Living Out Life Right Up to the End

By Becky O'Malley
Monday July 26, 2010 - 10:02:00 PM

Sorting through my desk this week as part of the annoying process of vacating the Planet office, I came across a little spiral bound book entitled Folio. It is a lovely privately printed book of personal and political essays sent to me last year by a frequent Planet correspondent, and I realized I hadn’t gotten anything from him for a month or so. With a feeling of apprehension, I did a Google search, which quickly confirmed my worst fears.

From nola.com, the website of the New Orleans Times Picayune: Marvin Chachere, teacher and jazz saxophonist, dies at 82. The obituary reported that Mr. Chachere had died on June 17 in a San Pablo nursing home, and went on to describe a long and varied life that had spanned several states and at least three continents, as well as listing a host of family members left behind. 

If you’re still wondering what you’d like to be when you grow up, as many of us are, even into our sixties and beyond, you’d do well to study Marvin Chachere’s last years. According to nola.com, he retired in 1979 from UC Extension, where he’d founded the Oxford-Berkeley exchange program, and went on to a couple of stints teaching in China.  

By the time we got to know him, he had a San Pablo address, possibly the nursing home where he was reported to have lived at the time of his death. We met him only once in person, when he came to a Planet open house, but unfortunately he had laryngitis that day so we never talked face to face. But he sent us and others a steady stream of incisive commentaries, mostly on topics that elegantly explicated a classic Northern California left-liberal point of view, sometimes in very sharp language.  

A search of the Planet archives yields more than 300 hits on his name on our site alone, everything from snappy short letters to long thoughtful essays. George Bush provided an ample target for Marvin, as for everyone, but he also had plenty to say on other matters. In the last two years he’d taken to describing himself as being “in my ninth decade”, and it was clear that he wanted to share with the world whatever wisdom he’d acquired over the years. 

A frequent meditation was on growing up in the South in a family with some African ancestry, “Negro” in the usage of the day. Barack Obama’s unexpected ascent to the presidency sparked several thoughtful riffs on the theme of what it means to be “mixed race”. Marvin’s jazz background was evident in these pieces—his style was to take a current topic and give it his own spin. His views on the significance of race were uniquely his, but everyone could learn something from them. 

What’s remarkable is that his great body of work, at least the part of it that we were pleased and honored to transmit, was produced after he’d already retired not once but twice, from careers distinguished in their own right. Anyone who thinks that retiring from paid employment means a free pass to vege-ing out in Florida should think again—retirement should be a golden opportunity, as it was for Marvin Chachere, to do something significant that you’ve never tried before.  

No, more than an opportunity: perhaps an obligation. Many’s the time in the past three years that I’ve felt like giving up, and then I thought of Marvin Chachere out there in San Pablo keeping on keeping on, and was ashamed to be a quitter at my relatively young age. 

His tenacity was remarkable—when I realized he hadn’t written anything for a little while, I was pretty sure he must be dead, because only Death Himself would be enough to stop Marvin Chachere’s flood of illuminating prose. I’ll miss him, and I’m sure our readers will too. 

Another tenacious survivor who persisted in sharing his accumulated wisdom left us last week. Daniel Schorr died with his boots on at the age of 93, lucky enough to be intellectually vigorous until the end. It’s now customary to refer to the men and women who fought in the armed services in World War II as the greatest generation, but others from that period whose principal public service was not in the military also had great impact. 

Dan Schorr was New York City College Class of ’39, the product of a culture and an era when the world had turned upside down, when the great depression forced thoughtful people to reconsider the economic underpinnings of the political system. His obituary in the New York Times said that “ in writing his memoir he had come to realize that ‘being poor, fat, Jewish, fatherless’ had made him feel like an outsider, and that he had ‘achieved identity’ through his journalism.” 

He certainly achieved identity. To many his most significant achievement was making Richard Nixon’s enemies list, and (as the legend has it) not finding out about it until he read the list on air. That’s a feat which rivals Tom Sawyer’s being present at his own funeral. But he never forgot where he came from, never forgot what it felt like to be an outsider. 

NPR this weekend was flooded with Dan Schorr reminiscences, since his retirement career was as resident wise man on public radio. . Several of the pieces chronicled his love of music and penchant for singing at every opportunity. On the Sunday Weekend Edition show, Liane Hansen recalled a conversation in which Dan Schorr sang, impeccably, what he called the only song he could still sing from memory after three-quarters of a century, fellow City College alumnus Yip Harburg’s iconic Brother Can You Spare a Dime

That’s the identity which Daniel Schorr shared with his listeners in the past two decades. He frequently reminded his listeners that simple, selfish answers to complex questions were usually wrong, that compassion was mandatory for a sane political system, and that you should never give up trying to get it right. Now that members of the older generation of realistic idealists like Daniel Schorr and Marvin Chachere are no longer with us, it’s incumbent on those of us who are still around to keep on trying, to keep on doing whatever it is that we do best to spread the word about what is to be done.  

Coincidentally, as I finished writing this, we received the obituary of Professor Ken Simmons, who followed a distinguished academic and political career in Berkeley with fifteen years working to get the new South Africa on the right path. Examples of how to live are everywhere, if you look around.