by Nancy Henkin, Ph.D., Generations United Senior Fellow
On Aug. 3 — what would’ve been her 115th birthday — I look back with gratitude and admiration for Maggie Kuhn, the national convener of the Gray Panthers and the woman who became my mentor.
After a productive career at the YMCA and then the Presbyterian Church, she was forced to retire at the age of 65. Outraged at the idea of mandatory retirement, Maggie founded the Gray Panthers — an organization dedicated to fighting against age discrimination, oppression and social injustice.
Their motto — “Age and Youth in Action” — emphasized the need for young and old to work together for social change.
I met Maggie in 1980. I was 32 then and she was 75. At the time, I had just started the Intergenerational Center at Temple University. I was young, passionate, and eager to change the world. A colleague suggested that I reach out to Maggie — a feisty older activist who was born in Buffalo, NY, but now lived near me in Philadelphia.
The first time we met, I knew she would have a great impact on my life. For years, every time we met in her living room, she would start our conversations by saying: “Let’s dream and scheme.”
Both a visionary and a realist, she knew where she wanted to go and how to get there. She encouraged me to think big, but to be strategic; to take risks and use failure as a learning opportunity; to speak truth to power. She was a powerful role model whose determination, passion, and grit greatly influenced my career.
Maggie was instrumental in helping to create our Center’s first intergenerational program: a 5-day, residential intergenerational retreat. For 25 years, approximately 75 people of varying ages, races, ethnicities, and abilities came together at Temple University’s suburban campus to live, learn, and support each other.
Maggie was our keynote speaker for many of the retreats, engaging us in the Gray Panther “growl” and sharing inspiring words with all generations. Her message then was as critical as it is now — that young and old need to understand each other and advocate together. These intergenerational retreats taught me the meaning of “community” and prepared me for the Communities for All Ages national initiative that our Center coordinated years later.
Maggie also taught me lessons about dealing with frailty and the loss of independence. Since Maggie suffered from arthritis, macular degeneration, and osteoporosis, traveling alone was not possible. So I became her travel companion.
Our first trip in 1980 was to present at an international conference in NYC. I remember getting off the train. While I was trying to hail a cab, Maggie had to put her arms around a pole to keep from being blown away by the wind. It was heartbreaking to see a woman I considered incredibly strong struggle. But rather than feeling embarrassed, she took this opportunity to talk to me about the value of interdependence and ways we could support each other at the conference and beyond.
Maggie spoke eloquently about the role of elders in our society. She inspired me to create a wide range of innovative programs that recruited older people to use their skills, talents and experiences to support children, youth, and families. These programs demonstrated the positive impact of intergenerational experiences on the well-being of both younger and older people. They served as models that were replicated across the country.
Little did I realize in my 30s, that I, too, would someday be an “elder,” seeking ways to continue contributing to society and sharing my experiences with younger generations. Now, at 72, I feel fortunate that as a grandparent and as a Senior Fellow at Generations United, I have an opportunity to mentor and learn from younger generations. I am still “dreaming and scheming,” but I am now doing it for both Maggie and me.
I know there is more that I and my age peers can do in these extremely challenging times. The words Maggie spoke 40 years ago are even more relevant today:
“We must act as elders of the tribe, looking out for the best interests of the future and preserving the precious compact between the generations.”
Hopefully, Maggie’s vision and legacy will be a continuing call to action for all of us to build a caring, just society.