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Defying Age

Former Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelly speaks in support of Sen. Tom George's legislation to regulate the billboard industry in Michigan. At 86, he reminded Jack Lessenberry he could still run for Attorney General.

Former Governor Bill Milliken turns eighty-nine tomorrow. When I talked to him a couple weeks ago, he said, after discussing the current Michigan budget, that I keep getting his age wrong.

“I am actually fifty-three,” he said, before bursting into laughter. Talking to Milliken always perks me up, because I am thirty years younger than the man who I always think of as “the governor.”

And I certainly hope I still have a sense of humor at his age, though by that time I may well want to give up talking about state budgets.  I find it very encouraging that there are a great many people who are now living to tremendous ages, and enjoying life.

A week ago, I went to visit former Attorney General Frank Kelley in Florida. He had me hop into his convertible and we sped towards Marco Island, where we had lunch with a tough old Massachusetts politician, Francis X. Bellotti.

Kelley is eighty-six; Bellotti is about to be eighty-eight and looks sixty-five. The two Franks talked about old wars and about John F. Kennedy, who both knew. “When you saw him, you didn’t just think he should be president. You thought he was the answer to everything wrong in the world,” said Bellotti.

Later, on the drive back, Kelley sighed. “It’s hell getting old,” he said. “How would you know?” I wanted to ask.

Now, most of the college students I teach would find the idea that people in their eighties could be interesting, let alone fun, hard to believe. To amuse myself last fall, I stuck an extra credit question onto a midterm.  “What is the biggest reason you’re glad you aren’t me?” I asked. The smartest students replied something like …“because now I don’t have to grade thirty midterms.”

But a distressingly large number wrote something like, “Well, sorry to say this, but you are old, and I'm not.”

One even wrote, “because I‘m at the beginning of my life and you are near the end of yours.”  I suppose he thinks I should set a date with the embalmer. On the other hand, there’s Michigan Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Kelly, who legally cannot run for re-election next year because judges in Michigan can’t be re-elected after seventy.

I can tell you one person who thinks that law is unfair: Justice Kelly’s mother, who still lives by herself, but who finally retired from her job as a reading tutor and gave up driving three years ago.

“I could still do it, but at age one hundred I thought it was time to stop,” she told me last summer.

These folks all still have active, interesting lives. I like talking to them, partly because they can shed perspective on things happening now. They’ve been around for a few budget crises and economic downturns, and I think today’s politicians would be well advised to pick their brains on what to do about them.

Frank Kelley, who served longer as a state attorney general than anyone in American history, reminded me that he can legally serve one more four-year term.

“I think I’ll run next time, when I’m 90,” he said. I think he was joking. If I were the current attorney general, I’d certainly hope so.