Coming of age:
Ten Chicagoans master the art of growing older
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.
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
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.
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."
"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."
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
"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."
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.'
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
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
"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.
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
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.
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.
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."