I had lunch the other day with a bunch of centenarians -- folks 100 years of age and older -- and, to sum up, their views on life seemed markedly spirited and cheerful. Apparently they were enjoying themselves thoroughly. They seemed to be the kind of people who like people.
Maybe you don't get to be a centenarian if you "burn and rave" and "rage against the dying of the light," as Dylan Thomas had famously urged people to do in a 1952 poem, a year before sloshing to an alcoholic death at age 39.
Easy does it.
I found the luncheon inspiring. It perked me right up. D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams (supervised by his mother, Virginia) presented gold medals to each honoree (more than a dozen of the city's 102 centenarians were present), their biographies were read aloud by WBIG/WTEM radio personality Jerry Phillips, Ms. Senior D.C. Thelma Morgan sang some beautiful hymns, and Tero Mauldin Coleman, with 111 winters at her back, cut a big four-layer cake, blessing it in the name of the Holy Spirit and to the accompaniment of a drum roll.
"Tero Coleman was born in Anderson, S.C., 25 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln," her biography said. "Her goal, God willing, is to have lived in three centuries: the 19th, 20th and 21st. Her thoughts are positive, her faith is strong and her conscience is clear. She still retains her pride, humility and gentle nature as she continues to praise and serve the Lord."
Hmmm, I thought. Maybe I could stand a little work on that clear conscience part . . .
"Think what they've done!" the mayor marveled. "This is a generation of folks born when people were just thinking of automobiles and telephones." Wars, depressions, civil rights movements -- they lived through them all, and kept on going. "This is a platinum generation," the mayor said. "A group of great people."
Their approach to life, he noted, is simple: "Be thankful, know your place and praise your God." Also, "don't overindulge in life's vices." That got a chuckle; no sense in trying to be perfect.
I was invited to the lunch at the downtown Marriott, sponsored by the D.C. Office on Aging and a couple of other organizations, by Rupert B. Clark, one of the centenarians -- and, I noticed glancing around the room, the only guy there who was over 100.
A macho male role model if ever there was one.
Actually, Mr. Clark is now 101. I'd met him by chance a few years ago at the Silver Spring YMCA when we were showering down after workouts, and had written an item about him.
He was only 98 then -- a lean, muscular guy with a great sense of humor and a background as a Washington insurance man who had patiently, steadfastly worked over the decades against racist practices in his industry; his nephew is psychologist Kenneth Clark, whose studies of the devastating impact of segregation on black schoolchildren in the South were cited by the Supreme Court in its landmark 1954 desegregation ruling, Brown v. Board of Education.
It was great the other day to see that Rupert Clark -- accompanied as usual by his son, Rupert Jr., a Washington dental surgeon, and his daughter, Rupertha Hunt, a retired teacher -- has remained in tiptop shape.
In fact, he didn't look a day over 100.
"How do you feel?" a young reporter from another news organization asked him, somewhat gingerly, pen poised above notebook.
"Fine, thanks!" replied Mr. Clark.
Next, predictably, the reporter wanted to know the "secret" of living to 100, as if the Mind of God could somehow be squeezed into a few lines of ink scribbled in a spiral pad -- which, for all I know, it can be.
"Say that again," said Mr. Clark, bending an ear.
The reporter finally got the question across and Mr. Clark answered enthusiastically:
"I don't control it! The good Lord does. I give thanks every day. I'm here until He calls me."
The reporter then wanted to know the most memorable events in Mr. Clark's life, and the unhesitating answer was: "When I married my wife!" Rupert and Martha Smith, born and raised in Washington, married in 1923 and had 71 happy years together before she passed away a few years ago.
Did Mr. Clark have any advice for young people, the reporter (I was beginning to love this guy, he was doing all the work) asked.
A big smile came across Mr. Clark's face.
"There's so much opportunity to make this a wonderful world," he began, launching into a dissertation on good attitudes and right actions.
Glancing through the biographies, I was intrigued by how many of the centenarians considered marriage the most significant event in their lives, though Irene S. Boysen, 100 (her husband had worked at The Washington Post after World War I), allowed as how "learning to drive" also was high on her list.
A few useful tidbits:
* "Keep yourself occupied by working in the church and helping the needy in the community." (Genevieve Novella Johnson, 100, known as "Mother Johnson" for her many activities on behalf of older Washingtonians.)
* "One person is just as important as the next." (Pearl Spicknall, 100, who served on Corregidor under Gen. Douglas MacArthur.)
* "Work hard and be good at what you do and, above all, stay in school." (Rachel Hodge, 100, elevator operator at the State Department, participant in desegregation marches.)
Mr. Clark gave me a firm handshake at the end of the lunch, and we went our separate ways. I felt happy, graced by a few hours with these beautiful old ones. I felt lighter.
Maybe that's it. Maybe the lesson is about the joy of shedding the things of this hurly-burly world, giving up desire, letting go of the heady self-centered plans that drag us down, moving toward a different world.
The realm of pure spirit.