Compassion: People Who Gave … and Gave

by Dave Riley

When you write about people — good people, that is — you don’t choose just anyone for a subject. You look for those who are somehow special, somehow more compassionate. As a result you can easily develop an attachment to them, as if each one were a close friend.

When I wrote about the late, and truly great, New Yorker cartoonist Leo Cullum, (July 27, 2015) I said near the end of his post, “I never met Leo Cullum, but I wish I had. He lived only an hour or so away. If his cartoons are proper evidence, I suspect he was filled with humanity, the quiet kind that feels no need to advertise itself.”

Well I guess I nailed it because not long after I received an email from his widow, Kathy Cullum, who cited that paragraph. “That describes Leo perfectly!” she wrote. “My daughters and I call him ‘The Most Interesting Man in the World.’”

You really hate to lose special people like that, so this week I am going to indulge myself by going back and revisiting three who first appeared in this blog during the past year. If you missed the posts the first time around, you may wish to go back and read the entire pieces.

Robert Macauley (April 29, 2015). Mr. Macauley came from a well-to-do family, had a privileged private school education and became a highly successful businessman. He had always been into philanthropy, so when he was 58 and Poland was under martial law and desperate for medical supplies, the Pope called him to Rome and asked if he could help. “I’m not even Catholic,” he said, “but when the Pope asks a favor, you comply.” The two of them agreed on a goal of $50,000. But Mr. Macauley, who seemed genetically incapable of doing anything in a small way throughout his life, ended up providing not just $50,000 in medical supplies, but $3.2 million. That eventually led to his founding of the nonprofit Americares that has since provided more than $12 billion in medical and other humanitarian aid to 147 countries and continues to give every day.

Robert Conover Macauley

Robert Conover Macauley

Yet in spite of these remarkable achievements, all you need to know to appreciate Mr. Macauley’s seemingly unbounded compassion for the less fortunate you can learn from one incident in his life. In 1975, when the fall of Saigon was only days away, the U.S. Air Force had mounted Operation Babylift to bring South Vietnamese orphans to this country for adoption. But on April 4, the very first flight ended in tragedy when a United States Air Force Lockheed C-5 Galaxy crashed not long after takeoff, killing more than 150. When Mr. Macauley was told it would take more than a week to fly out the remaining orphans because of lack of aircraft, he knew that would be too late. So he went to Pan Am and chartered a 747 which succeeded in bringing 300 orphans to this country.

Mr. Macauley didn’t have the $10,000 for a down payment on the charter, much less the $241,000 for the balance of the cost, so he and his wife took out a mortgage on their home in New Canaan, Connecticut, to pay for the flight. His wife Leila believed it was a fair trade. “The bank got the house and Bob got the kids,” she said.

Dr. Robert Butler. (March 11, 2015). Little Bobby Butler probably should have grown up as a juvenile delinquent. Eleven months after he was born in New York in 1927, his parents broke up. He was sent to live with his grandparents on their chicken farm in New Jersey, but just six years later his grandfather, whom he revered, died unexpectedly. Not long after that, in the midst of the great depression, his grandmother lost the farm, and she and Robert moved to New York City, where they lived in a cheap hotel and ate government surplus food. Meanwhile Robert sold newspapers to help them get by. Then the hotel burned down and they lost all their possessions.

Really. I didn’t make up any of that.

“What I remember about those years more than the hardship was my grandmother’s triumphant spirit and determination,” he wrote. “Experiencing at first hand an older person’s struggle to survive, I was myself helped to survive as well.”

When he entered the medical profession, caring for the aged was an unheard of specialty. Almost single handedly, he changed all that by being a principal founder of the field of gerontology.

In 1975 he created the National Institute on Aging, which he headed for six years. In 1982 he founded the Department of Geriatrics and Adult Development at Mt. Sinai Medical Center, the first such department at a medical school. He coined the term “ageism,” and in his writings he pounded home a basic but not often recognized fact: in the 20th century the average life span increased 30 years, greater than the increases in the last 5,000 years of human existence. His goal was not just to have people live longer, but to live better longer.

He was upset when he heard people use phrases like “90 is the new 60.”

“The idea isn’t just to live to 90,” he said. “The idea is to make 90 a better 90,” a phrase which, better than any, describes his life’s work.

When Dr. Butler died at age 83 in 2010, Kate Zernike wrote in the New York Times, “No one, his colleagues said, had done more to improve the image of aging in America. His work established that the old did not inevitably become senile, and that they could be productive, intellectually engaged, and active — sexually and otherwise. His life provided a good example: He worked until three days before his death from acute leukemia.”

He left behind not only a family, but countless colleagues and adherents to carry on his work, and millions of seniors all over the globe, most of whom had never heard of Dr. Butler but whose lives are far richer because of his pioneering successes.

Len Lesser (April 7, 2015). A few years ago I gave a pitch for Meals on Wheels before about four hundred people in Laguna Niguel, California. “I’ll bet not 20 people in this room recognize the name ‘Len Lesser,’” I said at one point, and judging by the blank stares, my estimate of 20 may have been too high. But then I told them Len Lesser was the actor who played Uncle Leo on Seinfeld, and instantly I saw warm smiles of recognition around the room.

Len Lesser had a marvelous career as a character actor. amassing hundreds of film and TV credits. Yet even though he worked regularly, like many character actors he frequently had a nagging fear that his next role would be his last — that the phone calls from casting directors to his agent would eventually dry up. His casting as Uncle Leo at age 68 changed all that. Suddenly people recognized him in restaurants and on the streets.

But unbeknown to most of his fans, Mr. Lesser had a second calling. For many years he was a volunteer acting coach at the Canterbury Avenue Elementary School, in Pacoima, a blue collar Los Angeles suburb.

“He had hundreds of television and movie credits to his name, yet there he was, spending hours at a school in an out-of-the-way, low-income San Fernando Valley neighborhood,” L.A. Times Education Editor Beth Shuster wrote. “He worked with students who’d never acted before; some were immigrants more fluent in the language of their parents. He urged them to project, look at each other, feel the emotion of the plays…Lesser loved acting and he wanted to pass on his passion to others. He helped the school mount productions as complex as Fiddler on the Roof and Oliver. But really he was just one of us.”

His volunteering wasn’t limited to Canterbury Avenue. Lesser’s son David said he also volunteered at a North Hollywood senior citizens home and taught drama to special education students.

Len Lesser died in Burbank, California, at the age of 88. The kids at Canterbury lost a great friend and, in what could have been his epitaph, his daughter Michele said, “Heaven got a great comedian and actor.” It is a wonderful irony that the passing of the actor who spent so many years laboring in anonymity received a 700-word notice in the New York Times.

Dave Riley

About Dave Riley

Growing Old Isn’t For Sissies is about aging. It’s stories of how some older people achieve remarkable successes, how some people make the lives of others better, and how all seniors have hurdles to face — maladies, loss of loved ones and more.