You can see the curvature of the Earth in it — looking back at a life well-lived

We got a letter — a real letter — that began, “I have recently reached age 100 and have begun to slim down my files. Lo and behold, I came across an editorial I believe you may have written. It impressed and inspired me ….” Enclosed was a copy of the words we had written many years ago, coming back to us.

The writer of that letter, Glenn Durban, impressed and inspired us. When we called to thank him for his kind words and ask about his century of living, he said, “I have had a few adventures.”

His Danish parents had immigrated to the United States at the turn of the last century. “My father jumped ship in New York Harbor in 1904,” he said. His father, Peter Christensen, was a seaman; he was on a ship out of South Africa.

“When immigration caught up with him, he misunderstood the question. They were asking his name but he thought they were asking where he came from. He said, ‘Durban.’

“Shakespeare said, ‘What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,’” says Mr. Durban, dismissing the mix-up that gave him the name he’s had his whole life and passed on to his children.

Glenn Durban’s parents parted ways in 1922 and his mother returned to Denmark with their children. He completed grade school and high school in the “small, happy country” and was preparing to go to England when a visiting American convinced him he could get a scholarship to St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. There he studied, on a scholarship, and fell in love with a Danish girl, Sylvia Gundersen.

When the war broke out, he could have claimed his Danish citizenship, but, he said, “I felt civic obligation.” He applied for an officers’ program. He told the man interviewing him, “I never fired a gun in my life … I want to get the Germans out of Denmark.”

He was a second lieutenant, making $125 a month, stationed in California. “I asked my girlfriend to come out and bring the car,” he said. Mr. Durban had a 1936 Ford Coupe back in Canton. “She did come but she didn’t bring the car. She brought her mother.” He and Sylvia were married in a Unitarian Church in Carmel-by-the-Sea.

When it was discovered that he spoke Danish, Durban was sent to a military intelligence school in Maryland. On his arrival at midnight after a three-day train trip he was greeted by a woman officer — the first he’d seen — who asked, “Why are you here?”

“Because I can speak Danish,” he answered.

“We don’t need Danish,” she said.

Instead, he was sent to Japanese class so he could interview Japanese prisoners of war. He eventually went to Iwo Jima. “The Marines did all the dirty fighting,” Mr. Durban said. He got injured and was airlifted to a military hospital. The war ended by the time he was discharged.

Mr. Durban went on to get an accounting degree at Columbia University and then worked for General Electric for 38 years. One of his duties was to dispose of outdated equipment. “I traveled the world, giving away old machines. They thought I was Santa Claus.”

He and Sylvia raised five children — four sons and a daughter. Sylvia died in 1981 and he later remarried; his second wife died in 2005.

Durban still lives in the house he built himself on Swift Road in New Scotland. “My father gave me a book on how to build a house for $3,000. It was a misprint. It was supposed to be $30,000 … You can see the curvature of the Earth in it,” he quipped about his carpentry.

“A nice black lady” comes in to help him every day from 8 a.m. till noon. On Tuesday, he meets with his pals at the Voorheesville diner.

“I have no complaints,” Mr. Durban said. “I’ve had a very happy life. My children are a source of pride. And they come to see me.”

Lance, the oldest, owns a factory in Haiti, making electronic transformers. Roger is a lawyer. Christine is a financial translator living in Paris and was just invited to lecture in China. Eric runs a casino in the state of Washington. Lars lives in Washington, too, and works for a company that leases airplanes; he’ll be visiting soon, on his way to a meeting in Dublin.

“All my kids married well,” Mr. Durban said. He recommends marrying “a thrifty, educated woman.”

Durban says a proverb in Danish — advice he learned when he was 5 years old — and then translates: “Equal children play best together.”

“I’ve really had a wonderful life,” Mr. Durban concludes. “I had two good wives. I have good children. I have enough money to live comfortably. I’m sitting pretty. I’m in reasonably good health. I have a happy disposition.”

Mr. Durban invested in GE stock when he was young. Recently, the dividends haven’t been as robust as they once were.

“Maybe instead of two eggs and bacon for breakfast, I’ll have just one egg,” he said.

Here’s what we learned from our splendid conversation with Mr. Durban:

— Don’t sweat the small stuff — what’s in a name?;

— Take chances — follow a scholarship to America;

— Be true to your heart — marry the woman and defend the country you love;

— Do work that fulfills you — you might get to be Santa Claus;

— Build a house with love — your children will come to see you; and

— Most importantly, be grateful for what you have — one egg instead of two.

Good humor carries the day, all 36,500 of them.

 

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