.'

"Adult education has been my great interest. I taught evening sessions because the students were older and more serious. They worked all day and were willing to go to school in the evening. Before one of my classes started, a woman passed around a box of chocolates because she had just become a great--grandmother. I thought that was wonderful. "The greatest historical events of this century were the Great Depression and World War II. We haven't had a great president since FDR. Today we're in a rapidly changing and chaotic period. I'm more favorable though to President Clinton than many people are. Kennedy and Harding both misbehaved in the White House, and they were never criticized.

"I am a devout Unitarian. Unitarians are not thought of as being devout but as terrible free thinkers. I glory in being a terrible free thinker. I'm an agnostic. I don't believe in God, and I don't care. I wouldn't dream of being that dependent."

Helen Palmer Sonderby, 94, and Max E. Sonderby, 93  Retired social worker Helen Palmer Sonderby, PhB'27, recalls how she met journalist Max E. Sonderby, PhB'30, on a 1970 flight to Japan with a group from Hyde Park, where they still live. Both were widowed. A mutual friend sitting between them fell asleep, leaving Helen and Max to chat about a New Yorker article. Two months after the trip, they were married at the Chicago Theological Seminary, where Helen's father once served as president.

Helen: "I was an Illinois state social worker and I traveled a lot downstate to do mental testing, working mostly with children and families. I had a retarded child of my own, Judy, who died from pneumonia when she was 11 years old. She had Down's syndrome, and I campaigned to help other children like her. I tried to help families get the right kind of help and to understand their situation in a broader light. They needed to accept and enjoy the child. The doctors said to put Judy in an institution, but my first husband and I had three other children, and Judy was a real part of our family.

"Regarding advice, I've noticed that telling someone what your degree is in doesn't tell much about what you've done with your education. Follow some particular interest and see how it relates back to what you got from your college courses."

Max: "I lived in a fishing village in Denmark before coming to Chicago at age 8. War was breaking out, and my mother had relatives here. I remember my first sight of a streetcar. I saw the trolley come off the wire and make a big flash.

"Curiosity drew me to reporting. I started out working at a chain store. I didn't last long. I got fired and got a job with the City News Bureau. I was hooked once I got involved with that. I worked for the Sun--Times and later started my own company covering court news. They used to call me 'Max the Ax.' I investigated the bribery of an alderman. His assistant took over his post and later became an Illinois Supreme Court judge. Whenever I ran into the former assistant on the street, he would say, 'Thanks for getting me the job!' A good headline story is a pleasure.

"Current students should do more physical work. I don't have a computer and wouldn't be bothered by one. They should also have an occupation they enjoy. I'm glad I had an interesting occupation instead of just making money."

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