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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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