This Friday, February 6, President Ronald Reagan celebrates his 70th birthday. At a time in life when many Americans are contemplating only a placid retirement, he has become the oldest man ever to embark on the world’s most strenuous job. That never became a critical issue in the presidential campaign—and some experts believe it portends a healthy coming of age in national attitudes. “In our culture we’ve made a big thing out of youth and sensuality and materialism,” observes Dr. Jonathan Lieff, 35, chief of psychiatry and geriatrics at Boston’s Lemuel Shattuck Hospital. “I think Reagan represents a return to the counsel of wise and happy elders, a return to reverence for age.”
In fact—although this country has often ignored them—people in their 70s and older have made formidable contributions throughout history. For example, Disraeli became prime minister of England in his 70th year; Tolstoy continued to write throughout his 70s; and Edison was inventing almost until his death at 84. “The stereotype is that elderly people lose their mental acuity and abilities,” says Lieff. “In fact, the successful elderly are more adaptable than young people.”
He sees in Ronald Reagan qualities typical of the world’s great late-life achievers. “President Reagan has had an interesting life,” says Lieff. “He’s done all kinds of things, he has a wide base of personal contacts. He’s well liked, and he’s open to other people. He even looks happy—joyful and spontaneous—and he has a lot of class.” If he does succeed as President—and Lieff believes that his age may be an advantage rather than a hindrance—Reagan will be following in distinguished footsteps. On these pages are a few of history’s most important figures who did important work after 70.
Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) led the moral opposition to British rule that helped win India’s independence when he was 77. Then the Mahatma united his country’s factions until his assassination at 78.
Bon Franklin (1706-1790) turned 70 the year America declared her independence—and he helped write the Declaration. He then became beseecher of foreign aid at the court of France and made friends (especially female ones) all over the Continent. At 79, Ben wound up as Pennsylvania’s chief executive.
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) composed Otello, the opera that won him his greatest public acclaim, at 72. At 77, he began Falstaff, his first comic opera in a half century—and that great rarity, a popular and critical success.
Winston Churchill (1874-1965) delivered his “Iron Curtain” warning as an ex-prime minister of 71—the year he became an honorary admiral (above). He was PM again at 76 and won the Nobel Prize for Literature two years later.
Jomo Kenyatta (c.1894-1978), who became Kenya’s first president at 70 (here he campaigns for re-election at 80), was arguably the most influential black leader in Africa. Under his leadership for 14 years Kenya became stable and prosperous.
Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) started healing the sick in Gabon at 38 and continued until 90. But his campaign for world peace that won him the Nobel Prize at 77 was waged in his last two decades.
Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957) never published a book until she was 65, and she wrote many of her best children’s stories after 70. The series of nine books she wrote before the age of 90 became classics and inspired Ronald Reagan’s favorite TV show—Little House on the Prairie.
Golda Meir (1898-1978) at 70 became the West’s most powerful female leader—and Israel’s prime minister. “The Arabs wish us dead,” she proclaimed. “We want to live. That’s very hard to compromise.” During her five tumultuous years in office (including this 1970 visit to the Suez lines), she didn’t.
St. Augustine (354-430) continued to develop his theological doctrines after 72, expanding his teachings on grace, free will and original sin which influence Catholic and Protestant thought to this day.
Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) created his still legendary home, Taliesin West in Arizona, and the Price Tower in Oklahoma (shown here in model), in his 70s and 80s. He wound New York’s spiraling Guggenheim Museum just before his death at 91—and taught almost to his dying day.
Sophocles (c.496-406 B.C.) was truly an ancient. At 70 or so he wrote Oedipus Rex, the model tragedy, and 20 years later, Electra.
Cecil B. De Milled (1881-1959) made his splashy “spectacular”—The Greatest Show on Earth—at 70. It won the Oscar for Best Picture. As a topper, he made The Ten Commandments at 75 (above), commanding 25,000 extras in one scene alone. It was his biggest smash.
Anna Mary Moses (1860-1961) decided at 76 that she was too old for yarn work. She took up painting, and eventually her more than 1,000 “naive” pictures—many now in major museums—made her world-famous as art’s “Grandma.”
Martha Graham (b. 1894), called “a national treasure” by President Ford, choreographed major works well after 70. “I don’t want adulation,” insists Graham, 86. “I want action.”
Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564)—with his most famous Pietà and the Sistine Chapel behind him—created, at 70, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, perhaps the greatest religious edifice of all time.
Konrad Adenauer (1876-1967) became chancellor of West Germany at 73—and served 14 years. He led the “Economic Miracle” and restored his nation’s name.
Johann von Goethe (1749-1832) spent his years between 76 and 82 completing his masterpiece Faust. It is widely recognized as the greatest dramatic poem ever written.
Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964) was named commander of U.N. forces in Korea at 70 and led the U.S. landing at Inchon (above). He pursued his fight until President Truman sacked him. After assuring Congress “old soldiers never die; they just fade away,” he became a successful business executive.