Past retirement, still kicking

Working and staying active in the community long past retirement age, several Malibu residents talk about what keeps them going.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

According to the United States Census Bureau, there are some 40 million Americans who are 65 years old-and therefore, of retirement age-this year. While some may choose to turn in their company key card and pick up a fishing pole, there are many Americans who elect to remain professionally active long past the age when one could expect to pass the days rocking on a front porch.

Malibu has several of those restless individuals, who declare that retiring is a concept as foreign to them as forgetting about breathing.

Harry Gesner, 85 years young, has been a practicing architect since his return from the front just after World War II, when, despite a lack of an architectural or engineering degree, he applied for, and got, a license. He hasn’t looked back since.

“It [my age] doesn’t even enter my mind,” Gesner said in an interview with The Malibu Times. “I don’t feel like 85. Maybe I’m not as agile on my longboard, but I’m still out there.”

During the past 40 years, he has developed a passion for sustainable building practices and incorporates the use of photovoltaic panels for solar energy, insulated concrete blocks and other self-supporting techniques to take his clients entirely off the grid.

“I’ve always been sort of a lone wolf when it comes to work and never went with any of the large architectural firms,” Gesner said. “Over my career, I’ve watched the country go from a mindset of consumption to one of environmental responsibility. So I’m constantly flowing with ideas about how to achieve zero energy consumption.”

Gesner, who 40 years ago designed homes from renewable resources and bioconversion factories to process waste, cites as a major influence Buckminster Fuller, the iconoclastic designer of the mid-20th century.

“Buckminster Fuller said that turnaround in societal thinking is slow,” Gesner said. “For automobile design, it takes at least five years. For the building industry, it can take 60 years. We are devastating the most beautiful planet in the galaxy. I’m hoping my work changes that.”

Another man of mature age, whose frenetic pace defies his years, is actor, singer, dancer and comedian Dick Van Dyke, who turned 84 last December.

Into his 64th year of professional performing, Van Dyke recently released a compact disc of tuneful arrangements with his n cappella group, is currently writing a book and is completing work on a one-man show, to be ready next year. When asked what keeps him going, his response is simple.

“Because I really enjoy it,” Van Dyke said. “I’m not a golfer. I just love what I do and they keep asking me to do it. Mostly for free, lately.” (Van Dyke is generous in his local charity appearances).

Since Van Dyke’s first television appearance on “The Phil Silvers Show” in 1957, much has changed in the television industry. While he welcomes many of the innovations, Van Dyke thinks that the scope of what is acceptable to today’s viewers might have “broadened” a little too much.

“When we were doing the old ‘Dick Van Dyke Show,’ Rob and Laura [his and Mary Tyler Moore’s characters on the show] had to sleep in separate beds,” Van Dyke said. “We couldn’t even say the word ‘pregnancy’ without coming up against the board of continuity acceptance. Carl [the show’s producer, Carl Reiner] fought it tooth and nail.”

The multitalented performer keeps body and mind young by regular resistance workouts at the gym, plying the treadmill and laps in the pool.

“At my age, it is important just to keep moving,” Van Dyke said. “Most of my compatriots are on walkers and I don’t want to go there.

“They say that getting older is mandatory, but that getting wiser is optional,” he continued. “Well, I’m certainly getting older, but I hope I can say I’m wiser in some ways.”

Philanthropist Dorothy Stotsenberg’s age-95-hasn’t stopped her from writing her second book or hopping around Malibu to various events that she oversees. Pepperdine University, and the community at large, can credit many campus amenities to Stotsenberg and her late husband, Ed, starting with the Stotsenberg running track. She took up running with Ed at age 65 and decided that Pepperdine needed a proper track. Done deal.

From there, they moved on to arts and scholarship, endowing dozens of university programs. She continues to oversee the Stotsenberg Recital Series and the world renowned Parkening International Guitar Competition.

“I think Pepperdine is the best thing to ever happen to Malibu,” Stotsenberg declared. “It’s a very stimulating place.”

She credits her longevity to running and her abiding intellectual curiosity.

“I’m naturally happy and optimistic,” Stotsenberg said. “Life is good.”

But before she took on philanthropy, she was a beat reporter, earning a Master’s Degree in Journalism from UCLA and contributing to local newspapers, including The Malibu Times. In 2005, she published a memoir, titled “My Fifty Years in Malibu,” that covers some of the city’s greater insider history, from Chumash natives to Malibu’s more colorful political characters.

“Of course I stay active,” Stotsenberg said. “There’s too much that I haven’t done yet!”

She is working on her second book, about running, but she warned not to mention too much on the subject. “I’ve got three more chapters to go and I don’t know when I’ll have time to finish it,” she said.

Leon Cooper thought about playing on the Senior PGA Tour back in his earlier days. But the 90-year-old World War II veteran and Point Dume resident decided against it when a golf teaching pro told him simply, “Give it up, kid.”

When his wife finally kicked him out of the kitchen (“She told me to go do something useful,” Cooper said), he picked up his old chemistry books and came up with a material to test fire alarms. He patented it, Boeing adapted it and Cooper’s company lasted another 33 years before he sold it. Now he is writing another book—his third—about his wartime experience.

“I have no intention of quitting,” Cooper said, whose effort to repatriate the bones of fallen soldiers resulted in a popular documentary aired on the Military Channel last year and a promised mission by the Navy to find the remains of soldiers who died at Tarawa in the Pacific. “Helping our guys finally get home is what gives me the greatest pleasure.”

At age 74, Agnes Stevens is the youngster of the group. Founder of the nonprofit School on Wheels, which tutors homeless children, and recipient of a Minerva Award from California First Lady Maria Shriver for being an “architect of change,” Stevens decided this year it was time to get out of her comfort zone and hit the road.

Loading up her red Toyota Yaris with a laptop for blogging and a playlist that includes Jimi Hendrix and Joni Mitchell, Stevens is touring the country, alone, to raise awareness of the plight of the nation’s 1.6 million homeless children.

“The older you get, the easier it is to live in the present because you forget everything,” Stevens said, joking, in a phone interview from the road, having just departed Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. “But really, this trip is the best decision of my life. I’ve had so many ‘roles’ that to be out here, writing about this experience and not having any set role is strange and wonderful. I don’t even know what I’m doing out here. It’s marvelous!”

Stevens wanted to burst her bubble of complacency and see how she “related to the rest of the world” with her road trip. She blogs daily about the homeless people she meets and the means different communities deal with homelessness. She laughed at the idea of retirement.

“Wayne Dyer said it best,” Stevens confided. “You can’t die while there still is music inside you.”

Monsignor John Sheridan, 94 years, has been a priest for 67 of those years and continues to offer pastoral counseling at Our Lady of Malibu.

Sheridan’s large Catholic family is from the Irish midlands. A bout with tuberculosis when he was a teenager brought him to the warmer climes of Southern California, where he battled and overcame an addiction to morphine, and developed a deep love for the rural coast. In 1940, he asked the regional monsignor for a church assignment in Malibu.

“The Lord works in mysterious ways,” Sheridan said. “My [hand] writing is an abomination now, but I can use the computer, so I still am able to attend to my ministry.”

Joking that he “looks like death half the time,” he said he has the same enthusiasm for life and the church he has enjoyed for more than half a century.

“Enthusiasm comes from the Greek for ‘Under God,” Sheridan said. “I have hope for us all. We’re capable of the best and the worst and, while I’m not surprised at the worst, I’m edified at the best. It’s my responsibility to give hope to all.”

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