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104 and Counting The Miraculous Life of Erling Horn

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday August 13, 2009 - 10:58:00 AM
Erling Horn, 104, pictured here at his Berkeley Town House apartment following a birthday celebration, recalls his long and eventful life.
Riya Bhattacharjee
Erling Horn, 104, pictured here at his Berkeley Town House apartment following a birthday celebration, recalls his long and eventful life.
Erling Horn with his children Maggie, Erling, Jr. and Arthur in El Paso, Texas, 1944.
Erling Horn with his children Maggie, Erling, Jr. and Arthur in El Paso, Texas, 1944.

Erling Horn knows that you can’t keep a good man down, but as for the world of his childhood, that’s a different story. Horn’s past may be buried, but it’s not forgotten. 

Berkeley’s oldest man was born in Seattle’s Westlake neighborhood on July 17, 1905, at a time when the city was resurrecting itself from the ashes of the Great Fire of 1889. 

Now, more than a century later, Horn still remembers his mother’s tiny apartment on East Eighth Avenue, a modest dwelling that was reduced to a basement when the downtown was regraded and the street level raised, burying houses, saloons, restaurants and shops 10 feet or more underground. 

Today, thousands of tourists merrily traipse through this subterranean city each year on Seattle’s popular Underground Tour. 

Horn recalled his long and eventful life at a recent interview in his airy, sixth-floor apartment at the Berkeley Town House senior co-op on Dana Street. Confetti blanketed the room as a cheery reminder of his 104th birthday celebration, attended by family, neighbors, former colleagues and lifelong friends—some coming from as far as Thunder Bay, Canada. 

Orphaned at birth, Horn never knew his father and has very little recollection of his mother Helga, who died from tuberculosis. He was raised by his Norwegian immigrant grandmother and four uncles.  

After Horn’s grandfather disappeared in New York harbor, possibly while on a fishing expedition, his grandmother, Andrine Horntvedt, left Norway for the New World, landing in Seattle. Two of her sons followed, jumping overboard from a Canadian fishing ship and swimming ashore. 

“You gotta remember, the year was 1903—there was no sense of getting citizenship or anything like that,” said Horn, twisting his face into a thoughtful grimace. “They simply swam ashore.” 

The sons found work and a new name at Hammond Milling, where the foreman decided that this “‘tvedt’ business” was simply too long.  

“What determined the name for our family was this foreman, you see, and that's how we all became Horns,” said Horn with a smile.  

Horn’s grandmother, “the boss of the family,” retained the customs of her native land.  

“She spoke only Norwegian, and we were never allowed to use a word of English at home,” he said.  

But outside, Seattle was changing drastically. An influx of immigrants and an ensuing building boom saw wooden structures give way to concrete and stone, houses give way to apartments. And the streets were gradually becoming populated with “horseless carriages.” 

Horn learned to drive Ford’s Model T, the first car to run on a fuel-powered combustion engine, shortly after graduating from Lincoln High. The automobile, Horn said, ranks as his favorite invention of the 20th century. (The flush toilet, he joked, comes a close second. “Everything disappeared, you see. With the old system you could see until you moved the hole.”) 

Though his lifespan encompassed the birth of telecommunication and mass communication—from the rise of the movies, to the invention of the telephone, radio and television—Horn remains indifferent to the Internet. His apartment gets WiFi, but he has never used a computer or sent e-mail. 

“The Internet, what is that now?” he asked with a puzzled expression. When his daughter Maggie, visiting from Canada, gave him a quick introduction, he responded with an expression of amazement. “I’ll be darned,” he said. 

He steers clear of television news, preferring to watch old Alec Guinness films or reruns of Keeping Up Appearances, the BBC sitcom featuring Patricia Routledge as Hyacinth Bucket. 

Horn said that as a young man, he never thought he would live to see the year 2000. 

“I never worried about that, I just worried about life, like all kids these days,” he said. “I was just lucky to go to public school. I just wanted to grow up, I guess, and be healthy.” 

Horn attended the University of Washington to study electrical engineering. Like a lot of young men at that time, Horn paid his way through college with help from the Reserve Officer Training Corps, and two years after graduating, during the height of the Depression, Horn went back to get a masters degree. 

  “I couldn’t get a job so I went to school,” he said. 

In 1935, Horn married Margaret, a young Norwegian girl he knew from high school and from the Norwegian Lutheran Church, and the two of them took off in his trusty Durant for Oakland, Calif. 

“He said to her, ‘When are we going to take our clothes to the laundry in the same bag?’” Horn’s daughter Maggie said. 

“She insisted, you see,” Horn replied when asked why he married Margaret. “Oh gosh, we had been raised together.” 

Horn soon got a job with the City of Oakland, first as rear chainman in the street survey group, and later—after serving as a captain in the Coast Guard in World War II, stationed at the Marin Headlands—as a traffic engineer. 

“It’s remarkable, but the only job a masters degree in electrical engineering could get you those days was on the survey crew holding the chain,” said Erling Jr., Horn’s oldest son, a former mayor of Lafayette in Contra Costa County.  

At the mention of Oakland, Horn’s face lit up. He was eager to discuss his career there, where he designed and installed the city’s first parking meters, traffic signs and freeway interfaces. 

  “I went around and established the doggone stop signs,” he said, sitting up straight. “I am the guy that located where the city’s parking meters went.” 

At that time, local merchants were urging the Oakland City Council to set up traffic signals and parking meters to improve business. Horn’s job was to pick the most logical place to locate them. 

“The public complained,” Horn said, “but the businessmen ruled. The parking meter itself was brand new. There was no history to fall back on, no parking meters in surrounding cities. Oakland was kind of in the lead in the East Bay.” 

The first meters were installed in 1937. Drivers were charged a penny for 30 minutes of parking—a far cry from the 50-cent increase the city is proposing over the current $1.50-per-hour meter rates.  

Horn still takes an active interest in Oakland’s city planning, scanning the Tribune’s pages for news every morning. 

When asked whether he received any parking tickets in Oakland during his tenure as traffic engineer, he laughed and said “Yes, and I paid every single one of them.” 

The Horns settled in the Montclair District and went on to have four children—Erling Jr., Maggie, Arthur and the youngest, John, who died in 1990. 

After retiring from the City of Oakland in 1961, Horn and his wife set off on a world tour, visiting several continents. 

“We never did go to South America, the wife and I,” Horn said. “That’s the one thing I didn’t do in my life that I wish I had done.” 

After his wife passed away in 2000 at 91, Erling, Jr. said his father often wondered why he had lived for so long. He had survived the tuberculosis that killed his mother, lived through the Great Depression, served in World War II—even survived a cancer scare.  

“Gosh! That’s right, I ain’t supposed to live this long,” Horn said, perking up at the sound of his son’s voice. “I am just a lucky guy, I suppose. ... What annoys me the most is when people ask me ‘How come you are still alive?’ I tell them I don’t know, because I ain’t supposed to be still alive. Of course, what they don’t know is I am ready to drop off at any moment, I don’t have any control over that.”  

“My father is the kind of person America likes to extoll the virtues of,” said Maggie, looking at her dad. “His life is nothing short of a miracle.” 

In 1942, about the same time Horn was serving in the Coast Guard, his name was put in a hat along with two other captains for an assignment to the Philippines. The two other men’s names were drawn and they eventually died in the infamous 66-mile Bataan Death March. 

“If he were there, he would not be here today, and I would not have two younger brothers,” said Erling, Jr. “So it was the luck of the draw that saved him from marching the Bataan.” 

Fiercely independent, Horn was forced to restrict his movements earlier this year because of a weak heart. 

“If I am going to walk anywhere I have got to use this,” he said, getting up from a bright blue armchair to grab his brand new walker. “I can go a few steps without this, maybe 10.” 

His eyesight, along with his hearing, is waning, but he still entertains his neighbors by playing the grand piano in the Town House lobby every now and then. 

“The secret to my long life,” he said, grinning, “and I might as well give it up, is a long, leisurely breakfast.” 

Horn’s 32-year-old grandson Jacques makes him breakfast every morning—usually a big bowl of oatmeal and poached eggs, along with fruit and coffee. On Saturday, he has waffles. 

Gently adjusting the volume on his grandfather’s earpiece, Jacques, who is training to join the San Francisco Fire Department, shares some of the life lessons he has learned from the man he now spends his mornings with. 

“He taught me how to manage my time,” Jacques said. “He taught me how to pick up someone gently from the floor, he taught me how to take care of family—cooking, cleaning and driving. But most important, he taught me a lot about patience.”