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MailTribune.com
  • A man of many interests

    100-year-old Art Birnbaum still plays a mean game of bridge
  • The toughest thing about being 100 years old, in Art Birnbaum's opinion, is knowing you're of little value to the world of science.
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  • The toughest thing about being 100 years old, in Art Birnbaum's opinion, is knowing you're of little value to the world of science.
    "You realize if people want parts of you to study after you pass on, everything is worn out — no part is good enough," the Ashland centenarian said, laughing.
    Those who know him would argue the point.
    Birnbaum, who resides in an assisted-living facility, has a pretty independent lifestyle that includes still preparing many of his own meals.
    His sight is failing him a bit, and he walks with a cane, but he's mentally sharp, socially active and an engaging conversationalist.
    Birnbaum was born in Yonkers, New York, and spent most of his life in upstate New York.
    In his early years, he owned a small glass and aluminum business. Later he worked for a couple of larger companies in the same field as an office manager.
    He retired in 1980, the day after his 68th birthday. He worked past his 65th, he said, in order to increase his Social Security income.
    Birnbaum is a man of many interests.
    He is a jazz aficionado, a student of politics and an accomplished bridge player.
    He has played duplicate bridge since the 1930s. It's a game that requires a very good memory, concentration and analytical skills. A club player and tournament competitor, he excels at the game.
    At his 100th birthday party at the Rogue Bridge Club, Birnbaum and his partner topped the field of 26 pairs with the best score in the room.
    There are signs in his apartment that tell who Birnbaum is besides a bridge player. There are jazz albums stacked next to his record player. In the corner are some golf balls, a putter and a putting cup. And on the shelf are a few bottles of fine whiskey, his drink of choice.
    "I like to have a shot of bourbon before dinner," he said.
    Politics? Don't get him started. He's more than disappointed with the field running for the GOP presidential nomination.
    "I wouldn't run them for dogcatcher," he said.
    "You're supposed to get more conservative as you get older. But as I get older, I get more liberal, especially when I see what conservatives are doing these days."
    Birnbaum is listed as a nonaligned voter in Oregon. For him, it's the person's character and qualities that make the difference, not the party label.
    Politics may get Birnbaum riled, but music soothes his soul.
    "As Duke (Ellington) said, all music is good," Birnbaum said. "But I like swing jazz and opera the best."
    His collection of jazz LPs reveals some of his favorite bandleaders, the Duke among them.
    "And there were such great singers, especially Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne."
    What about the music kids are listening to today?
    "Rock 'n' roll, to me, keeps saying the same thing over and over again."
    Birnbaum and his wife moved to the Rogue Valley about 20 years ago. She died about six years ago.
    "That's not what was supposed to happen. I was eight years older. I was supposed to go first."
    Back in the day, Birnbaum and his wife enjoyed traveling. Some of their favorite destinations were the Caribbean, England and Europe. He said his wife was good at spotting cheap tours.
    "But I absolutely refused to go to Germany or Japan because of World War I and II," he said.
    Today, it's bridge that gives him pleasure.
    "Ninety percent of my life is in the bridge community," Birnbaum said. "The players treat me so well; they're so nice to me. It's my social life, and it helps keep me sharp."
    He's seen a lot of changes over 100 years. People aren't as self-reliant as they were in the old days, Birnbaum said. "There's such a hullabaloo today about what people are entitled to."
    A change for the good, Birnbaum said, is on the medical front.
    "Not the cost of medicine, but what they've learned," he said. "My own pacemaker is an example. Without it, I'd be dead."
    Birnbaum has two daughters, a son, two grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Most of them were in Ashland to help him celebrate reaching the century mark Feb. 25.
    Just by observing Birnbaum, you can tell what his secrets are for a long, healthy life: an easygoing temperament, a genuine interest in people, a positive attitude and a zest for life.
    Don't forget a shot of bourbon before dinner, he would surely add.
    Jim Flint is a former Washington newspaper publisher and editor, now living in Ashland.
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