A remarkable life continues at age 100
Richard J. Bing of La Cañada Flintridge got good and mad at his power company last month and fired off a letter to the editor to share his tale of woe.
FOR THE RECORD:
Richard Bing: Steve Lopez’s column in the Sept. 12 Section A about 100-year-old retired physician Richard Bing said that Charles Lindbergh had persuaded Bing to move to the U.S. in the 1930s to do heart-related research that might help Lindbergh’s ailing sister. In fact, Lindbergh suggested the research on behalf of his sister-in-law. —
“I know injustice when I see it,” said Bing, whose venting was made all the more impressive by his age.
“I am a retired, 100-year-old physician.”
If I were so lucky as to ever see 100, I’d want it to be like this — still throwing punches.
I called Bing, who explained in a German accent that SoCal Edison cut off power in his neighborhood Aug. 2 to make repairs. Before the cutoff, he told Edison he was on oxygen and would be a “dead duck” without power.
Get a generator, he was told. And so he did.
Now hire an electrician to install it, he was told. And so he did.
When the bill topped $1,000, Bing thought the utility should help pay it or at least apologize for putting a housebound centenarian through such trouble. But he got no satisfaction.
When I spoke to Bing by phone, I was more interested in him than his dispute. He said he’d retired at 93, as if that were normal. He said that he’d written hundreds of classical music compositions before medical school, that he slipped “out the back door” to Switzerland when Hitler moved into power in Germany and that Charles Lindbergh had persuaded him to move to the U.S. in the 1930s to do heart-related research that might help Lindbergh’s ailing sister.
I Googled Bing’s name and it was all true. I had a Renaissance man on the line, his breathing labored but his mind sharp.
“You should take a look at my video on YouTube,” Dr. Bing suggested, and so I did, enjoying a short documentary on an amazing life that included a stint as education director at Huntington Hospital (Bing is still technically on the faculty at Caltech).
Twice last week, I went to Bing’s home, where he lives with a caretaker who comes running when Bing rings a call bell that plays the start of Beethoven’s Fifth. Bing, who made great contributions in heart research, has a failing heart, of all things, as well as skin cancer.
Bing said he’s grown mellower and more tolerant with age, which makes you wonder how he handled utility companies at 70 and 90. He said he most values his extended family of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. By day, he sits in an easy chair surrounded by great books and photos of loved ones, and he powers up his computer to write for medical journals.
“Life, it’s in you,” said Bing as his cat, Louis, climbed on top of the piano to catch the warm light coming through from the garden. “It’s a composite of all your organ systems telling you you won’t die,” even as hard evidence to the contrary gathers darkly.
In one of the more poignant moments of the documentary, Bing says: “The time goes like a river with great speed, and all of a sudden you find yourself 100 years old. It seems to me that only a few years ago I was middle-aged, and only a few years ago was a child.”
And so it was 80 years ago that he switched from music to medicine, believing the latter would provide steadier work.
“Medical research and music have in common the drive to create,” he says in the video. “The desire to create is really a desire to see something that has been invisible....”
There’s a story, by the way, about the video.
“I was in my office one night and a letter came down from marketing, saying, ‘Hey, take a look at this,’ ” says Stefan Weitz, a Microsoft executive.
Microsoft had just launched a search engine called Bing, and a certain La Cañada doctor had written a tongue-in-cheek letter to Microsoft chief Steve Ballmer saying he’d been using the name for 100 years and was prepared to offer his services.
Weitz found that Bing was a father of pediatric cardiology and had written numerous books, among other accomplishments. So he and a colleague flew south to meet him and were dazzled. They called some Hollywood contacts, and the resulting documentary was featured at Sundance. It was shot last October at Bing’s 100th birthday, with members of the L.A. Philharmonic providing entertainment.
“He’s like a grandfather figure to me,” says L.A. Phil violinist Camille Avellano, who met Bing 25 years ago when she was asked to play some music he had written. She now arranges concerts in his home for each birthday celebration.
“He’s a walking history book,” Avellano said. “He’s lived a truly momentous life, and he’s very modest about everything that happened and the people he rubbed shoulders with.”
Yes, said Bing, it’s been a full life, and now he’s tired. But he called Bach’s famed lyric “Come sweet death, come blessed rest” a “ridiculous” notion.
“Death isn’t something sweet,” he said, telling me he fears the end.
There’s some comfort, he agreed, in having made contributions to science and art, although he’s known great doctors and artists who in death have become “as unknown as a dead squid.”
But maybe fear is the surest sign of the life still in him, I suggested as Bing’s oxygen tank hissed and sighed.
Well, Bing replied, he does still hunger for information, ideas, conversation.
“There’s much to learn,” he said, the once-young man visible in a twinkling eye.