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‘To Be of Value’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There are many precepts in journalism. One of them: As much as reporters would like, it’s often impossible to keep in touch with their subjects. They interview them, write the story and then it’s on to the next piece.

Same goes for the people they write about. They promise to get together again, but they, too, go on with their lives.

Not so with Los Angeles activist and volunteer Milton Tepper and Life & Style reporter Michael Quintanilla. Three years ago, Quintanilla profiled Tepper for his work in the senior community.

They kept in touch.

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They brunched on Sundays, talked on the phone weekly and shared stories about their families, friends and work.

When Tepper told Quintanilla last month that he had three months to live--maybe longer--the idea of profiling his last days, of Tepper sharing his wisdom, was set in motion.

Two weeks ago, they sat down for what was to be the first of many talks. The stories were to start Aug. 5.

But there is another maxim of journalism: Sometimes, sadly, the story changes. Late Sunday, Tepper, 84, died in his sleep after a three-year bout with cancer.

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Here, Quintanilla writes about their friendship and, as promised to Milton Tepper, the world through his eyes.

I had been here only a few months when I first met him--well, actually, his voice, a booming 10 on the Richter scale. That was 1989, and he had called to leave a caring message about a story I had written about my sister and brother-in-law, who had been ambushed by gangbangers while walking home after their car broke down. Eduardo had been shotgunned to death, and I had gone home to Texas to help my family.

There would be other calls over the years--tips, sources and ideas for stories, and always good words about my writing. But best of all were the adventures we’d later take: dim sum on Sunday mornings (always preceded by champagne); a movie; a play; watching “Cybill,” his favorite show.

Milton Tepper was that kind of guy: a man who nurtured his friendships, who truly cared about people, who made me a link in his human chain.

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Three years ago, he was found to have colon cancer; the cancer later spread to his lungs, and, more recently, a tumor was detected near his heart.

Before he became ill, I profiled Milton, affectionately nicknamed by friends “the human tornado” because of his nonstop activism for senior citizens. At age 80, he was the oldest president ever of the Los Angeles County Commission on Aging. He served on numerous advisory boards for multipurpose centers, home health services, adult care centers, interfaith councils and elder abuse task forces. At 81, he was a delegate to the White House Conference on Aging.

But in recent months, the tornado had lost his wind, too ill to venture outdoors except for doctor’s visits.

In healthier times, he loved to hang.

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Behind the wheel of my compact Hyundai, I gave him tours of my Silver Lake environs and took him to my favorite places there and in East L.A. In his red 1975 Mercedes with matching red hubcaps, he showed me his ‘hood: North Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley. His haunts were always restaurants (“When you get to be this old, food replaces sex,” he’d say). Among them: Jerry’s Famous Deli, where every few weeks we’d meet for breakfast.

I played for him my favorite songs by Annie Lennox and Nina Simone. He reveled in playing the opera “Don Pasquale” and retelling the story of “Carmen.” I filled him in on the latest trends and lingo. He told me about the good old days when there was no such thing as divorce and when you didn’t need Viagra to keep a marriage together.

An avid volunteer, he’d take me to USC’s Ethel Percy Andrus Gerontology Center to meet other people I should write about, or he’d give me magazine clippings, books to read or just call to make a wisecrack about my cheesy cocktail voicemail music, followed by a joke: “Well, I checked the obituary pages this morning, and I’m still alive.”

From time to time, I’d meet him at schools where he’d speak about aging. Once a high-schooler asked: “Do wrinkles hurt?” Quipped Milton: “Only when I iron them.”

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That was Milton. Anything for a laugh. Anything to make anyone a link in his human chain.

Days before he died, he was laughing.

We were in his Burbank living room surrounded by his late wife’s Chinese watercolors. Thelma, who played the piano and collected hundreds of miniature ceramic pigs as a hobby, died 15 years ago. They had been married for 42 years.

Their mutual love of classical music brought them together. He proposed to her on their first date, after the opera “La Traviata,” which ends tragically for the heroine and hero. But not for Thelma and Milton.

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They had two sons, Bruce, now 53, and Steven, 49. Both live in Northern California.

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A year ago, Milton began simplifying his life. He sold the North Hollywood house where he had lived for 50 years. He moved into an apartment two blocks from St. Joseph’s Medical Center to be closer to his doctors.

I began visiting more often. I could tell he craved the company. It was on one of those visits a few weeks back that Milton revealed that doctors had given him six months to live--and he was halfway there.

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The reporter and friend in me wondered whether he would share his wisdom through stories about friendship, parenting, love and loss--whatever was on his mind--with readers. He embraced the idea, one last opportunity to have his say. He even wanted to write his own obituary.

Do we publish his stories weekly, biweekly or monthly, my editor and I debated. When should we start running them?

In the end, Milton decided for us.

Two weeks ago, Milton and I had our first chat. In drawstring trousers and a blue shirt, he sat by the warmth of the sunlight, a walking cane nearby. His voice was weak. But he wanted to talk, to connect, to tell people that what counts is value to the community--not age.

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During this first--and final--interview, he spoke about his health and his attitude toward dying. It was on his mind. Here, in his own words, are Milton’s thoughts:

*

My attitude is this: Everybody dies sooner or later. I’m pretty old. I’ve had a great life. I had a wonderful wife, a marvelous marriage that produced two great kids who have treated me very well.

I have no complaints. It’s just the pain and suffering that I’m not looking forward to. I’ll end up in a wheelchair. I’ll end up bedridden.

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I have become incredibly weak, but my oncologist said that’s due to the cancer and there’s not much that can be done about it.

A few months ago, I fell down in one of my rooms, and I did not have the strength to get up. I couldn’t pull myself up, although I tried for hours. It wasn’t a painful fall. It was a short fall, and after each time that I tried to pull myself up I’d rest on the carpet for a while.

This went on for hours and hours until finally I realized I wasn’t going to get up and that nobody was going to come in.

Luckily, I was able to pull down the phone and dialed 911, and paramedics came and took me to the hospital.

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Now, I do have someone living with me, and he does everything, including helping me dress and undress and fixes my meals and helps me move around.

I walk with a cane, very slowly. I can’t make much in the way of speed. My stability’s bad. I’m getting worse. The doctors know that.

I could have three months to live. It could be six months. It could be that the doctors just don’t know.

When it--death--happens, it’ll happen. I’m ready. I’ve talked to my sons about it, about what should be done. My doctor says as long as I have 24-hour help I can stay at home, and I prefer to be here in the apartment than in a nursing home or in a hospice.

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My approach to my life right now is this: Every day is one more day I’ve made it. That’s all. And I’m very happy because I’m ready to go at any time.

But I can’t help but think of what I’ve lost since my health began to fail. Before all this, I didn’t have to worry about falling down if I bent over sideways or leaned over or stuff like that. And now I can only walk a short distance without getting tired.

Last year at this time, I was able to do everything. Drive. Make a meal. My volunteer work. These days, I tend to fall asleep easily because I don’t sleep well at night.

I don’t remember parts of my life like I used to. The reason is that I’m much more interested in the present and the future.

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I’m interested in keeping in touch with friends. I tell them the truth when they come to visit.

That’s one of the benefits of being old. You can tell the truth without worrying about telling the truth. I don’t have to play along because it’s more convenient.

And another thing I’ve learned--and I don’t know whether it just has to do with aging--but it’s that most of us don’t listen to other people. I’ve learned how to listen. Everybody has an interesting story about his or her life, but it doesn’t always come out immediately. All you have to do is listen long enough, and it’ll come out.

You have to learn how to pay attention to what that person is saying and not interrupt with your own experiences.

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My experiences right now are with my health and what I’ve learned about myself, which is that the body changes. There’s not much you can do about it. Some things you can help, some things you can’t.

So you live with what you got. You don’t worry about what you can’t do. You get the most of life that you can get. I used to make speeches, and I’d say, “I can no longer climb mountains or go water skiing, but I never did at any time, so I didn’t miss anything.”

I was shocked a little bit when I heard I had cancer. But I accepted it. I didn’t make a big fuss over it. Remember, I’m 84. I’ve lived well.

I just want to tell people that things happen you can’t change. You just learn to make the best out of what you’ve got.

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I’ve lived long, of course. But the main thing is that I’ve lived well. My life’s been a good life. I don’t have any complaints, though there’s a lot of things I didn’t do that I wanted to do, like get to Italy and hear opera there. Opera is my major pleasure.

There’s one thing I didn’t tell you about aging.

Many people think of retirement as a time of pleasure. “I’m going to the racetrack every day because I never had the time before. I’m going fishing every day because I never had the time, or to a baseball game.” Well, what they find out after a while is these things don’t supply them with what’s necessary, and what is necessary is to be of value.

Mine is in volunteer work. I’m a volunteer in gerontology.

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You’ve got to find something that will make you be of value to other people so that people look up to you and you have self-respect. One of the highest rates of suicide in this country is white males over 85, due to loss of a spouse or a serious physical problem. In many cases, it was due to loss of self-esteem because nobody cared about them anymore, about what they thought or did.

Yesterday they were big shots, and today they’re nothing--so that’s something to think about. That’s why I kept on in volunteer work as much as possible.

Helping people has meant a lot to me, a reason to get up every day and be active. No matter what pains I may have, they disappear momentarily with people around.

* A party in Milton Tepper’s memory will be held at USC’s Ethel Percy Andrus Gerontology Center courtyard from 2 to 4 p.m. Sept. 9. A memorial gift can be made in his honor to the Andrus Center Volunteers, which he helped to found. For information, call Gitta Martin or Linda Broder at (213) 740-6060.

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