OPINION | My father turns 100

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WITH septuagenarians dominating the race to be president, I hope you’ll indulge me a little as I celebrate the life of a man who had already reached adulthood before any of them were born.

My father got a birthday card from Queen Elizabeth II recently. He doesn’t normally receive greetings from such well-placed sources. It’s a privilege bestowed on British citizens when they reach their 100th birthday. In an age of rapidly increasing longevity, the queen’s hand has been busy. There are more than 13,000 centenarians in the U.K., 80,000 in the U.S. Her Majesty will be sending one to her own husband next year — if he stays off the roads.

When Frederick Samuel Peer Baker was born, just over a year after the end of World War I, King George V reigned over much of the planet, including India, Ireland and much of Africa. Woodrow Wilson was president, and the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which guaranteed women the vote, was not yet ratified. We think of this, with good reason, as ancient history. It slightly confounds the mind to think that it was the lived reality of my father’s early life. He doesn’t remember much now, of course, but he will still occasionally delight and mystify my own children with stories of the quiet, gaslit streets he lived on in a largely pre-automobile age.

I’m often asked, when people learn of my father’s advanced age, what his secret is. Good genes, surely (let’s hope!). But his parents both died at a relatively early age, and he left his siblings behind long ago.

His resilience probably doesn’t owe much to Britain’s socialized medicine, in case you were wondering, whatever its pros and cons. As far as I can recall, my father has spent probably fewer than a dozen nights in a hospital in his entire life. His doctor hardly knows him. Perhaps that’s an important lesson for living long: Stay away from doctors and hospitals as much as you can.

I’m pretty certain that his principal secret is a character and lifestyle of almost preternatural equanimity — moderation in the extreme, you might call it. No fancy diets or exercise regimes. A simple, British diet (perhaps not as bad as advertised); he smoked for a while but gave up a long time ago; never drinks more than a few glasses a week; routine, practical exercise (I doubt he has been in a gym since he was in school). Above all, a temperament characterized by almost eerie self-control.

I truly can’t remember my father ever raising his voice or losing his patience, still less uttering an expletive. While we may all want to know the secret to a long life, I often feel we’d be better off devoting more time to figuring out what makes a good life, whatever span we’re allotted. Here, I’m confident I know my father’s secret. He is from an era when life was defined primarily by duty, not by entitlement; by social responsibilities, not personal privileges. The primary animating principle throughout his century has been a sense of obligation — to family, God, country.

In an era dominated by the detritus of broken families, my father was a devoted husband to his wife of 46 years, a dutiful father to six children. He was never more present and vital than when my parents suffered the unthinkable tragedy of losing a child.

In an era when the culture seems to accord its highest accolades for bravery to those who make speeches about gender or the challenges of working in movies, it’s worth remembering the kind of existential courage my father and his generation showed. He volunteered for the British Army in the days before World War II and spent the next 6½ years in uniform. He still jokes, slightly sheepishly, that his military service was not especially dangerous or arduous, but he always knew what they all knew — that every day could be their last.

And in an era when religion is increasingly a curiosity, my father has lived as a true, faithful Catholic, with an unshakable belief in the promises of Christ. Indeed, I sometimes think he has lived so long because he is better prepared than anyone I have ever met to die.

I have been a fortunate man — blessed by a good education, my own wonderful family, some worldly success I didn’t deserve. But however proud and grateful I feel, it’s eclipsed by the pride and gratitude I have for the man who, without fuss or drama, without expectation of reward or even acknowledgment, has got on — for a century now — with the simple duties, obligations and, ultimately, joys of living a virtuous life.

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