Nobody ever forgets their first time, and I am proud that Hugh Downs, one of the most prolific and distinguished news reporters and anchors in the history of U.S. television, agreed to be the first of this new series, The TGB Interview.
I was a producer at 20/20 during some of the years Mr. Downs co-anchored that television news program. Although we never reported a story together, I knew him then to be a man of wide experience, knowledge and curiosity who was kind, always gracious - and wise. He still is.
Yesterday, he spoke about what growing older is really like for him, what has surprised him about it, how his life has changed as he ages and how it has not. Today, we continue...
RONNI BENNETT: In some of your speaking engagements, you talk of “successful aging.” Can you give an example or two of successful versus unsuccessful aging?
HUGH DOWNS: I think unsuccessful aging happens in two ways: bad luck, where a person has the misfortune to grow old without maturing (in the way a piece of fruit can start to rot without ripening) and/or develop the improper attitude that age is something to be regarded with dread, in which case it can become dreadful.
I have really come to embrace the idea that it is beautiful that young people get older and old people get older. This is the wheel of life and if you get hung up on the idea of staying young, you are doomed to disappointment. Accepting age and mortality is a much more comfortable way to fit into life.
RB: Ageism is a serious problem that diminishes old people in the eyes of everyone and contributes to the youth worship of our culture. What personal encounters have you had with ageism?
HD: The Pepsi Generation mentality and the accent on youth would be funny if they weren’t so sad. In answer to your question, I have had almost no encounters with ageism on a personal level. I am current as a pilot, and I have never been discriminated against, based on my age, in a way that thwarted anything I want to do.
RB: The frequently negative portrayal of old people in the movies and on television doesn’t help the cultural attitude toward aging and old people. Have you noticed any enlightenment in that area of the entertainment media?
HD: There’s very little enlightenment or progress in the way old people are depicted in media offerings. This is a mill that grinds exceeding slow. But I think it will show progress when we have begun to shift away from a consumer society to a service society. And this has to happen if we are to survive on the planet. But maybe not in my lifetime or the lifetime of my great grandson.
RB: Age discrimination in the workplace is the most pernicious aspect of ageism. Why do you think corporate America is so unwilling to employ older workers?
HD: There is tremendous waste of skill and wisdom in the refusal to give employment to older workers who want to work. Many factors contribute to this nonsense: younger workers can be had for less money. Older, more experienced people are not as easily dominated as the young, etc. And corporate America is not as concerned with fairness as it is with profits. This bottom line philosophy should be restrained by a countervailing social thrust toward more fairness - and this will require an improvement in our education systems.
RB: In April, you will be speaking at a national conference of business executives about recruiting and retaining older workers. What are the one or two most important things you will you tell them?
HD: I would hope to get across some success stories businesses have had in hiring older workers.
RB: It is almost impossible to prove age discrimination in court. Less than a third of such cases succeed. What, do you think, is the best way to ensure that older people are treated fairly in the workplace?
HD: A massive shift in attitudes toward aging is called for. We still tend to put decrepitude and impairment in the same basket with aging, and it should be the opposite.
The older a person is, the more of a triumph that person is against the forces that try to pull us down - in our cradles, in mid-life and in old age. We need to look at it that way, and then I think more fairness will arise automatically.
RB: In this blog, I advocate strongly for mixed age workplaces. What is your experience in working with people much younger than you?
HD: America once had the ability to mix ages in work projects. When fiery young minds like Jefferson and Paine were forging the Declaration of Independence and things like the Federalist Papers, they showed a willingness to work with, and to learn from, a man over 80 at the time the Constitution was ratified - Ben Franklin. We sort of lost that in the ensuing decades, but I think it is coming back.
RB: You’ve led such a rich life with so many opportunities for adventure, study and knowledge. What stands out as memorable?
HD: Curiously, one of the most memorable things I can think of occurred in my twenties when I read about Stoicism. From it (the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and the Enchiridion of Epictetus) I found out, on a very personal and practical level, that it is not necessary to hate anyone (we only hate what we fear), and that in small steps it is possible to drop the burden of concern about things over which we have no control. This really pointed my life in a different direction.
RB: Walter Cronkite has famously wanted to travel to the moon. Do you have any such unfulfilled dreams?
HD Yes. I would like to go to the moon, but it is extreme unlikely that this will happen.
Several decades ago, I was the first to request going into space as a journalist. James Webb was NASA administrator at the time. I knew all this gang from broadcast segments, and each subsequent administrator had a letter reminding him of my request. This was before Cronkite requested it - that doesn’t mean I would have been chosen before Cronkite who was very good on space coverage.
There may one day be tourism to the moon, but unless I can stay in shape for another four or five decades, I won’t be going. Again, this is not a disappointment or frustration that in any way impinges on the quality of my life.
RB: You’ve been a news reporter and anchor, a game show host; you are an author, a composer and many other things too. What, if any, gives you the greater pleasure?
HD: My second greatest pleasure now, probably, is listening to music and studying the scores of great composers. I am increasingly fascinated by trying to plumb what motivated them - what led them to the kind of inspiration that resulted in a great symphony or piece of liturgical music.
RB: How have your pleasures changed over the years?
HD: I used to think of reading as the second most pleasurable. (The first, corny as it sounds, is love, in all its aspects and my good fortune in being married to a super girl.) But I read a little less voraciously and listen to more music.
RB: I didn't know you were a composer until I was researching this interview. What kind of music do you compose? What instrument(s) do you play? Would our readers know any of your work?
HD: I never really mastered an instrument. I studied violin as a very small boy (five) and displayed no particular talent. Later, a little piano and in my twenties studied classical guitar.
But I learned, when I was 13, how to write music by reading books on composition and orchestration, and I composed a musical setting to the Thirteenth Psalm, which sounded grand with a pipe organ and choir. (Probably not very good.)
In my twenties, I wrote some pieces, one for large orchestra - a prelude in the form of an elegy - which was published and is still performed by various orchestras. Then a piano piece in 1958, which is available on the Americus label, performed by John Bell Young (An Old Familiar Air Which Has Its Own Tuxedo and Will Travel).
It was a thrill for me to hear this played properly because I write above my ability to play. Then a few years ago I wrote the cello piece for Yo-Yo Ma, which he premiered with the St. Louis Symphony.
RB: Do you think about dying? Have you come to terms with the fact of dying one day?
HD: I have thought about dying since I was ten. These thoughts have evolved considerably and out of this speculation and much reading has come a theology of sorts.
Many religious people would conclude I am an atheist because I can’t accept dogma. I am not an atheist. I am somewhat in the position of Thomas Carlisle, who said, “There is one True Church, of which at present I am the only member.”
It may be a complicated thing to explain, but I have arrived at the conclusion that (a) the universe was brought into being by an uncreated creator and whatever you want to call this entity - Brahma, God, Allah, Jupiter, Zeus, Thor, Wotan or Aten - it is unavoidable.
Dedicated atheists, who have been known to say such things as “The universe created itself,” are faced with simply giving God another name (the Universe). It falls back to the ultimate philosophic question: Why is there something instead of nothing?
And (b) This immense cosmic realm is not hostile to us. I often feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude to be part of this enormous cosmos, and I feel I will be taken care of. Also I now believe there is no such thing as subjective death. From several different angles that do no violence to reason, I have formed a religion of sorts, and I am still pursuing the paths that some great thinkers - theologians, philosophers and scientists - often share. (I may one day write about this at length.)
RB: Do you believe in an afterlife? If so, what is it like?
HD: Yes, but in a way that cannot be explained in less than 20,000 words.
RB: What do you believe is the purpose of life?
HD: Finding a “purpose” of life is a little like answering the question, “What is the universe for?” (Or Dr. Thomas’s, “What are Old People For?”) I think you can have a purpose or purposes in your individual life, but what the purpose of life itself is, certainly transcends my ability to comment on it.
RB: Is the world better or worse off since you were young?
HD: The world is about the same. In the long haul there is probably progress. We have done away with human sacrifice, with the divine right of kings, with slavery, with some of the discrimination against women, and even with dueling - replacing it with lawsuits.
But this is a long haul and there are nasty setbacks - like Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin. And even today, cruelty and greed play a bigger part in human affairs than we would like.
RB: Whom do you admire in terms of how they have aged?
HD: I thought George Burns did a pretty good job of getting to 100. His humor, his reverence for the memory of his wife, and his general attitude were exemplary.
RB: What’s the best part of getting older? And the worst?
HD: The best part of getting older is the unending potential for increasing the knack of enjoying, of relishing, of reminiscing and loving that more than offsets the decline in physical strength, the curtailment of faculties and the necessity to face mortality.
The worst part is the sad social attitudes we have that result in making elders the target of discrimination and neglect.
RB: What is one lesson you have learned about getting older that you would like everyone to know and heed?
HD: The one lesson is that aging is, in itself, not bad. What we need to fight against is not aging, but injury, illness, loneliness and discrimination.
RB: What are your plans for the future?
HD: The future for me is to watch my great grandchildren grow, to write, to read, to enjoy music and art, to ride horses for as long as I can get aboard a horse, to fly my glider, to scuba dive, to travel, to lecture and to contemplate the web of life - of which I am privileged to be part.
A TGB Interview: Hugh Downs - Part 1