December 15, 2018

Don’t you want to live to be a hundred?

By John Guy LaPlante

Morro Bay, CA –Well, don’t we all? But know what? We might be better off if we don’t.

As we know, we’re living longer, at least in the more advanced countries. Better food, better sanitation, better drinking

Centenarian Victor Duerksen, a “victor” in the very best sense. 

water, better working conditions, better medications and medical care, and better all-around everything.

One thing which would improve our chances would be fewer wars, and fewer people having to bear arms.

Right now the latest census tells us two percent of us will live to be one hundred. Women stand a better chance than we men.

For many of us, becoming centenarians may be bad news. The prospects can be grim.

We can get there but be unaware because of Alzheimer’s.  We may be incapacitated – to use the definition of gerontologists, unable to manage “the activities of daily living.” Meaning unable to walk, dress up, use the john, bathe, feed ourselves, cut our toenails, on and on. May be institutionalized, in assisted living, or in long-term care, or a nursing home, or even in hospice.

If once married, we’ll most surely be a widow or widower. Will probably have lost loved ones along the way, siblings perhaps, even children and grandchildren. May be very poor, especially if a woman. May be so unhappy with our lot that we’d welcome saying a final goodbye.

Well, I have met the Great Exception! Peter Duerksen, a pastor in the Seventh Day Adventist Church. That’s what I call him. Yes, the Great Exception. Because he’s on his way to a hundred and one (!)  and has missed not all of these terrible realities. – that would  be just about impossible – but most

Well, I’ll tell you about Pastor Duerksen. And then you can judge for yourself whether he deserves my calling him the Great Exception.

But first, how did I meet him?  It was a strange start.  I have a friend –Dick – who’s aware I’m a vegetarian. And knows I’m always on the lookout for interesting people and things to write up.

“John, my friend.” he said one day, “Why don’t you come with me to the Seventh Day Adventist Church Saturday. Interesting service. Nice people. Always a big buffet afterward. It’s 100 percent vegetarian!”

“Sounds good, Dick. Never been to a service in that denomination.  But you mean Sunday, don’t you?”

“No. It is Saturday. At 10:30.”

Well, it turns out the Adventists – that’s what they call themselves – are a bona fide Christian denomination. But they  observe the Sabbath, which is the seventh day of the week, which is what is ordained in the Bible.

And not on Sunday, which of course is the first day of the week, per our modern calendar. Which is when all other Christian denominations hold their weekly services, methinks.

And – this is interesting – they call themselves the Adventists because Christ proclaimed He would come back one day, and they pray for and live in anticipation of this great advent.

So I said “Sure, Dick. Count me in!”

He was totally right. I’m not much of a church-goer these days. But I did enjoy the service. Lots of hymns, with everybody, everybody joining in, meaning me, too. Members calling themselves Brothers and Sisters. And I got the feeling they meant it.

I did notice most of them were on the mature side though.

And a positive and uplifting talk. Not just a five-minute quickie. More like twenty-five minutes.

And yes sir, afterward that bountiful and wonderful vegetarian dinner. Potluck, with everybody bringing this or that, and most of it home-made. And very good vegetarian it was, with some dishes new to me. I had seconds of a couple of things, which is rare for me.

And Dick was there, and he fit right in, and was terrific in introducing me around.

I think some thought I might become an Adventist, and hoped that. Understandable. But not my intent.

Men and women in their Sunday best — retirees, now happily so. A Hispanic couple in their 50’s. One black lady, about that age also.  Two elderly ladies, widows undoubtedly. One guy, elderly, thin, in what seemed a shawl, with a long pony tail and equally long beard. Very friendly.One fellow, maybe two, who looked homeless. And oh, a well-dressed couple with two teen-agers. Another with a three-year-old.

In chatting, a lady in her 40’s told me she attends every Saturday, and on Sundays attends the Christian Church – that’s what it’s called – just down the street. Said she’s a Christian, the two churches are Christian, and she enjoys them both, so why not?

I met the gentleman who had preached. The lady who played the organ. The fellow who passed the donation basket. For all of them, being friendly seemed to be a way of life.

So I enjoyed the mix. And to me it said something very nice about Adventists. I wish all Americans could be like that, but it ain’t so.

At table, I was sitting next to an old man. Very old man. Seemed a nice fellow.

“Sir,” I ventured. “This is my first time here. I’m in my ninetieth year. You look a bit younger. (What a fibber I can be.)  May I ask you how old you are?”

“Why, of course. Thank you, but I’m older than you. I’ll turn 100 in three weeks. What is your name?”

I told him. I marveled — he was one hundred. And still functioning!  It was the first time I meet a man that old in such good shape.

His name was Victor Duerksen. And that’s how we became friends. I do think we are friends.

He told me he is a pastor in the church. And what a remarkable career he has had! But right now as I tell you about all that, I want you to notice the reasons I call him the Great Exception. Okay?

He walked with a walker, sure, but he didn’t need help. He was well dressed. He had all his marbles. He chatted with people. He had a good appetite. He needed no special attention. And he was having a good time.

I said to him he looked quite hale and he said, “Yes, I’m fine. Quite fine.

“But I had to give up my driver’s license 14 months ago. I was still driving, no problem. But my doctor refused to sign a letter saying I was in good shape. Told me not to take it personally. Said he’d refuse to give any old man or woman a letter like that. You know, 95 or over. Well, I accepted that.

“Folks give me a ride when I need one. Like today. And I live in San Luis Obispo!” (That’s our big city 15 miles south.)

Not sure how it came up, but he said in World War II when young men were being drafted, he reported for duty. But as an Adventist, he refused to bear arms. “So they made me a medical corpsman. Went overseas. And that’s what I did.”

Later, looking over the church bulleting more closely, I saw him listed on it as Pastor Victor Duerksen. Yes, at age 100. It was obvious his career was far from over.

He mentioned he’d be the preacher in three weeks, on the occasion of his 100th birthday. I jotted that down on my calendar.

I drove home thinking of him. I liked him. Was pleased to have met him.

And three Saturdays later went back for his big birthday. I arrived a few minutes late. He was sitting up by the altar. But had a strange hat on. Looked like a baseball cap, but with the visor cut off. I hadn’t seen that the last time. Looked odd.

The service was conducted by Elder Art Bonilla, according to the program in my hand. He was spirited. Lively. Hymns, several again, everybody standing and joining in. Then the moment for the sermon. I thought Elder Bonilla would  preach.

No. Pastor Duerksen walked to the pulpit. Using his walker, haltingly but steadily.  A small man, but fit. Determined. Then, standing at the pulpit, before saying a word, he scanned all of us, left to right, smiling and making eye contact with us.  It was obvious he was practiced at this.

“Good morning!” he said cheerily. But quickly touching his strange hat with his right hand, he asked, “Do you like it?” Not waiting for an answer,  “Well, I have skin cancer up there  now. Have to use medicine up there, don’t you know, and have to keep it bandaged. But it’s going to be okay.  Anyway that’s what they tell me. Hope you like my hat” And he smiled again.

And launched into his sermon. I checked the program. Could find no title for it. But what he did was talk about passions. Faults. Deficiencies. All human. How they can afflict us. Anger.  Jealousy. Prejudice.  Dishonesty. Laziness. Betrayal. On and on. Defining each. Giving examples. And giving practical advice.  A good talk, not only for Adventists. For anybody. For me.

And this turned out to be his 100th birthday celebration! He didn’t say a word about that. At the festive meal, we all sang “Happy Birthday!” And he was presented with candles, not 100, no room for that many, and he blew them all out. Lots of applause. Lots of good wishes.  Lots of good vibes.

I got to chat with him, just as I had hoped. “Pastor Victor,” I said, “From everything I’ve heard, you deserve your first name, Victor. You really are a victor!” And I went on a bit.

Then  said, “As for me, well, I’m a writer, yes, still a writer even in my old age. These days I like writing about people  and things that interest me. Like you, sir. I’d love to get together and chat with you.”

He looked at me sharply. “Sure. But not sure why you’d want to write about me.. There’s nothing that special about me. But I like having visitors. Come by any time.”

Gave me his address and phone number. I went a week later, calling first. “I’ll be here,” he said. “But take your time.”

A mobile home, a double-wide, attractive, in a well-maintained mobile home park. I parked. Wasn’t sure I had the right mobile home. A young woman came out. She had been on the look-out, escorted me. Many potted plants on the veranda. Very neat inside.

Pastor Victor was in a lounge chair, his legs straight out. Fully dressed. A cute small dog on his lap. He was gently stroking it. No bandage on his head. I was pleased to see that.

He said, “Pull up a chair. That one,” pointing to an upholstered chair.

Brenda, that was her name, was puttering in the open kitchen a few steps away. About 50, efficient and pleasant. She was his daily caretaker. Later she told me another lady came in at other hours, slept in, so he had coverage 24 / 7.

We talked, he and I, for more than an hour.  He spoke without hesitation, though twice mentioned he didn’t understand this fuss of mine.

He was a Californian by birth, raised in the Seventh Day Adventist faith. He had graduated from the University of Colorado in Boulder. Was interested in helping people.  He became a registered nurse.  Liked being an Adventist so much he studied for the ministry. In his early 20’s he was ordained, authorized to baptize and marry and so on.

And he set out on what he called a double vocation. To spread the word about Jesus.  And to heal people spiritually and medically. He spent his whole career doing that. Always as an active pastor, and all while serving as manger of a number of hospitals, all Adventist, all over the world. Often for years at a single assignment.

In Palestine, Egypt, Puerto Rico, Mexico twice, China, Thailand, Santa Domingo, Japan, I believe. Sometimes working at more than one hospital in some of those countries.

“It was very, very good,” he said. “Exactly what I wanted.  Never tired of it.”

He married June. They had two sons. They were married 25 years. One of his sons died. He married Eileen, a widow. She had one son and two daughters. They were married 42 years. She died not long ago. Her two daughters – “my gals” – live in San Luis Obispo. That’s why he and Eileen settled there.

On all these assignments he took his family along.

He made no fuss about what he did on those assignments. But I could imagine all the challenges. Dealing with the climate differences. Learning the language. Attempting to understand the culture.  Adjusting to the new standards of living. Making his way around the new city.  Meeting community leaders.

And always doing his best to make his family comfortable and content about all this.

And at the hospital, being the C.E.O. Maintaining high standards for the best of care, budgeting, hiring, fund-raising, expanding the hospital’s reach. And of course, by setting an example and preaching, spreading the word about Jesus and The Seventh Day Adventists.

For years at a time. Then being assigned to a hospital in another country and doing it all again.

Of course, finally I asked how he felt about getting so old now.

He threw up his hands again. And shrugged. And thought a minute. “You know,” he said finally, “I’m not really interested in more years. This is my life now, sitting in my chair here.” He patted the puppy on his lap. “I’m ready. I’ve had a good life. The kind of life I hoped to have. Doing the work I wanted to do.”

I was doing my best to remember  everything he was telling me. I made no effort to take notes. I felt doing that would have spoiled our chat. Finally I asked  to take a picture or two. He shrugged, throwing up his arms again. In a sort of bafflement, but said okay.

I took a couple of pictures with my smart phone. I showed them to him. He nodded. I felt he was pleased. The one up top was the better one.

I got up to leave. He was getting tired. We shook hands. He gave me a nice smile. Remained in his lounge chair. I understood. “Come back anytime. I like company. Yes, do come back. I’ll be here.” Smiled again.

Brenda walked me out to my car. Very kind of her.

“Pastor Duerksen is a very, very good man,” she told me.

I nodded. I knew that.

~ ~ ~ ~

Later I boned up about the Adventists. The church was started in New England about 160 years ago. So quite recently. It is now an acknowledged Christian denomination … believing of course in the divinity of Jesus Christ. But yes, unique in observing the Sabbath. It now has a membership of 20 million, in countries all around the world. That amazed me.

I believe some other Christian denominations would be delighted to say the same.

What also amazed me is how many hospitals it operates. Even medical schools. Here and abroad, in country after country, and still spreading. This was all new to me. Perhaps to you, too.

Oh, being a vegetarian is not a core requirement. But Adventists gravitate to it as a humane (you know, not killing animals to eat them), healthy, and economical lifestyle. The very same reasons I’m a vegetarian.

If you want to see more fascinating stuff about them, just go to Wikipedia.com.

I was so grateful to my friend Mike for inviting me.  He had said, “Nice people. Nice service. And a nice big pot luck dinner afterward. Vegetarian!”

He was totally right.

The big surprise was meeting a centenarian gentleman who had lived his life exemplifying what an Adventist should be and could accomplish. My opinion. And who felt a hundred years is quite enough.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

 

 

 

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