Extraordinary Stories of Ordinary Life

Centenarians in Lockdown Transcript

Joe Richman (Host): From PRX’s Radiotopia. This is Radio Diaries. I’m Joe Richman.

Before we jump into today’s story, I want to tell you a bit about how we’re handling the coronavirus here on the show. At Radio Diaries, we have a long history of giving people recorders, and helping them document their own lives. It turns out that’s a journalistic superpower in a pandemic when it’s impossible to do an in-person interview. So we’ve been sending out a bunch of recorders and we’re launching a new series in collaboration with NPR. It’s called Hunker Down Diaries. Surprising Stories From People Thrown Together by The Pandemic. On today’s show, Centenarians in Lockdown. 

Joe Richman (In Scene): Can you hear me? 

Joe Newman: Yes. 

Joe Richman (In Scene): Okay, so you know what question I have to ask is, uh, what’s your date of birth? 

Joe Newman: I was afraid you were gonna do that. Uh, I was born on January 13th, 1913. Uh, it’s, you know, it’s fun to watch people say, what’s your date of birth?

And see if they can figure out how old you are. And then after a few seconds they look at you and it’s fun to see the surprise in some people’s eyes. 

Joe Richman (Host): That’s Joe Newman. If you haven’t done the math yet, he’s 107. He was five during the flu pandemic of 1918. Today. He lives in a senior apartment complex in Sarasota, Florida.

That’s where I reached him over Skype this past week. Yes, he’s a 107 year old who Skypes. He also drives, in fact, Joe Newman was probably the oldest driver in America until last month when he gave up his car. 

Joe Newman: It was a 2001 Mercedes hard-top, red convertible. It was fun right around the block and I read convertible, so for a few years it was a fun life.

Joe Richman (In Scene): What did you love about driving that car? 

Joe Newman: That’s a good question because the answer is stupid, isn’t it? It’s that you have power, you can get behind the wheel of something and start it and it’ll take you wherever you wanted to go. But uh, there comes the point where you have to accept the fact that the person my age should not be risking others people’s life.

And it’s strange, you see, for myself, I thought it was okay, keep driving. But then I look at other people driving and I say, “gee, you ought to quit.” And finally I had to get the strength to tell myself that I oughta quit. That’s it. Tough. 

Anita Sampson: You may be sad about that, Joe, but I think lots of people are glad. [laughs]

Joe Richman (Host): That’s Joe’s fiance, Anita Sampson. They met 16 years ago and now they live together. They’ve been planning a big party for Anita’s hundredth birthday this past week with cake and karaoke. But because of the coronavirus, the party was cancel. They’re in lockdown As part of our new series, Hunker Down Diaries, we sent Joe and Anita a recorder, well-sanitized, so they could interview each other on Anita’s 100th birthday.

Joe Newman: Okay, it’s on. Microphone is plugged in, the light is red. All right, now I say something. I am Joe Newman and I am with my partner Anita. Who today is 100 years old 

Anita Sampson: and we’re sitting here side by side. Well, first of all, I woke up this morning and I was glad when I saw you open your eyes and every morning we both always checked to see if we’re still breathing before we get out of bed.

Joe Newman: Yes, yes. 

Anita Sampson: But getting up this morning and seeing what’s going on in the world, It’s very sad, but we have adjusted to it and we’re really following all the rules, just the way you’re supposed to. 

Joe Newman: Yeah. We’re told to stay in the apartment and are not supposed to go round mingle with the others. 

Anita Sampson: And personally, I didn’t think anything special was going to happen on my birthday, but then all of a sudden I see oh, about 30 people on the screen. I heard the word “Zoom” and we had a party. Of course, there wasn’t anybody here, but it was so real. I, I felt like I could hug and kiss them. That’s how close they were. And now I’m all smiles and feel much happier about my birthday, even though there were a lot of bad things going on in the world.

I’ve never seen anything like this before in my entire life, but Joe, what was the first thing you remember about the 1918 flu? 

Joe Newman: Strangely, the way I remember it is I remember the neighborhood, and the house, maybe a hundred yards across the street from us, was a family we knew. And one of that family was about my age, and I remember that he died because of the flu. 

Of course, as a kid, five years old, death didn’t mean that much to me except that he was now missing. I also remember public health putting signs on the door of the family. The family with the disease was quarantined. 

Anita Sampson: I don’t remember except what my mother told me when I got older and she said there was so much death. She was in her early twenties, and she would go out into the streets and help people that were just dropping. They were just lying there on the streets, but she never got it. How would you compare what was going on then to what is happening now? 

Joe Newman: you can’t compare it because at that time, very few people had radios. Nobody had a television set. Many of them didn’t even have papers, and so the only way you got information was neighbors talking to each other. As far as this coronavirus, I take a philosophical view. It’s another event. It’s another problem. Over 107 years, I’ve faced other problems. Living is a problem.

You do what you need to do to handle the problem that’s in front of you. At this moment and this moment, it’s a virus, which unfortunately we don’t understand too much about. You know, especially the fact that it’s supposed to affect the elderly more than those younger, and well, you have to remember, I’m a little bit older than you are [Anita laughs in the background]. And being my age, uh, and it’s hard to say this, but you have days when you would almost welcome death, because you figure, well, uh, you’ve been here long enough, so be it.

What’s your reaction? 

Anita Sampson: Well, about two weeks before we were told that we had to stay in our apartments, I had gotten a cold and I was really scared that this was happening to me. Fortunately, it was just a, a mild cold. But I was getting anxious because I, I wanted to reach a hundred. All of a sudden it became very important to me, and all of a sudden I didn’t wanna die.

Joe Newman: You know, this is new to me. You’ve always indicated to me that, um, you had no fear. 

Anita Sampson: You know, the reason why I don’t want to die is because I like being around you. I like being in this relationship and I really don’t want it to stop. 

Joe Newman: Well, that’s the best thing I’ve heard in the last two hours. 

Anita Sampson: [Anita laughs]But do you love me?

Joe Newman: Do I ? Do I love you? [Joe Laughs] I think so. I think so. In, in spite of our age, spite of the fact that together we’re 207, you know, the years that we can look forward to, whatever they be, whether they be many or few, and even if they’re just days, you know, to look forward to them and then hope for another one. 

Anita Sampson: Isn’t that beautiful?

I think we’ve been reminiscing enough, and I think it’s time for our nap. 

Joe Newman: All right. [Anita laughs quietly as simple jazz piano comes in]

Joe Richman (Host): Joe Newman and Anita Sampson. They interviewed each other in their apartment at the Aviva Senior Living Community in Sarasota, Florida. Their story is part of our new series Hunker Down Diaries, stories from People Thrown Together by the Pandemic. If you have an idea for the series, we’d love to hear from.

You can send your quarantine stories to info radio diaries.org or find us on Facebook or Twitter. In the coming weeks, we’ll bring you stories about a teenager in foster care, the daily life of hospital workers, and a couple who decided to quarantine together after their first date. Stay tuned. Today’s story was produced by Nellie Gilles and myself with help from Sarah Kate Kramer.

Our editors are Ben Shapiro and Deborah George. Radio Diaries is part of the Radiotopia Network from PRX. You can hear all the shows at radiotopia.fm and if you’d like to know how to live a long life, 107 year old Joe Newman has this advice. Keep breathing. I’m Joe Richman of Radio Diaries. Thanks for listening. 

[Radiotopia audio stinger] 

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