A doctor says that Ike Ward, who died recently in Florida, died "just of old age." Just? Is old age no longer reason enough for dying in this age of high-technology medicine locked in combat with exotic ailments? Still, it is heartening to know that Ward's promotion to Glory was not due to the back injury he sustained while unloading stumps from a railroad car nine years ago, when he was 110.
Aging, like a lot of other common things (life, love, memory, the existence of the universe, the infield fly rule), remains a mystery. But many gerontologists believe that, absent disease or imprudent living, an individual ages according to his or her genetically controlled "clock." A scientist says that, ideally, we should live fairly healthily and then go "poof" rather than go into slow decline or a nursing home.
Ward, whose genetic clock was one of Nature's better efforts, went ''poof" the day after he entered a nursing home where some folks probably were young enough to be his grandchildren. Perhaps he died prematurely. He said he was related to Charles Smith, who was born during the administration of President Tyler, and who was America's oldest citizen when he died in 1979 at age 137.
A smarty-pants once said that no one who has lived to be 110 or more has been remarkable for anything else. But anyone who maneuvers through 110 or more years, including years potholed by such terrors as nuclear weapons and processed cheese, has done something remarkable--foolish, perhaps, but unquestionably remarkable.
Such longevity is a triumph not just of physiology but of the spirit. Ward was black, and he set a North American record for understatement when, recalling his youth, he said: "Things were different back then for the Negro race." He was born on Christmas, 1862, in Richmond, Va., and in slavery. Persons with unsound views of the Civil War may say that he was born under the presidency of Jefferson Davis. Actually, he was a bouncing baby constituent of Abraham Lincoln. The federal writ did not really run in Richmond at the time, but Virginia never succeeded in seceding.
Ward lived during the administrations of 24 presidents and--an even more fabulous feat of stoicism--outlived 16 wives. He did not learn to sign his name until he was 85, by which time he probably had figured out how to get along without that particular flourish. But it does him credit, and may help explain his longevity, that he was an 85-year-old still learning new tricks.
He was in his 40s in the 1900s, when he was hauling potatoes to Virginia from a large potato field called Staten Island. At the end of his life he weighed 130 pounds and did not use a cane or even wear glasses. When a cousin offered to do his laundry, he told her to buzz off.
According to the Bible, we are allotted three score and ten years, and it has been said that the first 40 years provide the text of life, the last 30 provide the commentary. But Ward was picking up steam--and stumps and things -- when he sailed past 70, heading for two score and nine more.
Such longevity can be, in a way, terrible, because it almost invariably involves the burial of many friends, relatives, children (Ward lost three sons during the First World War) and grandchildren. But such longevity can confer perspective on those who experience it, and those who think about it. Such an old person is a powerful reminder that we are a young nation.
He was born before 16 states entered the Union. He lived under most of the presidents the Union has had. The first presidential election he was old enough to vote in (he probably was prevented from doing so) was in 1884, between Grover Cleveland and James G. Blaine. He saw more social and technological change in every decade of his life than was seen in any previous century. In medical, military, transportation and many other spheres of life, conditions that existed until he was middle-aged were more like those in the Middle Ages than today.
It would be understandable if Ward had died long ago, a victim of historical vertigo. So we must presume that he had considerable competence at the art of living. His life refutes George Bernard Shaw's theory. Shaw said that except during the nine months before birth, no man manages his life as well as a tree does. Ward did.