Inspirational Stories

Why I Walk

Friday, April 10th, 2015

AIDsActionSomerville resident Kelly Rush will be participating in this year’s AIDS Walk. He’s got a pretty interesting personal story.

At 6.2 miles, the AIDS Walk Boston route is not very long compared to other fundraising walks. But for Kelly Rush, it represents a long journey to self-acceptance.

Since he first started walking in 2011, Rush and his team, now called Divas and Devils, have raised more than $21,000 for AIDS Action Committee, making them one of AIDS Walk Boston’s most prolific fundraising groups. It’s a long way from where he was 15 years ago—or even six years ago.

On July 11, 2001 Rush was taken by ambulance to Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital with a high fever and severe dehydration. He was treated and released that day, but a week later, his worst fear was confirmed: Rush had HIV. A child of the 1980s, Rush could not shake the idea of HIV as a death sentence and a highly stigmatized disease. He couldn’t bring himself to seek treatment. The ensuing 10 years, Rush wrote in a 2011 fundraising email, “included a lot of running from my condition, secrecy, depression, self-loathing and alcohol abuse.” He moved away from Boston and told very few people about his HIV status.

“I think part of it ties into my background,” Rush says of his downward spiral. “I’m from central Maine and was relatively uncomfortable with the gay community. And then I think I also, because of my age—I’m just about 40 now—we were brought up in an era where if you get HIV, you die.”

When Rush moved back to Boston in 2010, he was determined to live a healthier life. He began retroviral therapy, started counseling for depression and substance abuse, and was working out and eating better. Months later, when he learned a co-worker was participating in the 2011 run portion of the AIDS Walk & 5K Run, Rush followed her lead and signed up to participate in the Walk.

But the most important step of that Walk for Rush happened well before he laced up his sneakers on the morning June 5, 2011. Rather, it was when he sent a fundraising email to a wide circle of friends from college and told them he was HIV positive. His goal was to raise $700, but he quickly raised $3,500. It was an eye-opening experience.

“The reaction was much different than I expected,” Rush recalls. “I think that’s the thing about the closet, right? When you have a closet, any closet, it’s about building up psychological fear on expectations that come from nowhere. That fear often has no basis in reality in terms of the people in your own immediate circle. More often than not, it comes from what you’ve heard happen to other people far removed from your everyday life. It makes no sense.”

Despite the outpouring of support, Rush, to some degree was still isolated. He completed his first AIDS Walk alone, breaking out of the pack doing 11-minute miles and crossing the finish line so soon that no one took notice.

But that initial “coming out” changed the equation. In subsequent years, friends from college and beyond joined Rush’s AIDS Walk team, forming a community of mutual support. He recalls the year his friend Amy participated just a few months after having knee surgery. “It was really, really slow,” says Rush, laughing. But they started and finished the Walk together.

On the eve of last year’s fundraising for the AIDS Walk, Rush finally took what might be the most important step of his journey: he disclosed to his family—including his Baptist parents—that the reason he walks is because he is HIV positive. Again, he was surprised by their supportive reactions. “In fact, my mother’s first question was, ‘Does this mean you’re not going to be able to get married?’” he says with a laugh. “I mean, ultimately, I was more consumed with thinking about my diagnosis being a death sentence than my family was!”

Last year’s team was very much family and it included an uncle, a niece, and cousin. His parents greeted them at the finish line.

For Rush, the Walk is a reminder that there is life beyond HIV, regardless of what society thinks.

“I feel like the perception in society is that if you’re HIV positive you’re somehow less than someone who is not HIV positive,” Rush says. “My friend Chris tells me that I have to stop getting up in arms when people call me brave or inspirational because it takes strength to live life openly and honestly. The question is if I’m an “inspiration” because I choose to live my life openly, without shame and to combat the stigma of being HIV positive, what does that say of us as a community or a society?

Why is it brave to live openly and honestly?”

Registration is now open for the 30th annual AIDS Walk Boston & 5K Run, which will take place Sunday, June 7, 2015. The Walk is 6.2-miles. The 5K Run is a competitive, timed event fully sanctioned by the USA Track & Field Association. The AIDS Walk & 5K Run will begin and end at the Boston Common. Participants can register for the AIDS Walk & 5K Run at There is neither a registration fee nor a minimum fundraising requirement to participate in the Walk. There is a $30 registration fee for the 5K Run.

Article reprinted with permission from The Somerville News Weekly.

Our Latest McDee Award* Winner: Octavio Orduno

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011
By Riley McDavid   Riley McDavid

When I was in my twenties and just back from army service in Germany, I moved to the Monterey peninsula and rented an inexpensive place on the corner of First Avenue and Carpenter Street in the woodsy northeastern corner of Carmel. It was, well, rustic, to be kind about it.  Mr. Harthorn, the owner and a lifelong carpenter, had built the unit up over his garage some years earlier as a place for his mother to live. When she passed on, he rented it out.

Mr. Harthorn was no kid.  He was eighty-seven, as I recall, which, adjusted for inflation, so to speak, was like being well over one-hundred today.  But he was alert and active enough to make a cross-country auto trip that summer, with the help of a niece, to see relatives back in his native Maine. “You never know how long they’ll be there,” he said, leading me to believe they were even older than he.

“I have a lot of lumber stored in the garage,” he said to me as we concluded our discussions of rental payment and the like.  “If you want, I’ll have my son move it to the storage shed so you can park your car in there.”

Well I was young and incredibly full of myself because after all I just rented my first solo apartment in Carmel of all places.  I don’t remember what I replied exactly, but I do recall thinking, “Right.  Have the kid come over and get the stuff out of my way.”  The next afternoon I came home only to find a sixty-seven-year-old “kid” struggling with heavy two-by-fours just for my benefit. Guilt ridden, I pitched in and we got the job done in no time.

At that point in my life, I’m pretty sure Mr. Harthorn was the oldest person I had ever met.  But he was impressive in his movements and energy and most of all his attitude.  It was like, “I’m eighty-seven, but who’s counting?” Not surprisingly, his image came to mind not long ago when I heard about Octavio Orduno, a 103-year-old resident of Long Beach, who is our most recent McDee Award winner. Like Mr. Harthorn, Octavio is alert and physically active.  In Long Beach he has become an icon among those who value fitness because almost every day of the week, he gets his bike out of his garage and cycles anywhere from three to six miles. He lives just a half block from the beach and rides to the park, to the beach — anywhere around the neighborhood. 

In a You Tube video interview, Octavio gives varying estimates for how long he has been cycling.  At one point he says “knee high to a grasshopper” but later guesses that sometime around 1920 is a pretty good guess.   These days he rides a three-wheeler, but only because his wife Alicia — she’s just eighty-one — insisted that he abandon his two-wheeler after falling.

He says he feels like he’s forty or fifty, and that he never gets sick. An interviewer asked him how he stays healthy.  He said food is the key — a good diet — and complained that some food companies put too much junk in the foods.  His regular dinner: beans, brown rice and veggies. How much does he smoke?  “Smoke?” he replied indignantly.  “I don’t smoke.”

“Not long ago, the city’s bike coordinator, a gregarious, gray-haired Texan named Charles Gandy, took notice,” Esmeralda Bermudez wrote in the L.A. Times in March. “He befriended Orduño and shared his story online, posting two videos of him coasting down the bike lanes, propped up by his self-installed blue velvet backrest. And that’s only the start of Gandy’s plan, if the old man is game. He’d like to have him cut the ribbon at bike-friendly ceremonies and appear in television and radio ads.”

Octavio is a retired aerospace mechanic who has been married to Alicia for nearly sixty years, and was married earlier for twenty. In all he has had six children and numerous grandchildren in states as far away as Missouri. His son Eddie, who is seventy-nine and lives in Fresno told the Times, “I don’t know how many days he has left, how many months, how many years, but he’s had a full life.”

Several times in this Age Well series we have quoted the late Dr. Robert Butler who expressed skepticism about one of the recent catch phrases, “Ninety is the new fifty.” A better approach, he said, is to make ninety a better, more fruitful ninety. Without doubt Octavio Orduno accomplished that.

* The McDee Awards are given occasionally to individuals over seventy who have some notable accomplishment.  For late tuners in, the first two award winners were Ann Timson, the 75-year-old grandmother from Northhampton, England, who thwarted a jewelry store robbery by whacking the startled thieves in the head with her purse, and 89-year-old Betty White, who plays the irreverent Elka Ostrovsky in the TV Land comedy Hot in Cleveland.

The Last Doughboy

Thursday, March 17th, 2011
By Riley McDavid   Riley McDavid

In the movie “Up in the Air,” Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a twenty-ish entry-level exec, and career businessman Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) are on a marathon trip for their employer, hop-scotching from Omaha to St. Louis to Miami to Wichita and beyond.  At one point Natalie is on the cell phone with her boyfriend, who is apparently jealous of his girlfriend’s long distance trek with Bingham.

“No,” Natalie protests to her boyfriend. “I don’t even think of him that way.  He’s old.” In the background, Bingham, who certainly doesn’t think of himself as old, grimaces as Natalie’s unintended dart punctures his ego.

Moral: Old is a relative term.  When you’re ten, anyone over fifty is ancient.  But when you turn fifty, you refer to yourself as middle aged, not old.  For several years, I played golf with six guys in their seventies and eighties, plus one guy, Fred, who was ninety-four.  We referred to him as “the old guy.” Presumably the rest of us were kids.

Just this past week I came upon some startling statistics about what constitutes being old. CTV, the Canadian English-language TV network, says that according to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are about half a million centenarians in the world. Really! Half a million!  Of those, nearly 100,000 live in the U.S., and by 2050 that number will jump to 1.1 million.  Are you a baby boomer?  Then here’s an even more mind-blowing stat. Researchers at Boston University predict that some three million of you boomers will live to be 100 or older.

This week’s blog is about a centenarian, and before getting to his story, I wanted to make the point that simply living to one hundred isn’t nearly as amazing a feat as it once was. In the 20th century the average life span increased thirty whole years, which is greater than the increases in the last 5,000 years of human existence.  So let us celebrate this week’s centenarian not just for living long, which even a heel can do, but for living a full and admirable life. 

Frank Woodruff Buckles was born into a Missouri farming family on February 1, 1901, and died at his Gap View Farm in West Virginia on February 27, 2011. If the name is familiar it is because his recent passing received considerable publicity in local and national newspapers and on network TV. Mr. Buckles was the last surviving American soldier who fought in World War 1.

“I always knew I’d be one of the last because I was one of the youngest when I joined,” Mr. Buckles told the New York Daily News in 2008, when he was 107. “But I never thought I’d be the last one.”

After the war began, Mr. Buckles tried to enlist in the Marine Corps and the Navy, but was turned down by both.  The Marines said he was too young — he was sixteen — and the Navy complained that he was flat-footed, a fact which he disputed his entire life. In spite of his small size and youthful age, he managed to enlist in the Army and was soon sent to Europe.

He served as a driver in England and in various locations in France, driving military autos and ambulances. The war’s effects left a lasting impression on him. “The little French children were hungry,” Mr. Buckles recalled in a 2001 interview for the Veterans History Project of the Library of Congress. “We’d feed the children. To me, that was a pretty sad sight.” He never got close to the action. But, as he told columnist George F. Will in 2008, “I saw the results.”

After the war he went to business school and worked for many years in the steamship industry, eventually being posted to Manila. In an ironic twist, the man who never faced a bullet as a soldier in World War 1 became a civilian prisoner of war in 1942.  He spent the next three and a half years in a Japanese POW camp.

“He was only a corporal and he never got closer than 30 or so miles to the Western Front trenches, “ wrote Richard Goldstein in the New York Times, “but Mr. Buckles became something of a national treasure as the last living link to the two million men who served in the American Expeditionary Forces in France in ‘the war to end all wars.’

 “Frail, stooped and hard of hearing but sharp of mind, Mr. Buckles was named grand marshal of the National Memorial Day Parade in Washington in 2007. He was a guest at Arlington National Cemetery on Veterans Day 2007 for a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns. He was honored by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates at the Pentagon and met with President George W. Bush at the White House in March 2008.” Early in life he met General John Pershing and in his later years he was presented with France’s Légion d’honneur by French President Jacques Chirac.

When he died in February, Mr. Buckles was 110.  On Tuesday morning, as a line of mourners passed by, Mr. Buckles body lay in repose in the Memorial Amphitheater of Arlington National Cemetery. Later in the day, he was buried there with full military honors..

Uncle Leo

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011
By Riley McDavid   Riley McDavid

One evening, more years ago than I want to remember, when Mrs. McD and I were on a week’s stay on the South Shore of Lake Tahoe, we went to dinner at the main showroom of Harvey’s — without reservations.  The room was packed, but the maitre d’, far from laughing us out of the place, invited us to follow him and said he was going to put us next to one of the most famous actors in Hollywood. He then took us to the very front of the room, and seated us just a few inches from the stage.

We turned to the couple next to us, smiled and made some pleasantries, but neither of us recognized this “most famous actor.”   He did look familiar.  Not vaguely familiar, but very familiar. Eventually he got up and said he needed to go cash a check. Once he was gone, I said to his wife, “I apologize, but although your husband is very familiar, I can’t remember his name.”

She laughed.  “That’s the story of our lives,” she said.  Her husband turned out to be Elisha Cook, Jr., one of the most prolific character actors in the history of film and TV. From 1930 until 1988, he had 212 film and TV credits. Everybody knew his face, but not everybody knew his name. Because of that encounter, I gained a lot of respect for blue collar actors and actresses, and whenever one of them passes on, I pay them the respect of reading their obit from start to finish and maybe even looking up their full list of credits on the net.

So it was when Len Lesser passed away in mid-February.  Like Cook, Lesser labored for years in relative obscurity, sought after by casting directors and respected by actors and others in the profession, but not well known among the public. He played both comic and serious roles in both film and TV.  His TV credits read a history of the medium: Playhouse 90, Mr. Lucky, Tombstone Territory, The Untouchables, The  Red Skelton Hour, Ben Casey, The Munsters,  My Favorite Martian, Get Smart, The Monkees, All in the Family, Bob Newhart, Kojak, Rockford Files, Quincy, Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond, Castle and many, many more. His movies included The Outlaw Josey Wales, Please Don’t Eat the DaisiesPapillon, and Kelly’s Heroes.

From 1949 through 2009 he amassed 168 film and TV credits. Yet even though he worked regularly, like many character actors he frequently had a nagging fear that his next role would be his last — that the phone calls from casting directors to his agent would eventually dry up.

But in 1991, Len Lesser caught lightning in a bottle.  He was cast as Uncle Leo on Seinfeld, a role he would play until the series finale in 1998. It changed his life. Lesser achieved a kind of cult status in the role of Leo with his boring stories about his son Jeffrey who worked for the New York City Parks Department.

Now people recognized him on the street, in restaurants — wherever he went. “Hey, Uncle Leo,” they would yell.  Lesser said they couldn’t remember his real name, but he didn’t mind.

Uncle LeoIn one famous Seinfeld episode, Uncle Leo picks up a broken sixty-dollar watch that Jerry had thrown in the trash, has it repaired, and, after intense bargaining in a restaurant men’s room, sells it back to Jerry for $350. Some time later Lesser was at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, and even there someone recognized him.. “It’s an esoteric day, very silent, very nice,” Lesser said.  Then all of a sudden someone yells out, “Uncle Leo, where’s the watch?”

After Seinfeld ended its run, Lesser went on to play a similar character on the hit series Everybody Loves Raymond. And it turns out, he had another role that hardly anyone knew about.  In a beautiful piece in the Los Angeles Times a week or so after Lesser’s death, Education Editor Beth Shuster described Lesser’s life as a volunteer acting coach at Canterbury Avenue Elementary School in Pacoima.

“He had hundreds of television and movie credits to his name, yet there he was, spending hours at a school in an out-of-`the-way, low-income San Fernando Valley neighborhood,” Shuster wrote. “He worked with students who’d never acted before; some were immigrants more fluent in the language of their parents. He urged them to project, look at each other, feel the emotion of the plays. When the script called for it, he urged the squirmy elementary kids to hold hands, even kiss. It could be incredibly awkward. I never saw him lose his temper or heard him raise his voice.”

Lesser loved acting and he wanted to pass on his passion to others.  He helped the school mount productions as complex as Fiddler on the Roof and Oliver. “But really he was just one of us,” Shuster wrote. “The moms who could sew made costumes, the dads who could paint made the sets and the rest of us found any job we could do.”

His volunteering wasn’t limited to Canterbury Avenue.  Lesser’s son David said he also volunteered at a North Hollywood senior citizens home and taught drama to special education students.

Len Lesser died February 16 in Burbank, California, at the age of 88.  The passing of the actor who spent so many years in anonymity received a 700-word notice in the New York Times. In what could have been his epitaph, his daughter Michele said, “Heaven got a great comedian and actor today.”

It’s A Tough Job But Someone’s Gotta Do It

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011
By Riley McDavid   Riley McDavid

Mrs. McDavid and I came home from a movie after dark one night last week, and as we got out of our car we spotted our neighbor Arnie staring off into the distance. “What are you looking at?” I asked him.

“The red light out there on top of the radio tower.  It’s real pretty. How do you suppose they change that thing when it burns out?”

“I’m just guessing, Arnie,” Mrs. McDavid said, “but I suspect someone has to climb up there and change it.”

“Now that’s something I’d like to do just once,” he said.  “What a view you’d get up there.” I shuddered at the thought, but he was quite serious. ”Something else I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve always wanted to be the guy at the airport that stands in front of the plane as it taxis up to the gate and holds those neon thingies telling the pilot when to turn and when to stop. That’s power! I’d be controlling a great big 767.”

 “Just once,” I said, “I’d like to be the guy at the driving range who drives around in the caged tractor with the things on the back that collects the golf balls.” 

Mrs. M. gave me a strange look, but I just shrugged. Then she got this sly smile on her face. “Here’s what I want to do,” and she paused as if waiting for a drum roll. Finally she said, “I want to referee the Super Bowl.”

“You just want power over men,” I said.

“You’re darn right. The bigger, the better. Can’t you just see me. ‘Fifteen yard penalty on number 67 for roughing the passer, and don’t scowl at me buster or I’ll give you another 15!’”

“She’s tough,” Arnie said.

“Oh, yeah. She really identified with Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side.”

“Okay,” she said.  “Let me tell you a job I wouldn’t want.  I wouldn’t want to be a toll taker at a bridge.  Too boring.”

I said I just couldn’t be a CHP officer.  “Imagine having to pull somebody over on a deserted stretch of road at night.  You don’t know who could be inside. That’s scary.”

Dental“I couldn’t be a dentist, “ Arnie said. “Imagine pulling someone’s tooth. Or a heart surgeon with all that blood and everything.”

”But aren’t you glad somebody does these things?” Mrs. McDavid said. “I mean if nobody wanted to do them, we’d be in a big fix. There’s lots of jobs like that.  Being an ER nurse.  Taking care of the elderly people who come to Adult Day Care at Age Well. Working in a nursing home.  Volunteering at a homeless shelter or a battered women’s shelter or a hospice. Those people are saints.”

“Yeah, I just couldn’t do stuff like that,” Arnie said.

“Oh, I think you could,” Mrs. M. said.  “What do you do on Saturdays?

“Saturdays?  I go see my dad up in Paterson.”

“Isn’t that a five-hour drive one way?” I said.

“Yep. I’d move him down here, but he’s around things that are familiar to him up there and that’s really nice for him.”

“What do you do there?”

“I read to him.”

“Read what?” Mrs. M. asked.

“Oh, Field and Stream and chapters from Tom Sawyer, which he really used to love, and I don’t know what else.”

“Does he understand it?” I asked.

“Naw! He just smiles once in a while.  When he does that, it’s like it used to be between us.  Real friendly. But these days he doesn’t even know who I am.”

“But you still go,” I said.

“Of course!  He’s my dad.”

“Arnie,” I said.  “you’re a heart surgeon.”

“Excuse me?”

“It’s okay, Arnie,” Mrs. M. said.  “It was a metaphor.  He meant it as a compliment.”

“Well, okay, thanks,” Arnie said.

The Man Who Made People Smile

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011


By Riley McDavid   Riley McDavid

Leo Cullum was an airline pilot who made millions of people smile. He was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1942, grew up in North Bergen and graduated from Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he majored in English. After graduation he became a marine aviator who flew 200 missions in Vietnam, and when his  service was over, he became a pilot for TWA and later for American. Eventually he began filling his time on layovers in New York and Rome and Paris by learning the art of drawing cartoons. 

Predictably, his first cartoon sale was to a relatively unknown publication, Air Line Pilot Magazine, but he gradually worked his way to the pantheon of the cartoon world, the New Yorker, where he published 819 cartoons over the years.

New York Times writer William Grimes described Leo Cullum as “a cartoonist whose blustering businessmen, clueless doctors, venal lawyers and all-too-human dogs and cats amused readers of The New Yorker for 33 years.” But Leo was never snarky or mean. He seemed to have great affection for his characters even when he chronicled their imperfections.

He did so many medical cartoons that he eventually collected into a 128-page book. “It’s a good thing you’re here,” the ear doctor says to the patient. “I just punctured your eardrum.”   He often kidded doctors about their fees.   “Your wallet,” a doctor says to a patient.  “It’s got to come out.” A man stands at the head of the line to get into heaven. “Would you step aside?” St. Peter says. “They’re still doing CPR.”

He excelled at animal cartoons, mainly, I think, because he endowed them with such recognizable human traits. “I love the convenience,” says the buffalo talking on a cell phone, “but the roaming charges are killing me.”

A cat in a stylish executive business suit sits at a desk while talking on the phone. “Can I call you back?” he says. “ I’m with a piece of string.”

One chicken to another in the barnyard: “The body is 82 percent broth.”

He had at least a half-dozen cartoons that played on the venerable argument, which came first, the chicken or the egg.  In one, which has no caption, a chicken and an egg are each defiantly holding up one of those “We’re Number 1” gloves that fans wear to football games.

“There are many ways for a cartoon to be great, not the least of which is to be funny, and Leo was one of the most consistently funny cartoonists we ever had,” Robert Mankoff, the cartoon editor of The New Yorker, told Grimes.

“Leo Cullum was one of the most consistently funny cartoonists that I knew,” New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast said in an interview with the blog Comic Riffs. “Even when he used the traditional set-ups of magazine cartoons, his take on them was always fresh.”

ParrotSome years ago my daughter, who is the most creative gift giver I know, finally had to ask for help.  She phoned Mrs. McDavid from the state of Washington to find out what dad might like for Christmas.  A book of Leo Cullum cartoons, Mrs. McDavid told her.  She sent one and since then on Christmas I have received more Cullum collections, including the medical collection, Suture Self, Tequila Mockingbird (animal cartoons), and Cockatiels for Two (bird cartoons).  Whenever I get one, I have to ration how many cartoons I read at a sitting, lest I open a book on Christmas morning and have it all read by Christmas evening.   Six months later I can take the same collection out and enjoy it just as much.

Leo Cullum retired from airline piloting in 2001 and spent his days with his family in Malibu, California, cartooning. In a 2009 interview, the Cartoon Bank Blog asked Cullum,  “Has living in that famously wealthy, celebrity-filled environment supplied you with good ideas for cartoons?”

“I have not gotten one cartoon idea from living in Malibu…seriously. It’s not a funny place. Pretty, but not funny.  Maybe that’s the problem. Too much sun and blue water.”

Last October he died of cancer at age 68. He was not a household name but when he passed on hundreds of newspapers carried his obit.  Google “Leo Cullum” and you will get more than 300,000 results.

In the past we have paid tribute in this blog to a humanitarian and a pioneering scientist.  Leo Cullum was neither of those things. His contribution to society was to make life a little more fun for us, one cartoon at a time. I never met Leo Cullum, but I wish I had.  I suspect he was filled with humanity, the quiet kind that feels no need to advertise itself.

Leo Cullum is survived by his wife Kathy, a former flight attendant whom he had met on a flight to Boston, and by his daughters Kaitlin and Kimberly.

Elsie Koff, National Problem Solver

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011
By Riley McDavid   Riley McDavid


Elsie Koff

Elsie Koff

Americans are living a lot longer these days.  For example, meet Elsie Koff, a Mission Viejo resident, who’s 91, extremely active, and definitely not living in the past. “I drive, I use a computer, and I have a cell phone,” she told me. Longevity runs in Elsie’s family.  Her sister lived to be 99, and her dad passed away at 101. “He used to say, ‘I still got all my marbles,’ and he did,” Elsie said.

After an in-person interview, I asked if I could phone her with any follow-up questions.

“Sure, if you can catch me at home,” she said.  “I’m pretty busy.”  And sure enough, both times I called her, I got her answering machine and listened to a voice that sounded like it was years away from turning 91. Busy includes lots of get-togethers with friends for mah-jongg and various card games, going to gym classes, and, once a week, volunteering at Age Well’s Adult Day Services on El Toro Road in Laguna Woods.

Anywhere from 45 to 70 people come to the center each week day.  About 40% have Alzheimers or similar disorders, while others are quite alert but have limitations that prevent them from being alone all day. They all have a plan of care, nutrition to meet their particular needs, and a wide range of activities.  There are two registered nurses there each day, one fulltime and one part time. Adult Day Services not only serves the seniors but helps to provide much needed respite for caregivers — spouses, relatives and others.

Each Friday Elsie helps prepare and serve lunches to the people who come to the center.  “She makes salads, she fixes meals for those on special diets, she serves, she cleans up — she does anything that’s asked of her,” said Nutritional Manager Diane Palermo.

“I’m just a general flunky,” Elsie told me.

Diane has a far different view. “She’s a remarkable inspiration. She just continues to give.”

Elsie became intimately acquainted with food preparation at an early age.  She was the youngest in the family, and at age thirteen, with both parents working, it fell to her to cook dinner every day for her parents, herself, and her two siblings.  She grew up in Los Angeles, and graduated from Manual Arts High School.  In 1947 she married Milton Koff, a World War II veteran who had served with Merrill’s Marauders in the China-Burma-India theater of operations. She and her husband, who died a few years ago at age 87, had a retail business in Hawthorne.

A few years ago Elsie had to stop volunteering because of a medical problem.  Eventually she called Diane and asked if it would be okay if she came back. “Okay? You bet it would — we’ve missed you!” Diane told her.  “I give her a big hug every day she comes, and she told me, ‘That’s why I come here — for the hugs.’”

Elsie’s story is one piece of a much larger mosaic. At the same time she is making salads and serving lunches, she is doing her part to help solve a serious national problem. As I said at the outset, Americans are living a lot longer these days, but not all of them have the physical stamina and mental acuity of Elsie Koff — including those who come to Adult  Day Services.

Other countries provide forms of elder care that, in the words of the late Dr. Robert Butler, “make it possible for people to have dignified care right up to the end of life.” But America doesn’t have sufficient systems or facilities to care for all the legions of older people who can no longer care for themselves. “We’re not there yet,” Dr. Butler said in a PBS interview.

Three years ago at the World Science Festival in New York, Dr. Butler, along with other researchers, was on a panel entitled “90 Is the New 50.” Dr. Butler was skeptical of the concept.  He later told author Susan Jacoby, “The trouble with expecting 90 to become the new 50 is it can stop rational discussion.” What we ought to be concentrating on, he suggested, is how to make 90 a better 90.

Which is pretty much is what Elsie and all the hundreds of other Age Well volunteers are doing — in Elsie’s case, one lunch at a time.  Every hour she and the other volunteers are on the job, they are expanding Age Well’s ability to provide care, and improve the quality of life for clients.

It is something Elsie is most happy to do. “I’m glad that as old as I am, I can still give back,” she told me.  “I feel fortunate to be on this side.”

Help the seniors that Age Well serves. To donate funds, volunteer or become a community partner, go to

 Thank you!

An Appreciation: Robert Macauley, 1923-2010

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011

“Some men see things as they are and ask why — I dream things that never were and say why not.”  — George Bernard Shaw

By Riley McDavid   Riley McDavid

Robert Macauley

When Robert Conover Macauley came into the world, it was to a life of privilege. He was born in Manhattan in 1923 into a family that owned the M.L. Macauley paper company. He grew up in suburban Connecticut, and his schooling was impeccably eastern upper class: Greenwich Country Day School, Phillips Andover, and Yale University. His roommate at Yale was George H. W. Bush, who would become the 41st president of the United States.

The first hint that Mr. Macauley’s life was not going to the follow the traditional patrician path came just after World War II broke out. In the midst of his education, he abandoned Yale and enlisted in the Army Air Corps, serving as a lieutenant in North Africa. After his military service, he went back to Yale and in 1945 earned a degree in political science. Not surprisingly, he went to work for the family’s paper company.  After a successful career there, in 1972 he founded Virginia Fibre, which made corrugated box paper.  He served as the company’s chairman until 1990.

What makes Mr. Macauley’s life remarkable, however, isn’t his corporate accomplishments but his parallel career as a humanitarian.  In 1968, he heard about Richard Hughes, who operated hostels for war orphans in Vietnam. To support Mr. Hughes’s projects, he established the Shoeshine Boys Foundation, so named because the orphans in the hostels earned money by shining shoes. The seed money for the foundation, which Mr. Macauley ran out of his New York office, came from funds he had originally set aside to purchase a new automobile.

Over the years, he served on boards and wrote checks, of course, but more importantly he got things done. “People will always give you nine reasons why it can’t be done,” he said in a 1990 interview with the Toronto Star. “Just mow ‘em down.  Make things happen.”

Which is exactly what he did in the spring of 1975, when the fall of Saigon was only days away. At the time the U.S. Air Force had mounted Operation Babylift to bring South Vietnamese orphans to this country for adoption. But on April 4, the very first flight ended in tragedy when a United States Air Force Lockheed C-5 Galaxy crashed not long after takeoff, killing more than 150.  When Mr. Macauley found out it would take more than a week to fly out the remaining orphans because of lack of aircraft, he went to Pan Am and chartered a 747 which succeeded in bringing 300 orphans to this country. 

Mr. Macauley didn’t have the $10,000 for a down payment on the charter, much less the $241,000 for the balance of the cost, so he and his wife took out a mortgage on their home in New Canaan, Connecticut, to pay for the flight. His wife Leila believed it was a fair trade. “The bank got the house and Bob got the kids,” she said.

In 1981, Pope John Paul II asked Mr. Macauley to come to Rome,  “Poland was under martial law, and the country had virtually no medical supplies,” Mr. Macauley recalled on the web site of AmeriCares, the nonprofit he founded. “I’m not even Catholic, but when the Pope asks a favor, you comply.” He and the Pope agreed upon a goal of $50,000 worth of medical supplies for the people of the Pope’s native Poland.

Mr. Macauley’s particular genius was his ability to secure monetary and in-kind support from corporations and individuals.  So when he came back from Rome, he did what he did best: diplomatic arm twisting to secure medical supplies and funds.  In all, his efforts resulted not in $50,000 but in more than $3.2 million worth of aid being airlifted to the country.

He was passionate about wanting to help the most vulnerable people on the planet.  In 1982 he founded AmeriCares, a nonprofit disaster relief and humanitarian aid organization which provides immediate response to emergency medical needs – and supports long-term humanitarian assistance programs – for people around the world.  Since its founding the organization has provided more than $10 billion — that’s billion with a b — in aid to 147 countries.

AmeriCares’ largest program, Global Medical Assistance, provides medicines, medical supplies and other relief on an ongoing basis to hospitals, clinics and community health programs in over 40 countries. In the United States it supplies more than 150 health care clinics serving the uninsured and underinsured in over 35 states and provides free prescription medications in all 50 states through its Patient Assistance Program.

Mr. Macauley was once described as being a person of “unbounded compassion and sheer audacity.” Curtis R. Welling, who succeeded Mr. Macauley as AmeriCares’ CEO, told the New York Times, “He was motivated by the belief that if you act quickly you have more impact and save more lives, than if you act slowly,”

“You act now and worry about the red tape later,” Mr. Macauley once said.

Mr. Macauley served without pay as the chief executive of AmeriCares from its founding until 2002, and was its chairman at the time of his death. He grew up and lived most of his adult life in Connecticut. He died at his residence in West Palm Beach, Florida, on December 29 with his wife Leila at his side.

 Photo: AmeriCares

Outstanding Charity: Voices From Harlem

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

Meet Richelle and Maryam, two HCZ mothers who share similar stories. They were the special people that everyone turned to for help, but when things went bad for Richelle and Maryam, they turned to HCZ so they could keep their children safe and on track.

As part of helping children, the HCZ nonprofit organization serves families so they can do the best job possible to support their children’s growth and development. Toward that end, we do everything from teaching parenting skills to supplying warm coats to counseling families in crisis.

To change the odds for poor children and successfully get them to college, HCZ works in schools while addressing the various issues that affect our children outside the walls of the classroom. For families with few resources, we are sometimes their only lifeline.

All of our programs are provided free of charge through our fundraising events and the generosity of people like you.  Please take a moment right now to support our work. Your generous contribution will enable us to strengthen our children and families in Harlem. 

Harlem Children's Zone

MS Gala & Charity Fashion Show Presented by DBS Financial Group

Monday, December 6th, 2010

28th Anniversary MS Gala & Charity Fashion Show Presented by DBS Financial Group

On January 20, 2011, 1,200 of South Florida’s elite and philanthropic residents will be attending the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, South Florida Chapter 28th Annual MS Gala & Charity Fashion Show presented by DBS Financial Group held at the Broward County Convention Center at 10 a.m.

For her third consecutive year, Deborah DelPrete will be chairing The MS Gala & Charity Fashion Show, which is South Florida’s largest luncheon and fashion show and has become one of the most prestigious fundraisers in the community. Last year’s charity event raised more than $450,000 in the fight against MS.

Phillis Oeters will be honored with this year’s Hope Award. Oeters is the Corporate Vice President of Government and Community Relations of Baptist Health South Florida. Oeters serves on several community boards, including, the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, Beacon Council, United Way, Coral Gables Community Foundation, and Nat Moore Foundation. She is also Chairman of the Board of the Neurologically Injured Compensation Fund for the State of Florida, a billion dollar fund responsible for caring for children injured at birth.

“We are so pleased to honor Phillis Oeters for her extraordinary efforts in advocating for health care for all Floridians and her outstanding work on behalf of the entire South Florida Community,” said Karen Dresbach, President of the National MS Society, South Florida Chapter. “She is South Florida’s very own superwoman.”

Carrie and David Schulman, principles of DBS Financial Group, will serve as the title sponsor for the event. The Schulman’s have been involved with the Gala since its inception in 1983, which has raised more than $4.5 million to help the National MS Society fund research to find the cause of MS, ways to treat MS and ultimately, a cure for the disease.

Designer Rene Ruiz will bring his annual fashion show back to the MS Gala for the eighth year. He will dazzle guests with the debut of his new collection for women and men, and will give Supermodels for a Day an opportunity to strut down the runway in a design made especially for them. Ruiz is credited for helping South Florida become an international fashion center. His Coral Gables atelier showcases ready-to-wear designs, as well as cocktail, eveningwear, bridal and custom couture.

The runway models will glitter with exquisite jewelry provided by J.R. Dunn Jewelers, the official jewelry sponsor of the MS Gala & Fashion Show.

The MS Gala & Fashion Show’s generous sponsors include Philanthropic Partners, Michele & Steve Jackman, Platinum Sponsor, Bienenfeld, Lasek & Starr, LLC and the exclusive Automobile Sponsor, South Florida Audi Dealers.

For further information on the MS Gala & Fashion Show please contact Monica Whiting at the National MS Society, South Florida Chapter at 954-731-4224; 1-800 FIGHT MS; or visit