6 Lessons My Adventurous Grandpa Taught Me About Life

06/05/2015 08:36 am ET | Updated Jun 05, 2016


World traveler. Marathon runner. Mountain climber.

These aren't the typical words used to describe one's grandfather. But they provide an accurate description of mine.

Essentially, my grandfather makes me feel lazy (another seldom spoken sentiment). While I spend my time thinking of all the amazing adventures and experiences I want to pursue before I die, he is out living them.

How is it possible that a man in his early 80s could make a 20-something feel so boring?

A former journalist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, my grandfather interviewed high profile figures such as Mother Theresa and conversed with numerous political leaders, including Edward Kennedy (who he initially met at a political event in the early '60s where they bonded over matching suit jackets; decades later, their paths crossed again and Kennedy was quick to remember him). He has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Everest, competed in a dozen triathlons, half a dozen marathons and traveled to more than 135 countries (he stopped counting after he visited his 135th). Incredibly, many of these accomplishments took place after his 50th birthday.


My grandfather's pursuit of adventure and quest for a sense of wonderment are fueled by his fearless spirit, child-like curiosity, and inherent fascination of the world around him and the people in it. Anyone who has a conversation with him (which will inevitably happen should they ever share an elevator with him) is quick to forget they are talking to a man of his chronological age, not because he is in better physical shape than most, but because of his youthful persona.

His life experiences and adventures have made him into an inspiring grandfather with plenty of wisdom to share, even if he is quick to disagree. Every time we have a conversation I end up learning something new about his life, which ultimately shifts my perception of my own.

So in an effort to, once again, shift my perspective, gain a little wisdom and frankly, as an excuse to hear about a past I knew little of, I asked the former journalist if he was willing to be on the other side of the interview and answer questions I'd always wondered the answers to. Far from disappointing, his answers offered up a mix bag of entertaining, thought provoking and at times, surprising information. The lessons I walked away with, all of which are imperative to leading a fulfilling life, are simply too good to keep to myself.

1.) Always be curious
Whether it's through travel, the newspaper, or formal education, my grandfather has always sought knowledge. With a bachelor's degree in psychology, a three-year graduate degree in theology, a master's degree in journalism from Boston University and a two-year study of theology at Harvard University, he has plenty of diplomas to hang on his walls. His curiosity is further made evident by the numerous hours he spends per day reading newspapers cover to cover, listening to news on the radio and watching the nightly news. "There is just so much to learn," he says, "especially today."

But his curiosity doesn't end at textbooks and newspapers. He is curious about the lives of every person he encounters, whether it's the maintenance worker in his apartment building or random strangers he meets while traveling. Every person has a story and it is simply in his nature to inquire about it.

It can be challenging for the rest of us to remember the importance of remaining curious amidst busy work schedules and incessant social commitments. We hustle through the day, hunkered down by seemingly endless to do lists, leaving little time to take notice of our surroundings, let alone engage in them. But to him, staying curious is the "difference between being alive and being dead."

2.) Fear is useless
Years ago, while traveling through Canada, my grandfather stopped to take a short hike. A few steps in, he found himself within feet of a bear and her cubs. She assisted her cubs up a nearby tree as she stared my grandfather down, likely contemplating whether or not to go after him. Luckily, he was able to make it back to his Jeep before she made her decision. I imagine if I had a close call with a bear it would instill within me enough fear to reconsider future encounters amongst killer wildlife.

And yet, when I bring up the topic of fear, he almost seems unsure of the words' meaning. Fear appears to be a foreign concept to a man who has never allowed it to deter him. I bring up fear of failure, something most of us are familiar with. "Well, I dropped out of a few marathons and had to quit," he says nonchalantly, "I pulled a muscle, let it heal and then was on to the next race."

It isn't that he hasn't had his share of failures or disappointments; he's just never allowed either to discourage him enough to give up or give in; rather, he would simply move "on to the next race."


3.) It's never too late to get healthy
It wasn't until my grandfather experienced some health problems at age 50 that he decided it was time to develop healthier habits. With his health temporarily threatened, he realized he wanted to live as long as possible: "I enjoyed life so much so I learned to exercise and eat better."

One day, while walking his dog he came across a high school track. Having not run since high school, he decided to tie up the dog and run around the track a single time. Noting how good he felt afterward, the next night he and the dog walked back to the track and he ran around twice. The third night, he ran around three times. And the rest is history. "I was hooked, I loved it," he says. Multiple marathons, triathlons and half Ironman's later, you can still find him running up and down the hallways and staircases of his apartment building.

For a lot of us, living a healthier lifestyle can feel like a chore- one more thing to add to that ever-growing to-do list. But finding an activity you genuinely enjoy doing that also improves your overall health can be a good start. Whether you're 15 or 50, you are always at an age when developing healthier habits is possible.

4.) Put the cell phone down already!
My grandfather owns a cell phone for the sole purpose of being able to call for help should something happen while he is traveling alone. That is it. He is unaware of the phone's number and sees no reason to learn it. He doesn't email or surf the Web. I always attributed his distaste for technology to growing up in an age when none of it existed and while that may be true, his reasoning turned out to be more meaningful than I expected. "We've lost the ability to communicate with one another and yet, on the other hand," he says, "we are now overcommunicating." He speaks of going on hikes in the woods and passing people chatting away on their cell phones. "I'll think to myself why are you here? You're not looking at the trees or listening to the birds. You're just missing it."

Because he lives in the moment, he fails to see the need for a device that's purpose is to pull him out of it.


5.) Give of yourself for the sole purpose of improving the life of another, not for personal gratification
Every year, for the past 15 years, my grandfather and his wife, Ann, travel to El Salvador to volunteer for an organization that provides eye exams and eyeglasses to men, women and children without access to such services. For three weeks at a time, they endure scorching temperatures and less than ideal living conditions but by the trip's end, they have helped thousands of locals. When they were told of a young boy in Honduras who had to drop out of school because his family was unable to afford it, they offered to pay his tuition and will continue to do so until he graduates.

When I ask what he gains personally from these selfless acts of kindness, I expect answers like, It makes me feel really good or I feel like I'm making a difference but instead, with a deep sadness in his voice, he responds, "It makes me wish I was rich like Donald Trump... so that I could do more."

In a society that is becoming increasingly self-centered and self-serving it is rare to find acts of kindness motivated by anything other than personal gain and recognition. My grandfather gives with the understanding that it will never be enough -- there will always be a mouth to feed or a child's school tuition to be paid; but for him, that is motivation enough.


6.) Adventure is possible at any age
Seventeen days after my grandfather officially retired, at age 64, he embarked on a 40-day road trip through Alaska. He traveled alone with absolutely no agenda. "I didn't know one day from the next where I was going to go or where I was going to eat," he says, "I drove and I hiked and I talked with people... I wasn't in a hurry." At night he would park his Jeep in a secluded area and sleep in the back seat.

My grandfather is living proof that the limitations and restrictions that stand between us and our dreams, goals and aspirations are self-made. Age doesn't get in our way, we do. Perhaps we use age and circumstance as a way to conceal the real reason we aren't gong after what we truly want: fear.

"Almost anyone can do the things I've done ... There are a lot of places I still want to visit," he says, showing no signs of slowing down. He is currently preparing for his next adventure- an 8 day tour of the wilderness of Baffin Island, the largest island in Canada. With an itinerary that includes feeding narwhals, searching for polar bears, kayaking, hiking, and travel by snowmobile and sled, I can't think of any other person in their 80s (or of any age for that matter) who can attest to such an adventure. But I have a grandfather who can and that makes me immensely proud.

A few hours after our interview, my grandfather and I went out to dinner where, true to form, he struck up conversation with our waitress. After a few minutes of chatting, she turned to me with wide eyes and an astonished look and said, "You have such a cool grandfather," reaffirming what I've known since I was a kid.



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