Yes, a man can live to be 98 years old, but not often carrying the same convictions and approaches to life he held in elementary school.
The late Walter Rheinheimer’s warm smile, at Thanksgiving 2014, belies his serious mein.
My father died earlier this year, at age 98, having lived in at least parts of 100 years: 1916-2015.
The world changed immensely over that time. He did not. Years ago, I charged him with being a 19th-century man trapped in the 20th century. He repeated this with some pride whenever the opportunity came up, for the rest of the 20th and into the 21st century.
He was a German man. Born there, and remaining deeply loyal to his tribe despite his view that nation states are a foolish, destructive thing. His ladyfriend of 30 years was completely tolerant of his late-life crush on German Chancellor Angela Merkel. And to the end, more than nine decades removed from his homeland, his German was as fluent and without-accent as his English.
He was, perhaps above all, a student. He spoke often of his favorite childhood teachers – by name – and reveled in talking about the recognitions and responsibilities that came his way by virtue of being the very best pupil one could be.
His sons, grandsons and his great-grandsons after them all fell victim to some measure of his unrelenting conviction that the best thing you could do in life was make straight A’s. And when an elementary boy came to him to brag about all A’s and one B, the first reaction was inevitably: “Hrrumph, what was the B in?” Followed by a request to see the books and study materials and then the detailed critique that inevitably found their content lacking in rigor, thoroughness and focus, as if the little student had created them himself.
His own student status was maintained most noticeably by his lifelong practice of not just reading scholarly books on, most often, politics and international relations, but also taking handwritten notes as he went, in tiny, precise lettering, complete with the page number to the left of the entry.
I asked him one day, on a visit during the last months of his life, if he was going to turn those notes in to the teacher or just keep them for himself. The immediate smile revealed his pride as he replied, with the slightest hint of ruefulness, that he was going to just keep them for himself.
Perhaps his other strongest other-century trait was frugality. He never missed an opportunity to remind that, “I’ve paid cash for everything I’ve ever bought – cars, houses, you name it. You don’t have it, you save up until you do!” Anyone who operated otherwise carried a tint of the wastrel.
It was a measure of both his quest to squeeze every nickel until it turned into a dime and of the survival of his full intellect to the end and that he undertook daily management of his stock portfolio, which was built on the salary of a high school teacher who had retired at age 60.
His primary hobbies both carried at least a hint of the profit motive as well. As the possessor of nearly every stamp issued by the United States for several decades, he sat on a collection worth far more than its proverbial weight in gold. And he kept bees for more than 30 years, during many of those years moving as many as 40 hives in and out of orchards during the night, hired by growers for pollination.
It was another measure of his unreachable standards that his glee over one of the adult grandsons finally getting his own backyard hive was immediately compromised by the facts that the young man transported the hive in a manner not consistent with his own practices, and that the new beekeeper used a veil and a smoker instead of wading in bare as his grandfather had for all his beekeeping life.
The last man on earth has left us. We mourn, those of us left behind, and deeply so, but not without the slight temptation to set aside, if only for a moment, the expectations only he had, and only he had the unquestioned conviction to relentlessly impose.
Farewell, Walter Rheinheimer.