Secrets from a centenarian: David Von Drehle’s The Book of Charlie is an American resilience tale
The veteran journalist's new book is a sprawling examination of life's meaning, which has already earned accolades from fans like actor Tom Hanks.
From the time he saw 102-year-old Dr. Charlie White washing his girlfriend’s car in only his swim trunks, David Von Drehle knew his new neighbor was someone he wanted to know.
It was a muggy, early August morning in 2007. After being offered a remote job as editor-at-large for Time magazine, Von Drehle and his wife had just moved their family of six from Washington, D.C., to Mission Hills, KS.
“There was something magnetic about Charlie—he was very approachable,” Von Drehle says. “He obviously was a great storyteller. He liked to laugh but would always advise that it’s important to be able to cry as well.”
With his muscular chest, flowing hair, sharp mind, witty conversation, and apparently thriving love life, Charlie White seemed to defy the laws of biology and the passage of time. While White’s physical agility was nearly unheard of for his age, what was even more impressive was his deep well of wisdom accumulated from living from the early 1900s to the 2000s.
White’s story, which would end after 109 years on this earth, is the centerpiece of Von Drehle’s new book, The Book of Charlie: Wisdom from the Remarkable American Life of a 109-Year-Old Man. Praised by Tom Hanks and to be featured on CBS News Sunday Morning, the local veteran journalist’s book details White’s secrets to living a happy life amid dramatic change
After all, White was a seasoned master of living through change and revolution. He lived through two world wars, the 1918 flu pandemic, The Great Depression, and The Civil Rights movement. He then went on to see the election of the first Black president and the emergence of social media. He saw the invention of both the radio and the iPhone.
To Von Drehle, there was no better story for the book he had always wanted to write for his children.
Von Drehle had a close relationship with kids, and a big part of that was the bond they built while he read to them before bed from the hallway floor outside their bedrooms. They soon discovered their father was a writer himself, and as a journalist, he provided for his family by learning things and writing about them to share with others.
Von Drehle’s writing success would only continue to grow throughout his career. He would go on to contribute more than 60 cover stories as editor-at-large at Time magazine and write a handful of books before The Book of Charlie. Von Drehle is a deputy opinion editor and columnist at The Washington Post, which he has been writing for from his Kansas City home since 2017.
So it only felt natural to Von Drehle that he wraps White’s story up in a book—though it may not be what his children were expecting when they requested that he write one for them years earlier.
Though the world may feel turbulent and divided now, he says, the array of challenges we face today isn’t anything those who lived through the 20th century didn’t face in some respect. In telling White’s story, Von Drehle wanted to show his children—and people everywhere—how to thrive and remain happy in the maelstrom of change that is today’s United States.
“I could show that America has always been divided,” Von Drehle says. “Race issues have always been really tough to talk about and painful. The economy has always looked scary. The world has always been an unsettled and dangerous place.”
That is not to say today’s issues are not very real and challenging, Von Drehle stresses. But White was a living, breathing testament that you could endure a century of these challenges while maintaining your fervor for life and faith in humanity.
One of White’s secrets, Von Drehle believes, is the Stoic mindset and approach to life White adopted following the sudden tragic death of his father in an elevator accident. At just eight years old, White faced one of the toughest conceivable losses most of us can think of.
After surviving this grief, Charlie decided he could get through anything. Life is utterly unpredictable, he understood. Many things are completely out of your control—like life and death or the tragic accident that takes your father.
Like the teachings of the great Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece, White would begin focusing on what was in his control.
“There are a few things we can control: our thoughts, purposes, intentions, and actions,” Von Drehle says. “We can control how we react to things, how we spend our time, and our energy. These are things in our power. But everything else is outside of our control.”
White couldn’t control the technological and medical advancements that rendered his previous medical training obsolete midway through his career. He could, however, control his grit, actions, and outlook. He could be completely retrained, find a new specialty, and become one of the first anesthesiologists in Kansas City. And that’s exactly what he did.
“I’ve found it really a hard philosophy to live,” Von Drehle said. “I’ve learned it and forgotten it many times in my life. But I’m always better off psychologically under this Stoic philosophy, and Charlie really exhibited it.”
While White knew he had an interesting life and enjoyed telling his stories, he did not think of himself as a philosopher. The Stoic mindset was simply a school of thought he embodied and an approach to life that was contagious to others.
“If there’s anything about the book that would have surprised him, if he lived to see it, it would be that I believe he exemplified some philosophy of life,” Von Drehle says.
When I talked with Von Drehle, he had just wrapped an interview with CBS News earlier that day. The weekend prior, he had made the trek down to Tulsa at Tom Hanks’ invitation to speak at the American cultural icon’s own book event. This came after Hanks, who has the same agent as Von Drehle, announced to his nearly 10 million Instagram followers his enthusiasm for The Book of Charlie.
Von Drehle didn’t expect to get this much attention surrounding his book, let alone from one of his favorite actors.
“I don’t know how people can possibly experience that level of fame over so many years and still be warm and genuine when they meet a new person. [Mr. Hanks] was very good at listening—though, he doesn’t really care what I have to say,” Von Drehle remarked humbly.
The Book of Charlie will be released Tuesday, the same day as the book launch event that will take place at Unity Temple on the Plaza at 7 p.m. that day. With the purchase of one copy of the book from Rainy Day Books, you can get two tickets to the event. Von Drehle will be joined in conversation with Steve Kraske, host of Up to Date on KCUR 89.3 FM.