Guest Commentary

December 30, 2010


By Kent Carlson


A rare natural resource: the Nonagenarian


Nonagenarian. There’s a word that isn’t used much. That’s because there are less than 2 million people over 90 years old in this country at any given time. Only seven-tenths of 1 percent of the population lives to be over 90, and most are in care facilities. It’s hard to know how many nonagenarians there are in Iowa because, statistically, the state lumps everyone 85 and older together. The reality is most people never get the privilege of knowing too many folks in their 90s.

I have lost four nonagenarian friends and family members in the last few months. While it’s not a shock, it is certainly a loss. Mom passed away in October at age 90. She was the youngest of the four.

When Evelyn Singmaster (Carlson), was born in 1920, the Civil War had been over for just 55 years. The Titanic sunk just eight years earlier. World War I officially had ended with the Treaty of Versailles less than a year before. The first commercial radio broadcast hit the air about the time Mom drew her first breath. Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin were big stars. Women’s right to vote became law when Mom was 2 months old.

By the time she was 10 years old, Mom had climbed on the beams of the KRNT theater during construction, lived through the Charleston, Flappers, Houdini, Babe Ruth’s home-run record, Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic, the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, the discovery of penicillin, the end of silent films and the stock market crash of 1929.

By age 20, she had seen the rise of Adolph Hitler, Franklin Roosevelt and Glenn Miller, and the fall of Herbert Hoover, Al Capone, Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger and the world economy. The Hindenburg exploded, Amelia Earhart vanished and World War II began. She had listened to “Dutch” Reagan on WHO and traveled the city by streetcar.

And Mom lived another 70 years.

My friend’s mother, Mrs. Marge Alexander, raised her three boys in Omaha. The oldest is now 72. After inspecting one of my projects, Marge told me about how she and her husband had sanded and refinished the floors of their rental property 70 years earlier. She remembered it like it was yesterday. Marge lived in the same house her husband built for the family in 1954, and she lived there alone since her husband passed away in 1987. She wouldn’t have it any other way. Like my mother, she was feisty, stubborn, fiercely independent and refused to move to a care facility. Eventually, living alone wasn’t an option for either of them. But, fortunately, their time in care facilities was brief. Marge lived to age 96.

I met Mr. Frank Inman a couple of years ago. He was an institution in Earlham, Iowa. He ran a service station, as did his father before him. Everyone loved Frank. He visited the old opera house I live in and provided some great first-person accounts of the building. For a period of time, the opera house was a roller skating rink. Frank told a story about the time in high school when he and a buddy tossed a live snake between the legs of the school principal, who was being escorted around the rink on roller skates by a couple of other students. That was 1933. OK, so maybe everyone alive loved him. Frank celebrated 71 years of marriage and lived with his wife in the home they purchased in 1944. Frank lived to age 94.

I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Harold Goldman about 18 years ago. My wife worked at Iowa Paint, a company Harold purchased in 1955. Sondra went to work for the company in 1988, when Harold was just 77. One day he asked if she would like to go biking with him to Saylorville. Sondra was in good shape and thought it sounded like fun. Harold had only recently started cycling, but by the time they made it to the Saylorville dam from downtown Des Moines, Harold had left her in the dust. Harold was a competitor. He developed the first condominium development in Des Moines. In 1961, Harold and his wife, Kate, commissioned Richard Neutra, a world-famous architect, to design their personal residence in his new development, Southern Hills. Harold showed up daily at his office well into his 90s. He attended Harvard Law School…during the Roosevelt administration. Harold was brilliant, and I enjoyed every conversation I was lucky enough to have with him, even though I was certain he had forgot more than I ever knew. He was always thought provoking, dapper and a perfect gentleman. Harold lived to age 99.

The next time you have a chance to talk to a nonagenarian, take a moment and realize how lucky you are to have the opportunity. The odds are it may not happen again. CV


Kent Carlson is a native Iowa artist interested in the preserving Iowa’s architectural heritage and the common sense of its leaders. And he writes a few columns for Cityview, too.


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