Remembering my late friend, who survived the Spanish flu and lived to 108.
When COVID-19 broke out, I immediately recalled stories I heard from the late Leonard McCracken, a survivor of the 1918-20 Spanish flu pandemic who lived to age 108.
The former Tavares resident had childhood friends who died from the flu, he saw businesses shuttered in his Warren, Ohio, hometown and he didn’t graduate because his high school had been closed.
When I first met Leonard, he was 100. I was interviewing him for a newspaper story as a regular diner at a former Leesburg restaurant, and immediately I was mesmerized by Leonard’s sharp mental alertness, quick wit, common sense and upbeat spirit.
Leonard reminded me of my late grandparents, so it felt wonderful to talk to a centenarian from their generation. Leonard and I developed a special friendship, and it was easy to lose track of time during phone chats and a few lunches together. My late husband jokingly referred to Leonard as my boyfriend.
In seriousness, Leonard was a wonderful mentor. He was a former banker and salesman, a Dale Carnegie speaker and a devoted father and husband who was married for 75 years before his wife died at age 95. I sought Leonard’s advice about work, the economy and issues of the day.
He would tell me not to stress over things that were out of my control. “Slow down. Smell the roses,” Leonard would say.
And whenever anyone would ask about the secret to his longevity, Leonard always would reply: “Oatmeal, positive attitude and gratitude.”
Leonard didn’t start eating Quaker oats until age 50. I did the same thing on the morning of my 50th birthday, inspired by Leonard, of course. Oatmeal was his healthiest meal of the day, while he’d often enjoy a hearty lunch of a sandwich and fries, always leaving room for a slice of pie.
One special conversation with Leonard occurred in 2005. He was so excited by an invitation to fly to his childhood home in Warren to receive his high school diploma at age 102, some 85 years after the Spanish flu epidemic. The local newspaper photographed him beaming from ear to ear as he talked to graduating seniors. I had the photo framed a few months later for his 103rd birthday.
Leonard made the big time at age 106, when he was photographed with several other centenarians for Time magazine’s cover story on “The Science of Living Longer.”
He also was among 850 centenarians interviewed for the New England Centenarian Study at Boston University, where health experts were eager to discover the behavioral and personality traits of people who reached the age of 100. The study found these common similarities: not smoking, staying lean and being extroverted and easygoing.
I wasn’t surprised by the findings, and in thinking about what Leonard would often say, he advised that “easygoing” was the way to be at any age.
Leonard died Dec. 22, 2011. I’m grateful to have known him, and it’s hard to eat a bowl of oatmeal and not think of my 108-year-old friend.