Wisdom Project | Eileen Lavine

Eileen Lavine

This piece is part of the The Wisdom Project: An ongoing series of inspirational conversations with wise people who have been fortunate to live long lives.

This week’s conversation is with Eileen Lavine, 97, of New York City.

Eileen Martinson Lavine is a native New Yorker who graduated in 1945 from the University of Wisconsin, where she was the first woman editor of its newspaper, the Daily Cardinal.

She earned her M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and has been a writer and editor in New York, New Bedford, Massachusetts, Paris and Washington, DC.

For 20 years, she was president of Information Services, a women-owned editorial company in Bethesda, Maryland, providing communications for nonprofit and governmental educational, medical and health organizations and international trade fairs. She also served as a volunteer mentor and board member for Interages, an intergenerational county program.

Eileen became a senior editor at Moment Magazine in 2008, where her career continues to this day. Eileen and her husband Dick, of blessed memory, lived in the DC area for more than 60 years, with one brief sojourn in California, and raised two children, Michael and Amy. Recently, she moved back to New York, where her children now live, and embarked on a new chapter in her life in her new senior community. She will be 98 in December.

You just moved to the city after six decades in Washington. What is it like, making a huge change in life at age 97?

As much as I miss my old place and love hearing from my friends there, I’ve adjusted quickly. I’m settling in. The residents are a great mix of people. We have good conversations and there are a lot of good programs I can participate in. Unfortunately, the food is too good. I’ve already gained four pounds.

What advice do you have for anyone who is trying to adjust to new circumstances in a time of upheaval?

It’s important to take things as they come. In my case, I grew up on West End Avenue here and I’m living on the same street now. It’s just so nice to see my old home. From my window on the ninth floor, I can see the Hudson River and all the way to New Jersey. It feels good.

Tell me about some of your life’s adventures.

I lived in Paris in my twenties. I belonged to an international youth group there, half of whose members were French and the other half from other countries. I went hitchhiking in Europe with a French girl who had become an Israeli who’d come back to Paris. I went island hopping alone in the Caribbean, from Puerto Rico to Haiti and Jamaica. I was in Haiti just before Papa Doc (François Duvalier, president of Haiti from 1957-1971) took over.

Where does your positive, adventurous nature come from?

My mother has always inspired me. She became a widow at age 39, with three daughters, ages 14, 10 and seven. I was the 10-year-old. My father’s death was sudden. My mother was so resourceful, relying totally on his insurance, that people thought we had a very, very wealthy uncle! We moved to a less expensive apartment, but she was able to send us to summer camp. We all went to out-of-town colleges. She didn’t work until after we had all graduated. She was a very steady person. Not domineering, always very understanding. She was my greatest role model. She showed us how to take life as it came. She had her problems and difficulties, but she never stopped living above them. It’s a wonderful way to live life.

What was growing up in an all-woman household like?

We all wore about the same size shoe. We always said that the first one out of the house was the best dressed.

What experience most influenced your adult life?

My older sister went to the University of Wisconsin and I decided I would, too. I went to Wisconsin at the age of 16, having gone to all-girls schools and having hardly ever dated. I was very awkward in this sudden social scene with formals and parties. But I found myself when I went to the student newspaper office, the Daily Cardinal. I fit in there.

What should young people know as they launch their careers and adult lives?

Take every opportunity for growth that you’re offered. When I was in Paris in 1950, walking along the street one day, I bumped into somebody from my journalism school class and he said, “Oh, the Marshall Plan office radio unit is looking for somebody.” I went there and wrote radio scripts in Paris for a year. From a chance meeting!

How did you go from all this independence to your 57-year-long marriage?

The Caribbean trip was in August, 1956. I met Dick in September. We married in January. I was ready. I was 32 and had sown my wild oats. You know when you’re ready.

Do you have any regrets?

I’ve sometimes regretted that I didn’t stay in straight journalism. My first job after Columbia was the newspaper in New Bedford, Massachusetts. I became the assistant Sunday editor and started pages for schools and young voices. I decided to specialize in covering youth and went to The New York Times to conduct youth forums on their radio station, WQXR.

The Times was trying to get schools to subscribe to the newspaper through the service. After two years, the schools weren’t subscribing much, so they fired me. But I got good severance pay and that’s the opportunity that led me to Paris.

Any other regrets besides leaving beat journalism?

Yes! My husband and I traveled all over the world but I never went on a safari or to the Galapagos!

What would you say you’ve learned in your life? What wisdom do you have for others?

That’s a hard one. Be a lifelong learner, treasure other people. Give generously of your time and effort.

What do you think of the state of the world right now and the state of the country?

It gets worse every day. I just watched the first installment of Ken Burns’s Holocaust program. You see the film of people in the thirties and that’s the kind of people we have today. It’s not new in America. We’ve had this before. We got through it. Can we get through it now, with the way people are manipulating elections? I’ve said to myself, “Well, I’m not going to be here.” But my children and my family and my country are. The Hitler salutes at Trump rallies have really gotten frightening.

What’s the antidote? How do you turn the tide?

Fascism is not a new thing, obviously, but America was always the beacon, the guiding light for the world. Even Italy now has gone to the right and France is close to it. People aren’t fighting back strongly enough. We’re too weak.

I wish I knew the answer. The only thing I can do is live my days as they go on, hoping that other people feel my way and I can be strong to other people.

What are the ingredients of a happy life?

I find it hard to pin down enjoyment. Have fun, be honest with each other and other people. Respect. Acceptance. Solving problems in a constructive way and not looking down on other people.

A respectful life is an enjoyable life. Respect for other people is the biggest, biggest thing. No snap judgments about somebody or a group. It’s important to get a broad knowledge of people. Know other people outside of your own field.

My husband had a hard time when our daughter came out as gay. But he came to accept it. He encouraged her. And she’s very active in that work. My children are decent people who respect other people of all kinds. We brought them up to have a variety of experiences.

What’s the biggest challenge right now?

Climate change. I know I won’t be here to see the worst of it, but it’s happening and it’s really frightening. We’re sending rockets up to crash into asteroids, but I’m more worried about what’s going on now on earth.

What do you want to do in this new chapter of your life?

Probably just enjoy myself. Read, watch television, meet new people and hopefully go to some shows.

What uplifts you?

I’ve been very grateful to hear from my friends in the condo complex. During our time there, my husband had been board president for five years. I’d also been president and active on committees. About 60 people came to my going-away party and others came over before I left. My neighbors are saying, “We really miss you.” “You were so much a part of the village.” I’m very grateful to know that. Gratitude is uplifting.

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