16 Geriatric Figures from History who Didn’t Let Age Stop Them
16 Geriatric Figures from History who Didn’t Let Age Stop Them

16 Geriatric Figures from History who Didn’t Let Age Stop Them

D.G. Hewitt - June 2, 2019

History is (perhaps annoyingly) full of notable child prodigies and people who made a mark on the world at an early age. But not everyone can find their calling at an early age. Sometimes people only really achieve ‘greatness’ once they have acquired several decades of life experience. Or sometimes high-achievers refuse to follow conventional wisdom and take it easy in their old age. Instead, they use their advanced years as a strength, spurring them on to new heights.

We think it’s time to celebrate these late bloomers and geriatric greats. To recognize that, while youthful energy has certainly helped shaped history – for better or for worse – so too has the wisdom, experience or just downright stubbornness that comes with old age. So, from rulers who rode into battle in their 90s to artists and adventurers who never let a little thing like age stand between them and their dreams, here we have 16 of the greatest ‘oldies’ in history:

16 Geriatric Figures from History who Didn’t Let Age Stop Them
Melchora Aquino de Ramos pictured here on a Philippine banknote. Wikimedia Commons.

16. Melchora Aquino de Ramos played a key role in the Philippine Revolution, despite being an old lady at the time.

When Melchora Aquino de Ramos died in February of 1919, she was the grand old age of 107. And she had done a lot in her 107 years on earth. Above all, the Filipina saved her best to last. Thanks to her key role in the Philippine Revolution, she became known as ‘Tandang Sora’, or Elder Sora. Or, to others she was simply ‘the Grand Woman of the Revolution’. And, to this day, she is remembered with affection in the Philippines and is widely held up as proof that acts of great bravery and resistance aren’t solely the preserve of the young.

Tandang Sora was in her 70s when the Philippine people began rising up against their Spanish occupiers in the 1880s. After a long life working hard to give her 7 children a good education, she bought a shop in her hometown of Quezon City. Despite her age, and despite the risks involved, she helped revolutionaries hide in her shop. What’s more, her store also served as a makeshift hospital for rebels wounded in the fighting. Eventually, the Spanish occupiers found out about Tandang Sora’s activities. She was arrested, deported to Guam and placed under house arrest there. Only when the United States took over the Philippines in 1898 was she able to return. She was given a hero’s welcome and lived for another 30 years, surrounded by friends and family.

16 Geriatric Figures from History who Didn’t Let Age Stop Them
The author of the Little House series worked as a journalist many years before finding fame. Irish Times.

15. Laura Ingalls Wilder released her first book aged 66 and went on to sell millions in her 70s

The story of Laura Ingalls Wilder gives hops to struggling writers everywhere. The American may well be one of the best-selling authors of all time, but she was no overnight success. In fact, when she published the first of her hugely popular ‘Little House on the Prairie’ series in 1932 she was 66 years old. She would release a further 7 between then and 1943. The books brought her fame and fortune and have remained popular ever since. Indeed, the ‘Little House’ books have been translated into 45 million languages and sold an incredible 60 million copies.

Even though she only found success as a novelist late in life, Wilder had in fact been writing professionally for more than 20 years before the release of her first bestseller. Notably, for more than two decades she offered her reflections on life in the great outdoors in her regular magazine column entitled ‘As a Farm Woman Thinks’. This gave her the ability to tell a gripping story, though some Wilder scholars believe that the ‘Prairie’ books were actually written with her daughter, with the younger using her journalistic skills to tighten up the dialogue. The debate continues to rage among literary scholars.

16 Geriatric Figures from History who Didn’t Let Age Stop Them
Roget’s Thesaurus was the product of a lifetime’s work and an immediate bestseller. Wikipedia.

14. Peter Roget published his famous thesaurus when he was 73 – and continued working on the book for another 17 years

Peter Roget made a lasting contribution to the English language. His thesaurus, originally published in 1852, remains a bestseller across the English-speaking world and is still the number one reference point for students of the language looking for synonyms or definitions of words. And, while Roget had developed an obsession with words and with lists from an early age, his thesaurus only came out when he was 73-years-old. Between then and his death at the age of 90, the book was re-printed 28 times.

That Roget published the book at all is quite remarkable. While he was undoubtedly highly intelligent, he was also prone to long spells of severe depression. Indeed, it’s believed that he began writing his thesaurus as a coping mechanism, to distract him from the stresses of his day job as a medical researcher and to take his mind off a long list of family tragedies. Despite all this, he still managed to have a family of his own and, after his death in 1869, his own son carried on the Roget legacy, expanding the book and re-releasing it on several more occasions.

16 Geriatric Figures from History who Didn’t Let Age Stop Them
Ivy Baldwin preparing to walk over South Boulder Canyon aged 82. Pinterest.

13. William Ivy Baldwin had a full, fascinating life and celebrated turning 82 by walking a tightrope over a canyon

Most people celebrate their 82nd birthdays by having a relaxing, carefree day. But Ivy Baldwin was no ordinary man. He lived for thrills and adventure. From an early age, he pushed himself to the limit, first as a balloonist and then as a high-wire performer. And it was the latter passion he carried on into old age. Indeed, to mark his 82nd birthday, he walked a tightrope strung 125 feet above the South Boulder Creek canyon in Colorado. Remarkably, despite his advanced age, he made it safely across the gap – yet another landmark achievement in his remarkable life.

Baldwin was just a young boy when he ran away from home and joined the circus in 1877. His short stature and lightweight frame made him an ideal balloonist. To the amazement of the paying crowds, he would take to the skies and pretend to fall from the rising balloon, only to open up a hidden parachute and float back down to earth. His skills won Baldwin the attention of the U.S. Army and he was commissioned to fly above enemy troops during the Spanish-American War. Here, he became the first American aviator to be shot down. He dined out on the story for decades, and he continued to walk high wires well into old age. In the end, Baldwin died in his sleep in 1953.

16 Geriatric Figures from History who Didn’t Let Age Stop Them
Grandma Moses posing with one of the 1,500 works she painted in her old age. CBS News.

12. Grandma Moses was the ultimate late life success story, only finding success in the art world after she turned 78!

Soon after the art career of Anna Mary Robertson Moses took off, she gained the nickname ‘Grandma Moses’. And perhaps understandably so. After all, she was 78 when she started to paint seriously, even if she had harboured a passion for art and high culture for decades beforehand. Not only did she gain popular acclaim in her 80s and 90s, she also won critical acclaim. Her works were admired by New York critics and mid-Western housewives alike. She became a geriatric celebrity and to this day is held up as the ultimate example of enjoying success in later life.

Born in Greenwich Village in 1860, Moses spent most of her life as a housewife and housekeeper. Her time in the countryside meant she mainly painted scenes of rural life. At times, her employers encouraged and supported her hobby and then, when she reached her late-70s, Moses dedicated herself full-time to her paintings. She created 1,500 canvases over the course of 30 years. At first, she sold them for $5 each. But before long, she could charge $10,000 for a single work. In 2006, 40 years after her death, an original Grandma Moses sold for $1.2 million and many of the paintings she did in her 80s still hang on the walls of galleries across America.

16 Geriatric Figures from History who Didn’t Let Age Stop Them
Benjamin Franklin kept on inventing and writing well into his 70s. Wikimedia Commons.

11. Benjamin Franklin didn’t let old age slow him down, only retiring from American politics when he was 84

Founding Father Benjamin Franklin had no time for people who did nothing in their later years. Indeed, he famously quipped “Many people die at 25 and aren’t buried until they are 75.” For his part, Franklin was only getting started when he was in his mid-20s. The polymath channelled his youthful energy into his writings and business ventures, with his numerous inventions and publications making him a wealthy and influential man before he reached the age of 30. It was only after he turned 50 that he turned to politics – and then he had to wait 20 more years until the high point of his life, the signing of the American Declaration of Independence.

Several of the Founding Fathers were shockingly young when the landmark document was signed in 1776. James Monroe, for example, was just 18-years-old, while Alexander Hamilton had only recently turned 21. Franklin, however, was the true elder statesman. He was 70 when he put his name to the paper. And he wasn’t done there. In 1785, at the age of 79, Franklin assumed the position of Governor of Pennsylvania, a position he would hold until 1788. He died just two years after retiring from politics, aged 84.

16 Geriatric Figures from History who Didn’t Let Age Stop Them
Philippine Pétain meeting Hitler as he agrees to rule over occupied France in his 80s. Wikimedia Commons.

10. Philippe Pétain agreed to become the Nazi’s puppet ruler in occupied France when he was 84-years-old

When he turned 80, Henri Philippine Pétain almost certainly felt his chance of leading his country had gone for good. While he had risen to the top of the French Army, serving as its Commander-in-Chief from the beginning of 1918 until the end of the First World War, he never made it to the top of the nation’s politics. Indeed, he served as Minister of War and then, in 1939, he left France to serve as the country’s ambassador to Spain. However, what should have been a retirement gig in the sun turned into a short-lived break. When Nazi Germany invaded, Pétain went back to France. He negotiated an armistice. Under the agreement, the Nazis controlled northern France. Pétain, meanwhile, was installed as the head of Vichy France. He was 84-years-old.

While in theory Vichy France was politically neutral, in reality it collaborated with the Germans. What’s more, the Vichy regime even introduced its own anti-Semitic laws. Even though Pétain ended up as little more than a figurehead, when peace returned, he was arrested and charged with treason. The death sentence was commuted to imprisonment. He died in 1951 after spending the last years of his life in solitary confinement, his reputation in ruins.

16 Geriatric Figures from History who Didn’t Let Age Stop Them
The Emperor Tiberius is often depicted looking much younger than he actually was. Wikimedia Commons.

9. Emperor Tiberius bucked the trend for young Emperors and ruled over Rome in his 60s and 70s

Most Roman Emperors came to power in their 30s, or even younger. After all, in the unforgiving world of Ancient Rome, men were supposed to be dominant, virile and strong; any sign of weakness, including that of old age would be pounced on by rivals. As such, older emperors were very rare indeed. Even Marcus Aurelius, widely regarded as a wise philosopher and often portrayed as a calm, thoughtful, older man, was only 58 when he died. Tiberius was an exception to this rule. He came to power at the age of 55 and remained the most powerful man in the world until he died aged 77.

Though he was an old Emperor, Tiberius was far from wise. In fact, he is often named as being one of the worst of all Roman rulers. Pliny the Elder famously called him “the gloomiest of men” and he spent much of his rule outside of the city of Rome, delegating the task of ruling the Empire to his trusted allies. Over recent years, some scholars have tried to salvage his reputation. According to his fans, Tiberius was nowhere near as disinterested or depraved as his critics have long maintained. After all, they argue, he left the Empire not only solvent but stable too – something his successor, the much younger Caligula placed in jeopardy almost straight away.

16 Geriatric Figures from History who Didn’t Let Age Stop Them
Enrico Dandolo ruled over Venice in his 90s and led his forces into battle. Pinterest.

8. Doge Enrico Dandolo may have been old and even blind but that didn’t stop him going to war in his 90s

Enrico Dandolo became the Doge, or leader, of the Republic of Venice in the year 1192. He was 85-years-old when his father finally died. Enrico inherited the position and, far from taking it easy, threw himself into the role. Above all, he set his sights on making Venice the leader of the Christian world. He clamped down on foreigners living in the watery city, making them register or simply leave. The octogenarian also worked tirelessly to codify Venice’s complex traditions and laws, plus he is credited with restructuring the Venetian currency.

Most remarkably of all, when he was in his 90s, Danolo launched the Fourth Crusade, aimed at conquering Muslim Egypt. Despite also being blind following an accident when he was in his 60s, the elderly ruler led the mission in person. He even joined his troops on the field of battle, driving his men on through a shower of Byzantine arrows. Dandolo’s men would become the first foreign force to breach the walls of Constantinople. He was buried in the city he conquered when he died there in 1205. A marker for his tomb can still be seen in the famous Hagia Sophia museum in modern-day Istanbul.

16 Geriatric Figures from History who Didn’t Let Age Stop Them
A bearded Oscar Swahn competing in the Olympics as an old man. AARP.

7. Oscar Swahn holds the record for being both the oldest Olympian and the oldest Olympics medal winner

The modern Olympic Games were modeled largely on the original Greek games. These ancient contests celebrated youthfulness, strength and power above all else. But the modern games also offer chances for older athletes to shine. And Oscar Swahn was the ultimate proof that age is not always a barrier to sporting excellence. The Swede competed in 3 different Olympic Games, winning 6 medals, including 3 golds. Notably, he made history at the 1920 Summer Olympics. Here, in the city of Antwerp, Belgium, he became the oldest person to ever take part in the Games. He was 72-years-old.

Swahn learned how to shoot on the family farm. And he was a seasoned shot and a 60-year-old gentleman, when he took part in his first Olympics in 1912. He returned for the next Games and then for a third time, never letting his age of failing eyesight stop him from competing. As well as picking up medals for individual shooting, he also competed with his son, Alfred Swahn, in the team event. Swahn Senior not only holds the record for the oldest-ever Olympian, he also remains the oldest-ever medallist. Neither record is likely to be broken any time soon.

16 Geriatric Figures from History who Didn’t Let Age Stop Them
William IV had to wait decades to be given his chance to rule England. The Royal Family.

6. William IV of England only stepped up to the throne at the age of 64 and his old age made him a mellow monarch

As the third son of King George III of England, William never expected to one day inherit the crown. After all, his father had two healthy heirs, and they would produce heirs of their own. As such, he embraced the playboy lifestyle. Born in 1765, as a young man, he enjoyed all the benefits of wealth and privilege without being burdened by the responsibilities that came with wearing the crown. He loved sailing and saw the world with the British Navy. He also had a long, passionate relationship with an actress, Dorothea Jordan. Together, they had 10 children, all of them born out of wedlock.

All this changed in 1830, however. With the death of George IV, William became King. He was 64-years-old. While his father and brother had lived extravagant lifestyles, the new King William IV had simpler tastes. He insisted on a modest coronation and tried to keep out of politics as much as possible. When he did interfere, it was usually for the best. Under him, slavery was abolished in most of the Empire and conditions for the poor were improved. William died in 1837 at the age of 71. His niece Victoria succeeded him and would become one of England’s greatest-ever monarchs.

16 Geriatric Figures from History who Didn’t Let Age Stop Them
Pope Gregory changes how we keep time – and did so when his was running out. JSTOR.

5. Pope Gregory XIII may not have been the oldest Pope in history, but the octogenarian Pontiff was one of the most influential

Born in 1502, Ugo Boncompagni didn’t even join the Catholic Church until he was 40-years-old. Prior to that, the Italian had studied law and then worked as a professor at the prestigious University of Bologna. But it was this professional experience which meant that, when he finally did take his Holy Orders, his ascent was swift and seemingly unstoppable. Pope Paul III recognized his talents straight away and gave him a series of increasingly-influential positions within the Vatican. Paul IV made him a commissioner for Church reforms and then, at the age of 63, Boncompagni was made a Cardinal.

When he finally made it onto the Papal Throne and named Pope Gregory XIII, he was 73-years-old. While he may not be the oldest man to take on the seat of Saint Peter (Clement X was 79 when he became leader of the Church and, more recently, Benedict XVI was 78 when he was named Pope in 2005), he was probably the most influential of all elderly pontiffs. Above all, Gregory XIII is best remembered for revamping the calendar with the introduction of leap years. The Gregorian Calendar, which he introduced when he was in his 80s, remains the global civil calendar to this day.

16 Geriatric Figures from History who Didn’t Let Age Stop Them
Noah Webster with the landmark dictionary he released aged 69. Noah Webster House.

4. Noah Webster was 69-years-old when he released his famous dictionary and he spent the rest of his life updating it

Noah Webster had a lifelong passion for language. So much so, in fact, that when he released his landmark dictionary in 1828 he was 69-years-old. Of course, he fit a lot into the preceding 7 decades. Born in 1758, he worked as a writer and editor for the Founding Father Alexander Hamilton. He also served in the Connecticut House of Representatives and played an influential role in laying the foundations of the abolitionist movement, campaigning against the evils of slavery in his home state. However, it was his, book An American Dictionary of the English Language, that was his greatest achievement.

The work, which was published 22 years after his first attempt at producing a dictionary, made Webster’s name. What’s more, it kick-started a late career as the country’s go-to guy for language matters. Webster played a key role in the creation of the Copyright Act of 1831 and he was working on an updated version of his celebrated book right up until his death at the age of 84. The modern Merriam-Webster dictionary and continues to be the number one reference point for students across the United States.

16 Geriatric Figures from History who Didn’t Let Age Stop Them
Colonel Sanders even adopted his trademark look when he was in his 60s. Wikimedia Commons.

3. Colonel Sanders endured a lifetime of setbacks to finally strike it rich when most people his age were retiring

While many people retire from work at the age of 65, Harland David Sanders was just getting started. The American businessman had spent 50 years trying to earn his fortune. Born in 1890, he had a wide range of jobs as a young man. However, he never took to the insurance business or to pumping gas. When the rest of the country was struggling through the Great Depression, Sanders set up a roadside diner and patented his “secret recipe”. And even when he was forced to close his first restaurant and rely on social security checks to get by, Sanders used his experience to bounce back.

According to the legend, Colonel Sanders – the title was given to him by the State of Kentucky rather than by the U.S. Army – set up his first KFC at the age of 65. Recognizing the potential of the franchising model, he oversaw his company’s rapid expansion across the United States. By the time he turned 70, he was a rich man. And at the age of 73, he sold KFC for $2 million. Even then, the Colonel had no plans to retire and play golf. For years, he traveled the country, serving as a well-paid ambassador for KFC. Towards the end of his life. However, Sanders became highly critical of the brand he set up.

16 Geriatric Figures from History who Didn’t Let Age Stop Them
Sir Winston Churchill pictured here on his 80th birthday. Wikimedia Commons.

2. Winston Churchill was only forced to quit politics at the age of 89 and even served as Prime Minister in his ninth decade

Having led his country to victory in the Second World War, Sir Winston Churchill would surely have been entitled to take it easy and enjoy a comfortable retirement. However, ever the statesman and missing the action of front line politics, he decided to make a comeback in old age. Just one month shy of his 77th birthday, Churchill became Prime Minister for a second time. He had beaten his political rival, the Labour leader Clement Atlee, in a fiercely contested election and was eager to get back at him for his defeat in 1945.

Though he enjoyed the backing of the public, Churchill’s own wife, as well as his personal doctor, expressed their reservations about his comeback. Churchill was not only a 77-year-old Prime Minister, he also named himself Minister of Defense. The stress was simply too much. He suffered a mild stroke at the start of 1952. The following summer, he was hit by another, more serious stroke. Churchill soon accepted his time was up. At the age of 80, he finally resigned. Even then, however, he remained a Member of Parliament up until the age of 89, only stepping down one year before his death in 1965.

16 Geriatric Figures from History who Didn’t Let Age Stop Them
Ronald Reagan spent his 70s busy in the White House instead of in quiet retirement. Wikipedia.

1. Ronald Reagan wasn’t content with one successful career, so he became President just days before turning 70

Ronald Wilson Reagan continues to be hold up as the perfect example of that perfect second career. He’s also proof that you don’t need to start young to get to the top. Indeed, Reagan was in his 50s when he first started getting actively involved in American politics. And he was 69 years and 349 days old when he took the oath of office and started work as the 40th President of the United States of America. Thanks mainly to his economic policies as well as his tough foreign policies, Reagan won re-election.

At 73-years-old, he became the oldest person to date to take the Presidential Oath of Office. What makes Reagan’s life story even more remarkable is that fact that, prior to his stellar political career, he also enjoyed great success as a movie actor. After starring in several big-budget movies, he served as president of the Screen Actors Guild and then picked up some lucrative speaking gigs. He could have retired into a life of comfort and celebrity at the age of 60. However, he believed old age should be no barrier to ambition.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Melchora Aquino de Ramos.” Biography.com.

“William IV (1765-1837).” BBC History.

“Who Was Laura Ingalls Wilder?” Patricia Brennan Demuth 2013.

“Colonel Saunders founded KFC at the age of 65!” Business Insider India.

“6 surprising facts about Laura Ingalls Wilder.” Deseret News, February 2018.

“Great Figures: Peter Mark Roget (1779-1869).” BBC History.

“Before the Walk: Meet the 82-Year-Old Tightrope Walker.” Time.com.

“Many Founding Fathers Were Shockingly Young When the Declaration of Independence Was Signed In 1776.” Business Insider.

“Philippe Pétain (1856 – 1951).” BBC History.

“Has History Got Roman Emperor Tiberius All Wrong?” The Getty Museum Blog, October 2013.

“Enrico Dandolo and the way history overlooks disability.” BBC Magazine, November 2012.

“Oscar Swahn: Olympic Shooting.” Olympic.org.

“Churchill Becomes Prime Minister Again.” History Today.

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