Charlie’s Century

The death of a little girl with cancer creates a sense of tragedy among even those who do not know her. The passing of a middle-aged man by a sudden heart attack reverberates with anyone over thirty. But when a centenarian dies peacefully in his sleep, only those who knew him take notice.

My grandfather got to know a lot of people in his 100 years, so many mourn today in the wake of his passing. When many might slow down in their eighties and nineties, Charles J. Griffin stepped up his activity. In recognition of his 12,000 hours of volunteer service at Portsmouth (NH) Regional Hospital, the staff feted him with a 100th birthday bash featuring a 36 foot long cake. Since 1994, he was said to have visited more than 200,000 patients.

At a friends and family party for his centennial, Charlie rose to the occasion and delivered from the podium a reminiscence of the past 100 years. The sheer magnitude of change that has occurred since he was born on November 29, 1907 can only be described as staggering.

As Charlie was born in the first decade of the 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt was midway through his second term as President. There were two world wars yet to be fought. In 1907, just 125,000 automobiles were registered throughout the entire United States, including models powered not just by gasoline or electricity, but also by steam.

Local newspapers would publish personal notices, letting you know who was visiting a relative in town and which residents might be headed a few towns over to visit friends a family. Imagine that in today’s privacy-obsessed culture!

It is obvious to all that my grandfather did not grow up with computers as our children now do. But it is only when you pause and reflect that you realize the first commercial radio station debuted when he was 12, while commercial television didn’t emerge until his early 30’s.

Over the years, my grandfather steadily climbed the ladder of achievement and service. He would thumb rides to Boston to complete his work at Suffolk Law School in Boston, graduating with the class of 1932. He practiced law for a half century, but also found time to serve on the School Board and other local boards. He even was named a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1956.

Of course, as his grandson, I remember different things. I recall as a child going over to my grandparents’ house and having grilled cheese and bacon cooked in a nifty two-sided griddle. My brothers and I would play in the basement and sometimes listen to old 78 RPM records of big band music on an enormous phonograph. I remember seeing my first microwave – which he kept on the three-season porch.

When he would occasionally babysit my brothers and I, he would concoct these elaborate stories to tell us at bedtime. Clearly his years without radio and television had taught him that good entertainment does not need to come in commercial form. I remember adventures we took to visit an old historic hotel where we wandered the halls so he could tell us what it was like in the old days. We once even went to an event where ambulances were on display for sale to local communities. I have no idea how we got in, but I remember being quite excited to come home with brochures and marketing materials touting the benefits of the latest ambulance technology.

And, of course, how could I forget my grandfather’s love of Cadillacs. A man of short physical stature, he loved his Caddys to be big. I would often see him driving down the street and wonder how he could actually see anything as he peered out over the top of the steering wheel. It was always easy to spot his car with the distinctive “RX 8” license plate he had owned for years.

Charlie Griffin’s 100th birthday was quite a party. Friends and relatives came from around the corner and across the country to join in the festivities. I decided to videotape the celebration and managed to capture my grandfather’s speech, as well as individual remembrances and greetings from most of the people in attendance. That’s something he could never have envisioned as a child.

Now we find ourselves celebrating Charlie’s Century one last time as we say farewell to a man who touched so many lives.

Below is Charlie’s speech at his 100th birthday party.

  • Chip:
    I watched this video some months back when you first posted it, and remembering watching and listening to your grandfather with great admiration. My condolences to you and your family for his passing.

  • Chip,
    What a wonderful post and remembrance. Your grandfather would have been proud of your own ability to tell a story — albeit with 21st century tools.
    My condolence to the Griffin family, but I am glad to know that you are celebrating him as well.
    Mark