Your Later Years: Death Takes Two American Icons

Published in All Pawtucket All the Time on June 27, 2008

In recent weeks, office conversations shifted from the Celtic’s win, the Boston Red Sox games, and Democratic candidate Obama’s run for presidency to focus on the untimely deaths of two  national  icons in the entertainment and broadcast industry.  Baby boomers were shocked when a sudden heart attack, on June 13th, took the life of 58 year-old Tim Russert.  They were even more dismayed when George Carlin, the comedic voice of their generation, died 9 days later.

“Did you take your daily aspirin? Or “how high is your  cholesterol?” or “blood pressure?” were questions swiring around the water cooler.  Many of the Pepsi generation figured that if a youthful-looking broadcast journalist, Russert or and older Carlin,” America’s Funny Man” suddently died of heart disease it might halppen to them, too.

Making Their Marks in the World

Russert, a resident of Northwest Washington, was one of the nation’s most visible baby boomers, serving for almost 17 years as Managing Editor and Moderator of the highly acclaimed “Meet the Press” and political anayyst for “NBC Nightly News.”

In his early politicl creer as a lawyer, russert worked as a special council to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, and as a conunsel to Gov. Mario M. Como of New York.

A lifelong Buffalo Bills Football fan, Russert, a practicing Catholic, wrote an autobiography Big Russ and Me in 2004, a book about growing up in South Buffalo and the importance of his hardworking father, a World War II veteran who worked two jobs after the war to support his family. Russert’s father taught him the significance of family values and never to take the short cut to accomplish a goal. A book, Wisdom of Our Fathers: Lessons and Letters from Daughters and Sons, published one year later would incorporate letters received from his fans in response to his first book about their own experiences with their fathers.

Russert also received 48 honorary doctorates and racked up scores of awards for his journalistic reporting.

On June 22nd, an irrervent standup comedian, George Carlin, 71, whose cutting social commentary and assute summation of life, who oftentimes stretched both the boundaries of free speech died of heart failure in Santa Monica, California.

Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” comedy routine was key to a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court case, F.C.C. v Pacifica Foundation, in which a narrow majority ruled the government has a right to regulate “indecent” material on the public airways.

During his long life, the very hip Carlin was recognized for his cutting edge comedy by receiving two America Comedy Awards, the Funniest Male Performer in a TV Special (1997 and 1998) and the Lifetime Achievement Award in Comedy (2001).

Carline was the first host of Saturday Night Live. He made countless television appearances during his career.  As a prolific writer, Carlin wrote five books and produced 23 comedy records, winning four Grammy Awards. Throughout his career wit/word play, political satire and black comedy would be woven into his monologues performed in major nightclubs and theaters in New York and Los Vegs. He also starred in 14 HBO comedy specials.  Recently he received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor and was to receive the award at the Kennedy Center in November 2008.

Touching Lives

Lars Platt, 51, of Platt Realty Group, and  his wife Carrie, a television producer, were shocked with the sudden passing of Russert. “He was so close to our age,” Platt says, noting that his wife had worked with him, too.

Platt said that the unanticipated death of “an icon in the news reporting and broadcast industry,” made the Providence couple think of their mortality and “how important it is to be present in everday life.”

Carlin’s passing also put “a chink in my armor, too,” says Platt. “His humor was part of the fabric of my life growing up.”

Forty-year old Matt Thomas, Manager of Doherty’s East Avenue Café, remembers secretly listening to Carlin’s routine ion a transistor radio in six grade.  Thomas, laughing so hard because of the humor caught the attention of his parents who promptly confiscated his radio, sending him immediately to bed.  Fast forward to his early adult years, Thomas would subscribe to HBO Cable when Carlin’s Specials were scheduled ultimately canceling his cable contract after watching it.

Thomas, who considers himself Carlin’s biggest fan in Pawtucket, attended the comedian’s last theater performance last week in Las Vegas. “It was tremendous,” he said, joking how his sides hurt when he walked out after the show. “He had a lot of fun on the state and even put in a few new bits into his routine.”

As to his impact on society Thomas will always remember Carlin as someone who “shed the light into dark corners that people did not want to look at.”

“If you talked to any comic, they worshiped the ground he walked on,” Thomas said. “He really opened up a lot of doors for others to come through.”  Carlin took the comedic torch when Lenny Bruce died , Thomas says. “We’ll just have to see who will pick that torch up now.”

With their premature deaths, bereaved colleagues, friends, and family members went on the nation’s airways to publicity tout Russert and Carlin’s personal and professional accomplishments. Statements after they died were posted on hundreds of websites and printed in tens of thousands of articles. It is my hope that America’s Journalist and Comedian heard these praises when they were alive.


Your Later Years: A Commencement Speech for the Graduates of 2008

Published in All Pawtucket All the Tie on June 13, 2008

College graduates, you live in interesting times.  Gas prices are spiraling out of control, now heading past $ 4.00 per gallon.  Like a growing number of Americans, Ed McMahon, who appeared for decades as Johnny Carson’s sidekick on NBC’s Tonight Show, is today fighting to avoid bank foreclosure on his multimillion dollar house in Beverly Hills. Rhode Island’s economy is now in a recession and state-wide unemployment is up. The nation is still at war in Iraq. What sage advice can be given to you as graduates for a more hopeful and promising future?

This month, throughout the state’s Colleges and Universities the Class of 2008 sit and listen to commencement speeches, given by well-know lawmakers, judges, television personalities and CEOs, about how they can personally overcome current  economic and policy challenges that our nation faces.  These graduates are also given tips that might assist them in having a rewarding personal and professional life.

Some advice for 2008 Graduates

Here I sit with a written commencement speech but no place to go.  But in a heart beat if I was to give you my thoughts to the class of 2008, I would urge them to age gracefully and not fight against it.  Aging baby boomers, the dwindling members of the Pepsi Generation, still grasp onto their youth, fearing the onset of wrinkles, sagging stomachs, and gray hair.  As you move into middle age and beyond, learn to see life as a journal, do not dwell on the final destination.

Years ago my late father gave me “Life’s Little Instruction Book.” At that time, this book was listed as a bestseller by The New York Times, and gave readers 511 suggestions, observations and reminders on how to live a rewarding later years. I give you my version of this book, which I can hopefully provide you simple tips and a road map throughout your later stag es as to how one might age gracefully.

In facing life’s challenges, focus on the positive.   You make dily choices as to how you will tackle and re act to life’s problems. Remember you can see the proverbial glass as “half-full” or “half empty.”  A positive attitude becomes important to successfully age.

Forgive Yourself and Others

As we grow older, it becomes so easy to continually reflect on our successes and focus more on the bad hands we are dealt throughout our lives.  Each and every day, savor your personal and professional victories, but always forgive yourself for your defeats and failures.

Don’t live in the past, live in the present, but keep your eye on the future.  Time flies by swiftly, in the blink of an eye. A spiritual teachers once told her followers to view one’s life as a cancelled check.  Let go of those past regrets and mistakes you made in your childhood and those you will make in your middle years. Learn to forgive yourself for passing up opportunities.  There is just not enough time left to carry the burdens of past guilt or grudges.

If you can forgive yourself, it is rucial for you to forgive others, even those who hurt you personally and professionally.  You cannot live or reconcile your life peacefully if you are still holding on the grudges , anger and bitterness, all tied to past actions.

As you grow older and accumulate life experiences, don’t be afraid to share your life story with others, especially with younger people who can benefit from it.  You will have a huge reservoir of untapped wisdom gained through life’s trials.  As a parent and later a grandparent, share your insights and lessons you have learned throughout the cyclical ups and downs of your life.  The generations following you will be at a loss if you choose to be silent and keep your knowledge from them.

Use it or lose it.  “Stay as physically active as you can,” URI Gerontologist Phil Clark once told me.  He said,” if you rest, you rust.”  Physical exercise elevates our modd and benefits your cardiovascular system.

Aging research also tells us that you must also exercise your brain.  Make time to read your newspapers, magazines, and books. Spend some time working on a challenging crossword pussle, or play chess.

See the bigger picture of life. Engage in daily acts of loving kindness to others.  Research tells us that volunteer work can be a protective buffer from the curve ball that life may throw our way as we age.

Keep up you social contacts and personal connections with others.  When you require help, always ask for it.  Don’t be afraid of asking your family, friends, and colleagues for support and assistance. There wil always be opportunities for you to help and care for others, too.

Enjoy Simplicity in Your Life

Learn to slow down and enjoy the simple moments of your life.  Author Connie Goldman notes that the simple act of watching a beautiful sunrise or sunset or even puttering around your garden can be as stimulating as a jam-packed calendar of activities.

There are no sure bets in life except death, taxes and growing old.  So, Class 2008, make the most of life.  Embrace your later years and go for the gusto.  Enjoy your journey.

The Best of…Walton‘s Good Deeds Touch Many in Ocean State

Published June  6, 2008, All Pawtucket All The Time   

        Bright and sunny skies pulled many Rhode Islanders to the beaches for fun and sun last Sunday, but for over 100 of the state s political, social progressive activists and scores from the folk music scene, Pawtuxet Cove, in Warwick was the place to be to celebrate Richard Walton s 80th Birthday Bash.  

          Some of the state’s elected officials included Lt. Governor Elizabeth Roberts, Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian and Representative Grace Diaz, and Representative David Segal who came to support the well-known social activist, homeless advocate and supporter of the poor at his 20th Annual Potluck Benefit.  The event is scheduled annually to raise monies for Amos House and the Providence-Niquinohomo [Nicaragua] Sister Project.  

           Walton estimates that his gathering over the years has raised over $60,000 and this year’s event, with donations still coming in, has already raised nearly $5000.

Potluck Becomes Annual Gathering for Many

            Walton, sitting on a bench wearing his trade mark straw tropical hat and a blue checkered African poncho from Niger, Africa, reflected on the beginnings of his annual potluck fundraiser.  Walton remembers that a friend suggested that he plan a special party to celebrate his  60th birthday in 1988.  Because he did not want to accept gifts, the event would instead become a vehicle to raise money to support two worthy causes important to him. 

           Dr. Fine marks the first Sunday in June on his calendar each year to remember to attend Walton s annual potluck.  “Now it is a part of my life,” says Dr. Fine. “[Walton’s] life gives others an example of a much better way to live,” says the Scituatep hysician  

          Folk Music lovers, Rick and Barbara Wahlberg, met Walton over 20 years ago at Stone Soup Coffee House.  The Cumberland couple have been coming to the Walton s annual potluck for 12 years.   Ten years ago, Barbara says that she took Walton s cue, when she turned 40 years old.  She held a potluck to raise money for Providence-based Dorcas place, a program that promotes adult literacy.

          “Richard is a great example of a humanitarian,” says her husband, Rick, President of Stone Soup Coffee House, located at Pawtuckets St. Pauls Church.  “If we can all be just half the humanitarian he is, it will be a better world,” states Wahlberg. 

           For 20 years, Rudy Cheeks, a co-author of  Phillip and Jorge  column in the weekly Providence Phoenix, has made his pilgrimage to Walton’s backyard potluck on Grenore St.   He says that this potluck gives him an opportunity to see old friends that he sees only once a year.   “Attending this event helps to sustain the spirit of a lot of people,” Cheeks says. 

 Also Caring and Sharing

          Walton’s training at Brown University and the School of  Journalism at Columbia propelled him into a writing career.  During his early years he worked as a reporter at the Providence Journal, and the New York World Telegram and Sun. At Voice of America in Washington,DC, he would initially put in time reporting on African issue, ultimately being assigned to cover the United Nations.

          Over the years the prolific writer would even produce eleven 12 books, nine being written as critical assessments ofU.S.foreign policy. In the late 1960s, as a freelance writer Walton would make his living by writing for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Village Voice, Newsday, The [old] New Republic, Playboy, Cosmopolitan and many others.  He was also the former UN Secretary-General U Thant’s personal editor for his memoir, “The View from the United Nations.”

        His writing would give way to activism.  Walton would run for political office and was active in the Citizens Party [the predecessor to the Green Party].  He ran as the political group s vice presidential candidate in 1984 with the radical feminist Sonia Johnson.  They did not win. 

       For more than years, Walton has taught English to thousands of Rhode Island students at the University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College.

       Even though he resides in Warwick, Walton has forged strong-ties to the City of Pawtucket. As a folk music advocate, he brought the regionally acclaimed Stone Soup Coffee House and served as its president for about fifteen years.  Walton also sits on the Boards of Pawtucket-based nonprofits, including theGeorgeA.WileyCenterand Slater Mill Historic Site and serves on the Executive Committee of the Pawtucket Arts Festival. 

       In between his social activism, teaching and writing, Walton has traveled to over 50 countries, making return trips to many of them.

      As Walton mingles at this years pot luck, Rudy Cheek voices his hope that one of Rhode Island‘s most notable social advocates has another 80 years to live. “His continued activity and contribution is huge in Rhode Island,” says Cheeks.

     Herb Weiss is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues.  The article was published in the June 6, 2006 issue of All Pawtucket All The Times.  He can be reached at