“Keep busy. Keep Useful.” This upbeat outlook on life keeps Hertzel Harrison active, involved and very independent. (And still quite handsome for a man who’s turning 98 in December!) He drove himself to my home recently for our interview and politely refused any assistance from myself or my husband.
Antonia: Welcome Hertzel. Can you tell me a little about your background?
Hertzel: I was born in Peoria, Illinois in 1917, 10th of 11 children. There were nine boys and two girls. The girls were spoiled rotten.
I wanted to enlist in the military but I had to deal with a medical condition before I could get in. In my childhood I was poisoned from bad milk. This affected, among other things, my depth perception, so I wasn’t eligible to fly until I got well. I got down to 60 lbs. because of this illness!
Eventually, I proved I was well enough to fly as an Aviation Cadet. I went on to become a successful navigator and bombardier. My eyesight was perfect. I was stationed in Texas and served three years.
Antonia: Tell me how you met your wife.
Hertzel: It was during Christmas vacation in high school in Peoria. My buddy Don Heinrick and I were looking for something to do. We went to a friend’s house and that’s where I first saw this blue-eyed blonde, Virginia Steele. She took one look at me and that was it!
We got married and had two boys: Trip was the older and Bob is the younger. My older son passed away in his 60’s but the younger one, Bob, lives nearby.
Antonia: How did you get from Peoria to here in California?
Hertzel: I got into manufacturing. It’s kind of ironic that I got into designing a piece of equipment that dealt with food poisoning. It was a refrigeration/oven unit on wheels. I worked with hospitals and nursing homes.
Originally I did this work while living in Florida with my family. I had the factory in Canada where the parts were assembled into these units.
In 1980 I sold the company, retired and moved my family to Santa Rosa, California.
Antonia: Tell me about retirement life.
Hertzel: I started off by playing lots of golf and the other usual retirement stuff…enjoying life. I quit playing golf when I developed basal cell carcinoma.
Unfortunately, Virginia died of colon cancer in 1991. We were married 56 years! That’s when I began volunteering at the hospital. I found that volunteering was the best thing to occupy my mind. Keep busy. Keep useful.
These days I play duplicate bridge and spend time with my seven grand kids and their kids.
Antonia: Why is volunteering so important to you?
Hertzel: It makes me feel useful, instead of useless. I also did some work at the Senior Center for a while serving meals to seniors. Now I just work at Memorial Hospital in Santa Rosa, answering questions and helping people get where they need to be. I work about 8 hours a week and so far have contributed about 4,000 hours since I started.
Antonia: How do you feel about getting older? Do you consider yourself a role model?
Hertzel: I feel fine. I’m not angry I can’t do all the things I did when I was 21. No, I feel good about the age I’m at. No, I don’t consider myself a role model. I think of myself as lucky!
Antonia: Any advice for those of us coming behind you?
Hertzel: Eat red meat sparingly. If you’re gonna eat meat, eat white meat. I never smoked cigarettes but did smoke a pipe for maybe a couple of years but quit when I was about 35. As far as drinking, a bottle of wine would last me about a month. I don’t really drink.
My other advice is don’t go to sleep angry. Find a way to resolve any problems. Oh, and save your money!
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