Retirement Talk

WHAT to do with the rest of your life?


Episode 132 Heroes

Pete Seeger is celebrating his 90th birthday this year. He’s one of my heroes; always has been. Always has been as long as I can remember. I’m not sure when I first heard him sing but it must have been in the 50’s on some folk music records. Then the sixties came around and he was a legend in the folk music scene that dominated the decade. I was in college and had just purchased my first guitar. Everyone knew the name Pete Seeger. He and Woody Guthrie; they were a pair of icons.

This is Retirement Talk. I’m Del Lowery.

Pete Seeger stood up to the House on Un-American Activities Committee – Joe McCarthy and his patriotic anti-communist task force. Pete Seeger refused to co-operate with this group of old white guys in suites that seemed to have a death grip on America for a short time. I say a short time and it was, but back then it seemed like it would never end. Communism was the big fear in the fifties; sort of like terrorism is in this decade.  Both seem to demand that you stand on your front porch and shouted that you are not a communist or a terrorist or something must wrong with you. It didn’t seem right to me as a kid and it still doesn’t seem right to me as an old man.  I always thought that what one carried around in their own head was their own business – sort of sacred ground.

Pete Seeger understood this and stood his ground. He was blacklisted by Hollywood and the New York media elite. He couldn’t get a job. He played for free. He played for kids. He performed locally and did what he could. He didn’t shut up. His life was one of being a musician story teller and he kept telling stories and speaking up for the underclass. Anyone who was discriminated against or oppressed could be sure that Pete Seeger would speak out for them. That’s always been the mark of morality. It is the mark of a hero. He made people belief life could be better. He dealt in hope.

I had a great talk with a guy one time while sitting around a fire on the Serengeti Plan about heroes. This guy, Don Hill, surprised me by confessing to his strong need to lead a heroic life. We were both assisting an anthropologist with his study of kinship patterns of the spotted hyenas. Don and I shared a tent for three weeks and got to know each other fairly well. Don was a heart surgeon from San Francisco. He was also involved in research. He was working on developing a plastic heart. He was in the forefront of the development of this endeavor at the time; this was in l979. His staff had sent him to this remote spot so that he could take a break. He would usually end vacations early and return to work. They wanted him to be somewhere from which he couldn’t escape easily. Africa was the choice and the middle of the Massai Mara Game Preserve seemed perfect: no planes, no trains, no cars, no roads; and in those days, no phones.

In San Francisco his whole life was consumed by work. He was at the hospital every day by 5:30am. He performed heart surgeries until after the noon hour. Then his work shifted to research on the plastic heart. He worked until seven, eight, or even nine every night. He never took breaks. He was not married. He had no children. He was completely devoted to his work. One night I inquired as to what motivated him.

He replied, “The effective, working plastic heart will save hundreds of thousand of lives each year. That’s worth the effort. Just think: there are more than three hundred thousand people each year who would have their life saved and extended because of something you have done.” I remember him looking into the fire and saying, “I believe life should be heroic. You only live once and there are so many things you can do. It is just seems like one should work at something that might really help all of us.”

I asked if he had any heroes and he replied that he did: “Copernicus, Darwin, and the guy that comes up with a good, working plastic heart.”  Then he smiled. He admired Copernicus because he’s the one who removed the earth from being considered the center of the universe. It was incredibly important in the development of our thinking. He changed man’s relationship to God, religion, and the universe forever. Don admired Darwin for his giant step of seeing, or observing, and explaining evolution in a meaningful fashion. “His thinking changed our thinking forever. The scientific method was validated - forever,” Don said.

Pete Seeger came to Anchorage, Alaska while we lived there. Our kids were young but I wanted them to see him. He performed at the University of Alaska campus in Anchorage. He strode out on stage in his blue jeans and blue chambray shirt. His banjo rang out and he sang like a nightingale in Kentucky on a bright sunny morning.  I remember that the audience was enthralled and joined him in singing words to songs that inspire and enlighten. The kind of songs that make chills run up and down your spine and tears to well-up in your eyes. That’s what Pete Seeger could do. He could move you. Move you to think there is something better in the world. To think that you are better and that your fellow travelers on this planet are better. Move you to think that we can overcome difficulty and make the world a better place. How valuable is that?

I heard an interview with him on the radio today. He ended the interview with a story. A biblical story of which many of us are familiar.  He said that his life and songs have been similar to the story of the farmer who is sowing seeds and some fell on clay and never grew. Others fell on rock and were blown away. Others fell on fertile soil and took root, grew, flourished and bloomed.  We don’t know what might happen but we must continue to throw the seed.

Of course, I have other heroes. But they can wait for another day. This day, and this week, Pete Seeger deserves a moment of praise.


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