Maybe deaths do arrive in bunches. It’s hard to resist taking note of the death of Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, at age 80, on Tuesday. But I’d much rather use the bulk of this blog to pay tribute to Dr. Robert Butler, whose intensely-researched, muscular positivity about aging transformed the field of geriatrics. He coined the phrase “ageism,” drew attention to discrimination against the elderly, and effectively challenged the once widely-held notion that senility was inevitable. I was away when he died of leukemia, at 83, on July 6. I was sorry to miss the opportunity to post something then.
Dr. Robert Butler in Central Park in 2006. Photo by Robert Caplin for The New York Times
It, of course, makes no sense to measure one life against another.
Steinbrenner, who had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for several years, spent a lot of money, fired a lot of managers, insulted a lot of people, and, to the joy of Yankees fans and the jealousy of others, celebrated a lot of World Series victories. Seven, to be exact. He returned the pinstriped franchise to its status as the greatest sports team in history and, in various ways, earned the sobriquet “The Boss.”
Oft repeated in news reports today, he parleyed an $8.7 million investment (including a meager personal contribution of about $170,000) into an entity worth $1.6 billion. The chorus of commentators dutifully recited Steinbrenner’s self-proclaimed love of winning and hatred of losing.
(I switched my allegiance from the Los Angeles Dodgers, when Rupert Murdoch bought them, to the Yankees. At least, I rationalized, Steinbrenner wasn’t despoiling journalism. Besides my sons were New York City boys coming of age to baseball. They shared Steinbrenner’s enthusiasm for winning. And, honestly, I joined and benefited from the pleasures of cheering along with them.)
But as legacies go, for all the ballyhoo about the Yankee dynasty created under Steinbrenner, I’ll go with Butler’s.
He not only put the field of geriatrics on the map, he was responsible for a radical sea change in our society’s attitude toward the elderly and aging, a change of fundamental importance in the civil rights of every American. It stands right beside the civil rights victories that have been won for blacks and women.
In the 1975 book that earned Butler his Pulitzer, “Why Survive? Being Old in America,” he wrote, “Human beings need the freedom to live with change, to invent and reinvent themselves a number of times through their lives.” He had no patience with romanticizing aging or with the elderly content to live out their lives amusing themselves.
In an interview with Josh Tapper, a fellow of News21, a national initiative to promote innovation in journalism, three days before Butler’s death, he said, pointedly: “I think a lot of older people are sitting on their asses, playing golf, and not making a contribution to society.”
“Bruce Frankel’s upbeat, inspiring, timely book shows how taking a risk and fighting to find a passionate career — at any age — can reinvigorate your life...”
— Susan Shapiro, author of Speed Shrinking and Only As Good as Your Word