Working Past 90 Forget early retirement. These ten men and women found jobs they loved--and never quit.
By Text By Roy Hoffman

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Open a door at an American workplace today and you may find one of them: the old-old, defying life's clock. In a culture that all too often extols young workers at the expense of seasoned elders, these men and women--in their 90s, vibrant, their minds creatively engaged--give the lie to the notion that only youth matters. From Woodie Sommers, a 90-year-old barber in Sacramento, to Eleanor Lambert, a 97-year-old fashion publicist in New York City, these workers find, in their daily toil, more energy than enervation. "I get tired when I don't work," says composer Elliott Carter, who is writing a cello concerto at 91. "If your mind is clear and your body is healthy, a man can work whatever his age," adds 94-year-old Rev. William Lee Freeman, who presides over 17 African Methodist Episcopal churches in New York. Good health is essential, of course--a gift that none of these nonagenarians, having outlived friends and loved ones, take for granted. But many have known physical setbacks and landed on their feet. Like Hazel Howard, 91, who was back fixing fries at a McDonald's in Lynn, Mass., six weeks after breaking her hip. To linger awhile with these men and women is to hear other themes emerge: the impact of the Depression on their sense of economy; the importance of family relationships to sustain them. Five of the men have wives still living--308 years of ongoing marriage among them. Although mortality looms, these people seem to deflect brooding by putting on their hats and picking up their briefcases. "I refuse to let myself think about it," says gynecologist Walter Watson, 90, pacing hospital corridors at an hour of the morning when men a third his age are jump-starting themselves with their first cup of coffee. Humor buoys them too. "Who would want to be 92?" sighs 91-year-old Mobile, Ala., attorney Charles Hoffman to his son--this writer--as he makes his way to court. "A man who's 91." While revealing no secret for staying vital into their 90s, they concur on the mental sustenance provided by active employment. Work enables them to be creative in subtle ways (Sommers sees in each head of hair a barbering challenge) or in publicly visible ones (94-year-old architect Philip Johnson still marks metropolitan skylines with his buildings). With life expectancy in the U.S. having risen from 47 years in 1900 to 77 years in 1998, and with the proportion of senior citizens in the work force now at 12%, these nonagenarians may well signal one dynamic of the workplace to come. Having been born in the era of trains and the telegraph, they find themselves, in an era of space flight and cyberspace, in a kind of vanguard, a cutting-edge designation that makes several of them chuckle with appreciation for how what is old becomes new. They might even be called "living treasures" if that term didn't suggest icons that stay put. They're too busy for that.

The Composer Elliott Carter | 91 | New York

Sometimes figuring out scores in bed at night, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Elliott Carter is at his composition board by six every morning, orchestrating another page of his newest creation, a cello concerto commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. "I have to stand up to write at the top," he says of composing on the 32-stave sheets he clips to the board. "I sit down to write at the bottom. There's a lot of exercise writing music." Despite getting cramps in his writing hand, needing a hearing aid, and having only peripheral vision in one eye, Carter works daily at his Connecticut country house or his Greenwich Village apartment. While he is called on frequently to review printed editions of his scores or to attend rehearsals of his five string quartets, numerous orchestral works, and one opera, his first loyalty is to his ailing wife of 61 years, Helen. He does the grocery shopping, fixes her meals, assists her on walks, then goes back to composing. Carter grew up in New York City, the son of a pacifist lace merchant who took him to Europe as a boy to see the ravages of World War I. He returned to Paris in 1932, after graduating from Harvard, to study with French composer Nadia Boulanger. Early in his career he met such titans of modern classical music as Bela Bartok, Charles Ives, Arnold Schoenberg, and Igor Stravinsky. Seven decades later he isn't showing signs of slowing down. He says he will next turn his attention to an oboe quartet commissioned for a festival of his music in Lucerne, Switzerland, in 2001. And Daniel Barenboim of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is determined to have him write a second opera. "It's in the back of my mind," the composer says. "I always hesitantly say, 'Maybe I'll do it.'"

The Reverend William Lee Freeman | 94 | New York

In the study of his Bronx apartment, Rev. William Lee Freeman keeps binders filled with typed copies of sermons he has delivered since being ordained 70 years ago. "I just felt it," says the rich-voiced minister of his call to preaching at age 24. Having revitalized his first congregation, St. Luke African Methodist Episcopal Church in Harlem, from 47 members to 1,200, he soon came to the attention of the church hierarchy. When he was appointed presiding elder of all A.M.E. churches in the Manhattan district in 1950, Freeman worried that, at age 44, he was "too young." At 94 he does not yet feel too old. He makes the rounds of the 17 churches under his purview, conducting business meetings and giving sermons. Raised on Johns Island, S.C., in what he calls "the Bible way," Freeman still rouses congregants to jubilation. Impeccably dressed in black-and-white necktie and dark suit, his posture ramrod straight, he enters these churches celebrated as the presiding elder. But one of his favorite sermons emphasizes that longevity alone is not the prize: "It is just beautiful to be blessed with long life. But the question is, How well is that long life lived?"

The Boxer Tommy Rawson | 92 | Cambridge, Mass.

Slight of build, quick of hand, feet dancing, Tommy Rawson--long-ago national amateur lightweight champion and professional boxer with 71 victories--shows the sweaty Harvard kids how to bob and punch. "Jab! Jab! Right!" he cries with his sharp Boston accent. "Chin down. Footwork!" A young woman pounds at a mitt held high by her opponent, one of their boxing-class exercises. "That there's a 92-year-old who can kick your butt," says another student, wrapping tape on his hand, "makes you want to take this class." As their faces grow flushed, the students follow their rugged taskmaster more than quadruple their age. "It's a good profession to take someone who doesn't know how to close his hand and to teach coordination of the mind, feet, and body," Rawson says of the sport he learned from his boxer father. Not that he was always able to pay the overhead as a pugilist. After retiring from the pro circuit in 1941, he worked for a company hauling fish waste from the docks, then made his living as a general contractor specializing in building roads. On his own with four daughters after his wife, Anna, passed away, he suffered a heart attack from the stress of working long hours. "I ran myself into the ground." Now, physical fitness--and being in the gym five afternoons a week at Harvard, where boxing is a club sport--is the priority of the day. "Sometimes I feel tired and sore at home," he says, advising others getting on in years to walk, stretch, and do simple exercises. In coaching students, he revitalizes himself. "Once I get to the gym and put my outfit on, I forget about the stiffness. The soreness is gone."

The Fry Cook Hazel Howard | 91 | Lynn, Mass.

Five feet tall, her "M"-monogrammed visor tilted low, Hazel Howard leans into the heat of a cooker at the Lynnway Avenue McDonald's, plunging a basket of raw fries into 335-degree shortening and lifting out a basket of cooked ones. "I love being around people," she says of the lunch hours she spends at the fast-food restaurant four days a week, hustling up 500 orders of fries while others grill and dress burgers around her. "What little I make," she says, "I spend on bingo at the Knights of Columbus." It was not always so. With her husband out of the picture early on, Howard raised four children on her own, toiling in a doughnut shop at dawn, in an oil and coal office through the day, and as a waitress at night. At 65, after retiring from the office, she decided to keep working food-related jobs until 70. "At 70, I said I'll work until I'm 75," she recalls with amusement. Finding it did her no good to sit home, at age 76 she found employment at McDonald's. "My kids said, 'I thought you were going to retire.' 'I have to keep going,' I told them. 'I can't stop.'" She did recently move from the third floor to the ground floor of the house she shares with one of her 11 grandchildren, but she still drives her 1986 Mustang to work. A year from now she'll retire, she says, then reconsiders: "I just had my driver's license renewed. It's good until I'm 95."

The Architect Philip Johnson | 94 | New York

Sitting in his wondrous Glass House in New Canaan, Conn.--"the only house in the world where you can see the sunset and the moonrise at the same time," Philip Johnson says of his 1949 creation--the Ohio native who helped define American architecture in the 20th century looks to another workday in the 21st. Johnson's creations are landmarks of monumental grace: Pennzoil Place in Houston, the IDS Center in Minneapolis, the AT&T (now Sony) building in Manhattan. But the one that interests him the most, he says, is "the next one I'm doing--my whole horizon is that building." Today his horizon is a building in the TriBeCa neighborhood of Manhattan. Able to design in his imagination "at the drafting table or in the bathtub," he cannot realize those designs until he heads into New York. "Sitting alone doesn't help me. I love to go into the office. If the kids aren't there," he says of his colleagues, "I'm furious." He admits to having once held the view that "old people have nothing to offer." But he has since changed his mind. ("Working already?" he quips to a writer exactly half his age.) Having fallen in love with architecture at age 13 in France, when he walked into the cathedral at Chartres and "burst into tears" at the majesty of the space, he ultimately developed a philosophy that "if architecture's not fun, don't do it." Finding the fun in turning 90 was daunting at first, he says. "I've had great help from a geriatrician who persuaded me not to give in to old age. If I'm going to enjoy everything, I've got to enjoy being old, don't I?"

The Doctor Walter Watson | 90 | Augusta, Ga.

At 6:30 most mornings, Walter "Curly" Watson, chief of obstetrics and gynecology at University Hospital in Augusta, makes his rounds on the floor named in his honor--the W.G. Watson Women's Center--passing the nursery where newborns are tucked into bassinets. Between 1943, when he graduated from the Medical College of Georgia, and 1996, when he gave up the stress of "worrying about two lives at once," Watson delivered, with his enormous, rock-steady hands, more than 15,000 babies. Many grew up to have their own children delivered by Dr. Watson. Some became colleagues, like one of the six other doctors in his ob-gyn practice. Although he isn't catching babies anymore, he still does four or five hysterectomies and vaginal repairs a month, as well as minor operations. And he often visits patients at home. "You'd be surprised at the look in their eyes when I go up to their door and knock," the genteel Southerner says. Raised in rural South Carolina, where he and his wife of 55 years, Audrey, still own a peach orchard, Watson learned to prune trees from a high school agriculture teacher with similar longevity, Strom Thurmond, now the 97-year-old U.S. Senator from that state. Playing college football at the Citadel, then coaching high school before going to medical school, taught Watson some life lessons: "You get stepped on, passed over, knocked down, but you have to come back." He plans to keep doctoring until he can no longer "be of service to patients." When that day comes, he says, "I'll go back to coaching."

The Fashion Publicist Eleanor Lambert | 97 | New York

Although she has long promoted the romance of fashion, Eleanor Lambert, who favors pantsuits and turbans for herself, finds little romance in growing old. "There's always something wrong with you," she says, explaining that her own campaign against aging regularly takes her to a health clinic in Germany for live-cell injection therapy. On a table in her sumptuous Fifth Avenue apartment, where she spends afternoons composing press releases, is a Cecil Beaton photograph of a glamorous ingenue of long ago--Lambert herself in the 1930s, newly arrived in New York from small-town Indiana. She still displays that newcomer enthusiasm and grit, though she grows melancholy when speaking of her husband, Seymour Berkson, publisher of the defunct New York Journal-American, who passed away in 1959. "We had a beautiful love story." She is proudest of helping U.S. designers like Bill Blass gain equal footing with their counterparts abroad. But she may be best known for running the International Best Dressed poll. (She continues to collect paper ballots in a shopping bag.) Still energetically in charge of Eleanor Lambert Ltd., she strides in each morning with her faux-alligator handbag, checks in with account executives young enough to be her great-grandchildren, then repairs to her office. Today, it's a meeting with the creative director of Tiffany & Co., one of her clients. The evening will find her at a soiree for Paloma Picasso. Does Lambert think of bringing her career to an elegant close? "Retire? At my age? It would be ludicrous."

The Attorney Charles Hoffman | 91 | Mobile, Ala.

In his office high over the Port of Mobile, Charles Hoffman considers his recent clients: a man accused of drug possession; a husband divorcing the same wife for the third time; the estate of a deceased man with 50 beneficiaries. "There's no end," he says, "of human complication." Having started his hometown practice in 1931 after graduating from Emory Law School in Atlanta, Hoffman made his mark as a criminal lawyer taking court-appointed cases. He attracted clients for civil suits after winning damages against a trolley company for a woman whose car had been smashed on the tracks. After World War II, he was appointed attorney for the Alabama State Docks and deepened his involvement in business law. The son of Eastern European newcomers to Mobile in the early 1900s--he was born over their general merchandise store--he learned his work sense early, taking his turn at the store's cash register downstairs. A sociable man who enjoys watching 1940s movies at night with Evelyn, his wife of 64 years and longtime dance partner, and kibbitzing with colleagues in his office building, he admits to having a temper too. When he was in his 80s, he bridled as a brash young opponent attacked his integrity. "I told him, 'Why don't you just step outside with me!' " The judge leaned over and told the whippersnapper, "I'd apologize to Mr. Hoffman if I were you." Part of the delight of practicing law into his 90s, Hoffman says, is still being able, intellectually, "to scrap." He adds, "It's nice to make a little money too."

The CEO Haskell Cudd | 93 | Stillwater, Okla.

Sitting at a computer that's flashing grain prices, across the street from a plant pungent with the smell of molasses, Haskell Cudd is in command. "We're wrasslin' with the markets real close, trying to get a price close to the bottom," says the lanky CEO of Stillwater Milling. Heading a company of 150 employees that processes grain mixtures into animal feed, Cudd is a veteran of financial "wrasslin'." Last year Stillwater produced 164,760 tons of feed for cattle, horses, sheep, hogs, and chickens--$40 million dollars' worth. Born shortly before Oklahoma gained statehood in 1907, Cudd began as a bookkeeper during the Depression, when Stillwater was a flour mill, and worked his way up to CEO by 1971. He and his wife of 67 years, Ethel, live a short drive from the plant. Although he's in the office six mornings a week, he refuses to let job pressure escalate blood pressure. "I never let a deal worry me when I get home," he says. In recent years he has steered the company to assure diversification, technological innovation, and autonomy. "We could sell out and go play," he says of takeover invitations from agri-giants, "but there are a lot of things more important than money. What about the boys who helped build this place?" Loyal to his employees, including a daughter and two grandsons, Cudd is focused on selecting a successor to ensure the company's independence. "Young people want to work for big companies, but wait till they get to be 50 years old. They're hung. No wonder they worry about retirement early. The pressure's on."

The Barber Woodie Sommers | 90 | Sacramento

Spiffy in suspenders and cap, Woodie Sommers leaves his home four mornings a week, waves to Arline, his wife of 61 years, and strides to his barber shop in the atrium of a supermarket a half-mile away. "I do cadence walking, like I'm in the Army," he says, adding with frustration, "It used to take me ten minutes; now it's 12 to 14." Sommers, who learned his work ethic growing up on an Idaho farm, has been cutting and combing hair since he got his barber's license in 1933. He has mastered a parade of styles, lamenting only the "shaggy bear" look of the 1970s that caused him to lay off two of his employees. There are constants, though: his spiraling barber pole; the cowlicks on every head; and the inclination of men, when relaxing in his 1950s chairs, to talk. "I'm acquainted with all their problems," he says. Eventually they contemplate retirement. "I tell them, 'The first few years, okay, then what?' They say, 'I'm going to play golf, bowl, go fishing, get the yard cleaned up.' By the third year they drop out of the activities. The days are getting long, longer. They say, 'I wish I'd never retired.'" He shakes his head. "Some are not independent enough to take control of their lives. I see them deteriorate." As far as his shop's concerned, "If the door's open, they know I'm around. We're good until we die."