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Doug Hepburn and Buck, c. 1955

Doug Hepburn loved animals. Here he poses with his husky, Buck, c. 1955.

I came across a marvellous little vignette of Doug Hepburn at Geist: North of America, a Canadian literary site (click the link to read the story). The writer, Stephen Osborne, does a great job of portraying the unique strongman in a style that fits perfectly with Doug’s character.

I remember very well the place described in the story. From there Doug moved shop and living quarters to West 4th Avenue for a number of years, and then to his final workshop on West 5th Avenue. He continued to sell protein supplements and weightlifting equipment, and to invite guests in to discuss anything and everything. When I took my daughter there once for a visit in January, Doug was wearing four heavy sweatshirts and sweaters, because, as he put it, “I’m beating B.C. Hydro!” Times were often tough for him.

The description of Doug’s estimation of a tranquil life lived under the beneficent rays of the sun is classic Hepburn: “’I’ve seen life,’ he would say, with a sweep of the hand, ‘and nothing gets better than this.’” One is reminded of the story of Diogenes, the Greek philosopher who lived in a barrel (or jug, or tub, depending on the version of the story) on the outskirts of Athens. One day while leaning against a rock, enjoying the sun on his body, he observed Alexander the Great riding toward him on his horse. Alexander approached him and expressed his admiration for the philosopher about whose simple way of life he had heard many impressive tales. He offered to grant Diogenes anything he wished for. Diogenes merely replied, “Stand aside, for you are blocking the sun.” Alexander is reported to have said as he rode off, “If I were not Alexander, I should wish to be Diogenes!”

The folding deck chair mentioned in the story followed Doug to West 4th Avenue and then to West 5th Avenue. In fact, he had more than one chair, and the last time I visited him on 5th Avenue, I found him sitting in the laneway parking area behind his shop, enjoying the sun on his bare upper body. Beside him was a second chair, unoccupied. He looked at me, said nothing, but pointed to the empty chair. I took the hint and sat down, ready for a typical philosophical encounter with the Master. I had planned on a half hour visit, but as it turned out I sat there listening and exchanging ideas for more than two hours. As I got up to leave, Doug said, “That was good! You know, you’re one of the only guys I can have a proper political discussion with these days!” I felt honoured to hear him say that, and I waved a good-bye, saying I’d come back soon. I had no idea that I would never see him again. Within a few months he had died of a misdiagnosed perforated ulcer, otherwise still strong of mind and body. Given his strength and the fact that his mother had lived into her mid-nineties in spite of having smoked cigarettes throughout her life, we all thought he’d live past a hundred. A lot of people felt the loss. They still do.

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The story contains a couple of inaccuracies. First, neither Doug nor any strongman untainted by heavy steroid usage ever held “a hundred and fifty pounds in one hand straight out from the shoulder”; Doug did, however, perform a strict, straight-arm (locked elbow) holdout with one hundred and twenty pounds, a feat which may be unequalled by anyone since (I’m not counting, of course, the walking drug-stores posing as natural strength athletes).

Secondly, the actual year of Doug’s victory in Stockholm was 1953, not 1958.

A point of clarification: The name of the narrative poem mentioned in the story is “Chinook,” a poem about the friendship between a wolf and a prospector in the Klondike, during the gold rush, written in the style of the Canadian poet Robert Service. I don’t recall Doug’s ever having sung it, let alone its playing on the radio, but it certainly could be put to music. Doug took pleasure in reciting the poem aloud to guests. I enjoyed that pleasure more than once.

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A couple of years ago I was asked to look over a book manuscript and to make editorial suggestions, as well as answer some questions on self-publishing, an activity I had been involved in for many years. As it turned out, I enjoyed the task very much, and I found the manuscript of great personal interest; I knew immediately that many others would also find it both interesting and relevant to their own lives. The manuscript soon became available in book form as They Live Longer, subtitled “The Secrets of Healthy and Active Ninety-Year-Olds.” The authors, Harry Mouratidis, an organic chemist who has worked as engineer, educator, and environmental consultant, and Dr. George Price, a certified internist and rheumatologist who taught clinical medicine at UBC’s Faculty of Medicine for many years, carefully weigh many factors in an attempt to answer a single question: What is it that accounts for the fact that many individuals within certain communities seem to enjoy a significantly greater vitality and longevity than the general population?

Mr. Mouratidis and Dr. Price focus their attention on ten small communities of the “youthful elderly” in Greece, France, Italy, and Spain, and interviews with the nonagenarians themselves constitute much of the basis for the authors’ answer to the question. Stories from the lives of these youthful elderly people are intertwined with photos and details of their diet, environment, and way of living. The answer to the question the authors pose does not, of course, reduce to a simple magical formula, such as a vegetarian diet, or clean air, or regular exercise. Rather it turns out that there is a host of factors, most of which are present in each of the longevity communities examined but which are for the most part absent in the general population outside those communities. The authors summarise the key longevity factors in a Longevity Pyramid, a diagrammatic schema that encapsulates the lessons the authors distil from their engagement with the subjects of their investigation.

Interestingly, I was recently sent a link to a video of an amazing youthful elder living on the Greek island of Ikaria, which turns out to be yet another pocket of longevity. According to the BBC News, the people of Ikaria live, on average, ten years longer than those in the rest of Western Europe. The island, located just off the Turkish coast near Samos, the island from whence came Pythagoras, is home to many active nonagenarians, among whom is Stamatis Moraitis, who forty-five years ago was diagnosed with lung cancer and given six to nine months to live. Being unable to afford a funeral in the United States, he and his wife decided to move back to Greece, where at the age of 98 Stamatis continued to lead an active life, and in the video he reveals some of the factors that he believes account for his good health and longevity, among which are good organic food and wine, good company, and a peaceful environment with clean air and water. Stamatis Moraitis passed away in 2013 at the age of 102 years. (More about life on Ikaria, as well as that of other longevity communities, can be found in the Financial Times article at http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/d3986dfa-d7fb-11e2-b4a4-00144feab7de.html#axzz2aw5RR3Ps .)

In the final analysis there is, of course, no single factor accounting for health and longevity among the people in these communities, but there are common elements in their lives (as summarised in the Longevity Pyramid). Mr. Mouratidis and Dr. Price do a splendid job of abstracting and summarising the relevant commonalities, and, in doing so, illuminate for their readers the path not only to better health and longevity but to a happier and more meaningful existence.

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