Houston Chronicle - Wisdom of the Ages
July 1997


One hot afternoon last summer, Cindy Pickard was asked to drive an elderly neighbor to the horse races in San Antonio.

As any good neighbor would, she agreed. But as the day grew closer, says Pickard, who lives in the tiny Hill Country town of Vanderpool, she began to dread the idea of a long ride with a man in his 90s. She worried about what she was going to say, and how she was going to relate to someone his age. Looking back Pickard realized she had bought into the stereotypes of aging.

They were soon to be given a swift kick by her passenger, the lively Dr. James Pittman, 92, former chief of' staff and head of Hermann Hospital's Department of Surgery.

"I drove 10 miles to his ranch and he was waiting for me looking really cool," recalls Pickard, 50. "He was wearing a straw hat and cowboy boots." I said: "Do you mind riding in the Jeep with the top down." He said something like: 'We're going to. get along just fine.' He's got real twinkly eyes and he winks a lot. He started telling stories of his life growing up in rural Arkansas and his years as a doctor in Houston. I was amazed. I could have listened all day."

And so, as Pickard says in the introduction to her fascinating photo/oral history exhibit on aging, The Gathering of the Wisdom People, her adventure began.

Later, Pickard spent the day with Pittman at his ranch in Utopia and photographed him as he worked around the ranch, feeding his cows and driving a tractor. While he worked, he continued regaling her with his jokes and stories.

He made her laugh when he told her about the first money he ever made. As a young boy, Pittman said, he would sit on the porch and kill flies. For every 200 flies he killed, his mother would pay him a penny and he would buy a jar of hard candy.

He made Pickard sad when he told her about the death from appendicitis of his father, a country doctor in rural Arkansas, and how that changed his life.

He made her feel inspired when he told her about his life as a doctor and chief of surgery at Hermann, from which he retired at 66.

Remembering a time when he was able to save a young patient others had given up on, Pittman told her: "I always say 'That's what I teach.' It's up to a physician, a doctor, to do everything possible (to save a patient). If there is any possibility - and you're not the one to tell whether it's possible or not - you do all you know to do and that leaves plenty more for that good Man up above."

By the end of the day, Pittman had completely changed her view about aging, Pickard says. And it was his gaunt but lively face that was the inspiration for the exhibit, on display until July 31 at the Cloister Gallery.

"When I took the pictures down to be developed, the woman said to me: "Look at that face. I bet he has a lot of stories to tell'," Pickard says. "I started thinking maybe people would be interested in his stories and the other seniors in their 90’s."

In 2 1/2 months, Pickard interviewed and photographed 18 people, ages 84 to 99, many found at a Kerrville senior citizen center. Between them they had survived the Holocaust, the Depression, wars, as well as the losses and tragedies of life, including losing family members to AIDS. Pickard says she learned something from every one of them.

A former occupational therapist who dabbles in photography, Pickard founded a nonprofit group called Rites of Passage in 1988 in Austin. She still is director of the organization that started as a home health care service and evolved into a group that gives seminars on AIDS and death and dying issues. A former Houstonian, Pickard and her son Andy also have worked together on a number of award-winning video documentaries.

Because of her experience working with patients dying from AIDS or cancer, Pickard said she found it easy to communicate with the seniors she interviewed. Her only problem was convincing them their lives were interesting and that people would want to hear what they had to say. To gain the trust of a Holocaust couple, Pickard went to a Jewish service with them and had dinner.

After, seeing the picture Pickard had taken of her, Mildred Houser, 87, a retired bookkeeper, ripped it up and threw it away. She told Pickard: "Girl, that is the ugliest picture I have ever seen. I hate my bust. I would have gotten a breast reduction, but it's 50 years too late. If you run it, I'll shoot you in the foot."

Eventually, Pickard managed to get her to change her mind. Houser's photograph is accompanied by pictures of her as a child and young woman, and includes her written thoughts on life. "The most important thing I have learned about life," she writes, 'is that there are happy times that overcome the bad times."

Pickard took the exhibit's name from the American Indian concept that elders are repositories of wisdom and the guides to future generations. She hopes that others will follow her lead and do the same kind of project with a family member, friend or even a person in a nursing home.

None of the seniors she interviewed feared dying and many said their favorite time in life was when they were I raising young children. Most of them remained active and advised others to do so. But a few had some pretty tough things to say about aging, and some were very lonely.

"If there is a (good part) about aging, I hadn't found it yet," says Alvin 'Ivy, 95. "I'm still looking for it."

Others felt differently: Rosita Holler, 98, a former teacher, said the best part of old age is that it's always interesting.

"There are so many angles. You can look back on things that people maybe thought weren't important and it develops that they were sort of building blocks."

Houser wistfully adds: "If young people would listen to us with their hearts, be more patient, understanding and helpful. . . . "

Among Pickard's favorite couples are Walter and Rose Hanauer, both refugees from Nazi Germany. She especially liked their childhood pictures of a Europe that is now only a memory.

"Rose takes yoga and she is more limber than me,". Pickard laughs. "And I loved what they said: 'To live here in a free country on a small U.S. pension, with a wonderful wife, on top of a great hill in Texas.... I think I never had it so good as in my 89th year.",

The Gathering of the' Wisdom People exhibit will be at the Cloister Gallery, Christ Church Cathedral, 1117 Texas Ave., through July 31. Gallery hours are 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Mondays-Fridays and 8:30 a.m.-noon Sundays.

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