Ask yourself, do you know anyone in American history who, after retiring at age sixty five, proceeded to organize a national movement that helped greatly to change public attitudes on matters of importance?
Only one person comes to mind — Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers, who passed away on April 22 at the age of Eighty Nine. No one changed the way people look at old age or older people more than this former social worker with the United Presbyterian Church who was forced to retire at sixty five.
That retirement fueled an explosion of human energy that carried her around the country establishing chapters of the Gray Panthers who lobbied against “ageism” and for peace and justice in many areas of life. Just two weeks before she died, she was out in her wheelchair supporting the mass transit workers strike in Philadelphia.
To Maggie Kuhn, older age is “the flowering of life, a triumph, not a disease.” It is also a reason to link with the young and she made this intergenerational point in the shared housing where she lived and in many projects involving health care, civil rights, housing reform, anti-war and other causes.
A tireless organizer, who could jolt audiences with a trademark panther yell, she traveled millions of miles in her Seventies and Eighties, went on television and radio, even organized a Gray Panther chapter in a prison six years ago. Wracked by bouts of cancer, pained by arthritis and osteoporosis, she never stopped organizing, lobbying legislatures, writing and thinking ahead, always thinking ahead.
Reading her 1991 autobiography “No Stone Unturned”, it was clear where she was coming from — a long ancestral heritage of struggle for justice including the abolitionist and suffragette movements.
I saw Maggie Kuhn on the Johnny Carson show once chiding him over his Aunt Blabby imitation. He always invited her back. She detested terms like “Golden Oldies” or “senior citizen,” yet always told reporters her age, even describing herself as “an old woman” back in 1972. To young people, she would say “Every one of us is growing old.”
To describe her as an advocate for the elderly would be too narrow, far too narrow. She had a world’s grasp of social causes, citizen action and on many occasions she would challenge and motivate large audiences in foreign countries to engage in “ageless living” with “passionate purposes” that are larger than themselves.
No matter how many awards she received, how many important government advisory committees she was on, how many important people called to receive her counsel, Maggie Kuhn remained down to earth, warm, helpful, compassionate and always pressing for more older and younger people to practice democracy.
Her devoted associates absorbed her radiant civic energy and her living by example to push the frontiers further. She did not induce dependency or pity or introversion or looking backward on the part of anyone who came in touch with her.
My last conversation with her was about two months ago. She recalled how our Retired Professional Action Group (RPAG) in the early Seventies had caught her attention soon after her “retirement” in 1970. This Group was formed to give retired professionals opportunities to work for a better society in their now ample spare time. Caught her attention, all right! I recommended that RPAG merge with her Gray Panthers in 1973.
Anyone interested in learning more about Maggie Kuhn’s great life work and the future of the Gray Panthers can write to Gray Panthers, 6342 Greene Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 10144.