It was a typical Sunday in August 2007, in a suburb of Kansas City, when David Von Drehle spotted his new neighbor: “Charlie was in the drive wearing just a pair of swim trunks, and he’s washing his girlfriend’s car,” he said. “Big, muscular chest.”
Charlie, at that time, was 102 years old.
Charles White III had already lived a couple of lifetimes, and still had a lot of road in front of him. Meanwhile, Von Drehle and his young family had just moved from Washington, D.C. The two became fast friends. “We’d usually sit in his den, and he’d tell me stories,” Von Drehle said.
Stories that comprise much of Von Drehle’s new book, “The Book of Charlie,” published by Simon & Schuster (part of CBS’ parent company, Paramount Global).
And yes, as the book’s subtitle says, Charlie lived to be 109.
Burbank asked, “What are some of those kind of historical and otherwise amazing things about somebody who lives to be 109?”
“He was born before radio; by the end of his life he had an iPhone,” said Von Drehle. “He lived from the days of horse-drawn carriages to see people on the International Space Station.”
White was born in 1905, in Galesburg, Illinois. The son of a pastor, his family relocated to Kansas City so his father could supplement their income with a second job. But his father’s life ended tragically at just 42. Von Drehle said, “He really described his childhood sort of ending that day.”
So, at age eight, Charlie’s “adult” life began. He built his own radio to listen to Kansas City’s jazz scene, and then taught himself saxophone. Eventually he became a doctor, paying his way through college playing that sax. And for perspective, Charlie’s medical career started before penicillin. He went on to become one of the first anesthesiologists in Kansas City.
He didn’t hang up his stethoscope until his nineties, a testament to his amazing ability to change with the times. Von Drehle said, “I think of him as a great Stoic, classical philosopher who emphasized the difference between the things we have control over in our lives, and everything else that’s outside of our control.”
Laurie White, one of Charlie’s daughters, said, “He was just so incredibly wise, and he had a calming effect. I could maybe remember one time he was mad at me. I mean, he was just a very calm, calm person.”
Laurie was born when Charlie was already 52 years old. “He had a full head of white hair,” she said. “And I remember everybody thought he was my grandfather.”
Laurie said, despite being an older dad, Charlie was as vigorous as could be, and would remain so for an astonishing number of years. “He had a 1967 convertible Mustang, and in the summertime, he’d go to my oldest sister’s house almost every day. And he’d swim 100 laps. … He did it through his 90s and up, until he was probably 104.”
And that beloved ’67 Mustang? Laurie’s still got it.
Burbank asked, “Do you feel a connection to your dad when you’re driving this car?”
“I do, yes. And I’ve had interesting things happen, like saxophone music will come on the radio – just come on the radio. I’m like, Oh, Dad!“
Oscar-winning actor Chris Cooper may not have gotten the chance to ride in Charlie’s Mustang, but he did get to see the effect Charlie had on his beloved mother, Mary Ann Walton Cooper. “I think Dr. Charlie added a whole lot to Mom’s last while here,” he said. “One of the aspects of the great relationship between Charlie and my mother was the laughter. At that late age, they were just enjoying life.”
Cooper grew up in Kansas City. His mother had been married with a family of her own, before being widowed, much like Charlie. The two found a special love late in life. “Charlie helped my mom, you know, get out and get about,” said Cooper.
“Even though he was, you know, significantly older than her?”
“Significantly older, but nothing was going to stop him, man.”
In fact, it was Mary Ann’s car that Charlie was washing that fateful day David Von Drehle first spotted him.
Burbank asked, “What do you think he would have made of the fact that there is now this book, ‘The Book of Charlie’?”
“I think he’d be surprised that I learned as much about living from him,” Von Drehle replied. “You’d ask him for his philosophy of life, and he would say, ‘Well, my mother always just said to us, do the right thing.’ If you do the right thing, it takes in a whole raft of things, see? It’s so simple that it’s so good!”
A life philosophy that Laurie decided to put on that Mustang Charlie loved so much – and a legacy that rolls on to this day.
For more info:
- “The Book of Charlie: Wisdom from the Remarkable American Life of a 109-Year-Old Man” by David Von Drehle (Simon & Schuster), in Hardcover, eBook and Audio formats, available via Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Indiebound
- David Von Drehle, The Washington Post
Story produced by Aria Shavelson. Editor: Chad Cardin.