A few weeks ago my grandfather, Sam Baker, passed away at the age of 109. He spent most of his life toiling in the prairies of Western Canada as described in this Winnipeg Free Press article. I and other family members, believe that he was much older (my estimate 113) but the official record is 109. So how did he do it? What was it like to be a alive during the last century?
Here’s a sample list of accomplishments that my grandfather witnessed:
- Creation of Commercial Air flight
- Introduction of Household appliances – refrigerator, electric stove/oven, can opener, microwave, etc.
- Invention of the automobile and the development of the Interstate Highway
- Adoption of Indoor Plumbing
- Eradication of Polio, Measles and Smallpox
- The Great Depression
- World War I and II
- Construction of the Indoor Mall
- Onset of Computers and the Internet
After surviving the “dirty-30s” as a farm equipment dealer in Hamiota, Manitoba, (population of less than 1,000), he bought and successfully operated a chain of women’s clothing stores in and around Brandon, Manitoba. He married late in life (36 – the same age I was when I married), settled into a modest house in Brandon, and raised two daughters and a son.
At 85, he retired from the store, and travelled extensively with my grandmother (who predeceased him 11 years ago). After her death, he spent the balance of his life reading the newspaper in Winnipeg and frequenting the Winnipeg Senior scene.
My uncle stated at the funeral, he was what actuaries call the “Omega Man”, the last of his generation. A man of quiet dignity, he wore a jacket and tie every day, and walked almost 3 miles daily (to the bank and to the coffee shop) well into his 100s. An infrequent speaker, he was prepared to offer his opinion on a variety of matters when provoked. I spent a few days each year with my grandfather at his office in Brandon, cottage at Clear Lake or home in Winnipeg. On most of these family visits, I acted like a rambunctious toddler or teenager, unappreciative of his experiences.
In the last few years I listened intently and asked him questions about his life. On my last visit, several weeks before his death, all there was to say was “I Love You.” We had said it all. We knew the end was near, so I hugged him one last time. My daughter Orli kissed him and we left.
So what does it take to live to 109?
Based on my decades of discussions with my grandfather here’s what I know:
- Speak only when you have something important to say
- Treat your family better than your friends
- Stay away from gossip and idle talk
- Never argue with your wife, she’s always right
- Lead by example, not with words
- Enjoy the simple pleasures in life
Speak when you have something important to say
There is too much chatter in today’s Twitter society. My grandfather engaged in friendly conversation on a regular basis and loved interacting with people, but he rarely spoke in public. When he did speak, he did so with meaning and purpose. He hardly spoke at family gatherings, but when he did, people stopped their idle talking and listened. Later in my life, his personal conversations with me were so packed with value, it required that I decompress and ponder for a few days. These most private conversations possessed important messages he imparted to me.
Treat your family better than your friends
Sadly, most people treat their friends better than their family. As the youngest son in a family of five brothers and two (younger) sisters, my grandfather ensured that the family stayed together. Throughout his life, even when his brothers and their children lived far apart from each other, he made sure that disagreements amongst individual family members were dealt with and not left to fester.
Stay away from gossip
My grandfather enjoyed the routine banter of life, but he was not one to engage in gossip or act in a mean spirited way with his words. On occasion, he did not disclose things that he wanted to say to other people. My grandfather never told my uncle that he appreciated the care and assistance he had provided to him in the last decade of his life, but he confided this information to me several times. After my grandfather’s death I realized how much this “omission” had affected my uncle.
Never argue with your wife
As a person who’s been married for over eight years, it’s easy to say this, much harder to live it. My grandparents had a special relationship, sharing many hardships and heartaches. Given their circumstances, they were able to live their lives to the fullest. My grandparents never argued in front of me. There was never any tension in their home. My grandfather took it upon himself to be the peacemaker in the relationship. I can only hope that my relationship with my wife survives their 60+ years.
Lead by example
My grandfather lived a modest life and made sure that we understood the difference between right and wrong. He didn’t tell us what to do, he lived it. He took care of his possessions, ensuring his 1985 Lincoln was tuned and cleaned after each lengthy road trip or 5,000 km (whichever came first). He treated friends, family and associates with dignity and compassion. While he was a tough negotiator, he respected those with whom he worked.
Enjoy the simple pleasures of life
My grandfather was not tremendously wealthy, but he took advantage of opportunities when they arose. Without fail, he would have a cocktail shortly before dinner (usually scotch & water, but also white rum and Sprite). He loved spending time with his grandchildren (at least initially) and his friends, and going for long walks along Winnipeg‘s Wellington Crescent and the River Heights area.
Lessons from my grandfather
In modern day business language, we ask: what are the key take-aways that we can learn from Sam Baker. However, I prefer to look at his life lessons to be lived every day.
Treat people with respect. He had his own version of the “golden rule”. He didn’t like everyone, but he treated them with respect. I’m going to ensure that that I’m respectful of those that I interact with on a regular basis.
Show appreciation. My grandfather grew up in a time when fathers were hard on their children and some of that rubbed off on him. Later in his life he used to tell me that he loved me. He appreciated my uncle’s efforts as primary caregiver, though he rarely said anything. I’m going to tell and show people that I appreciate them and their effort s more than before.
Watch your tongue. I’m a bit of an introvert and so I don’t really like mixing in large crowds of people. When I do talk to people, I’m going to be more conscious of what and how I say things.
Communicate more. Because of my introverted nature, this one is going to be hard for me. I don’t really like to talk, so it means that when I speak, I’ll make my comments more meaningful and less superfluous. Also, I will be writing a lot more than in the past.
Enjoy life with all it has to offer. My wife constantly reminds me about how to stop and appreciate what we have been given (four amazing daughters, and her, an amazing wife), and I am forever reminding her to slow down. Somewhere we’ll find a happy medium, but I’ll be sure to have a glass of whisky or beer after 5 pm in my grandfather’s honor almost every day.
I will miss the visits with my grandfather (including the famous cocktail hours) but I'm certain that these lessons he inculcated in me will stay with me and my children forever.