A Detailed Life

George Edler spent 80 years documenting the facts of his existence. But an ezploratin of the Maryland man's diaries suggests his life was much more than just the sum of its parts.

May 19, 1999|By ROB HIAASEN | ROB HIAASEN,SUN STAFF

George Christian Edler was born Dec. 13, 1889, in Chicago. On Jan. 1, 1907, at age 17, he started writing his life story. His first diary was a compact, black engagement book. Edler wrote neatly and stayed in the lines.

Up at lake. Played Hearts. Temp. around 32 degrees. To bed at 10. Ma not feeling well. ... Had applecake for breakfast.

George Edler died Feb. 25, 1987, in Bethesda. He was 97. His daughter-in-law, Joan Edler, wrote the last entry in the man's 80-year-old diary.

Joan here 10: 45. No pain but angry. I.V. and catheter still in. On Valium. Pastor Omholt visited 11: 30. Prayer. Moved to 5th Floor in afternoon.

Note: George Edler died 6 pm of kidney failure and cardiac arrest.

The rest of Edler's 1987 diary is perfectly crisp and blank. There is no mention of the day's temperature. He would have added that.

Edler's life was all in the details -- many mundane. Such is a life. He knew this a very long time ago -- after spending a day eating applecake for breakfast, playing Hearts, and noticing that his mother was not well and the temperature was 32 degrees. Every day of his unremarkable life, he felt the need to mark his time on earth.

But Edler also must have known no bulk of facts can tell the whole story. There must have been more to George Edler than what he left in 46 diaries and 10 notebooks. These pocket-sized diaries -- the Guinness Book of World Records claims Edler has the longest-kept handwritten diary on record -- are not allowed out of the Kensington home of his only child, George Edler Jr.

"He loved the details of life," says Edler, 66, toting out his father's diaries. No one has ever asked to see them, not since the Guinness people had to verify the world record in 1987.

George and his wife, Joan, have only skimmed the diaries. After all, that's 80 years of details. "I figured if I ever broke my leg, I'd have the time to read them," Edler says. Plus, he and his wife knew the man all too well.

They knew his habits -- the way he always noted the day's temperature, who visited him and the length of their stay, the total mileage on his 1958 Pontiac in 1959 (1,707 miles), when he passed a kidney stone or was stung by a yellow jacket, the cost of groceries for 1958 ($474.92) and the cost of each meal out plus tip.

"He was a statistician by trade. That should tell you something," says Joan. Her father-in-law had been a longtime employee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture; Edler knew crops and seeds and kept track of them for a living. The diaries seemed a natural extension of his personality.

"He was keeping his life in order," Edler Jr. says.

His father spent a lifetime taking notes. "It was real obvious," says Edler's granddaughter, Nancy Cadigan. Now 40, she spent Sunday after Sunday visiting her grandfather when she was growing up.

"Instead of saying `hello' he would look at his watch. When you left, he would look at his watch. He knew exactly how long you were there."

Family members suggest that the diaries were perhaps meant to solve any family argument, lest Edler Sr. was challenged on a point of family fact. "He was a tough German," Joan says.

Beyond that hunch, the family isn't sure exactly why Edler wanted to keep his life is such order. "None of us really asked him, `Why are you doing this?' " Nancy says. "But he did have sort of a goal in mind.

"He wanted to live long enough to see himself in the Guinness Book. "

Edler died before he saw his entry in Guinness -- a book whose very factual nature he must have appreciated. But we saw it -- which led us to his son and to a cardboard box packed with the factual remains of George C. Edler, world record-holding diarist.

Telling his story

At age 89, George Edler was living in a retirement center in Bethesda and had all the time in the world. Long since widowed from his wife Edna, Edler began to write his life story based on the 46 diaries he had written since 1907. His idea was to edit the events already recorded in his diaries.

I won't color a story to make it more interesting, Edler wrote in 1978 to readers of his autobiography.

He kept his word.

Nowhere in what would become a manuscript of 10 binders would there be evidence of any coloring. Edler was not a man to exaggerate or spike a story. No one ever witnessed him telling a joke. What made him laugh?

"I'm trying to remember," his son says.

Yet, men have their passions, don't they? For this former traveling seed salesman, his beloved sports often took top billing in his entries:

Dec. 7, 1941. Raw wind from NW and temp about 40. Wore heavy underwear. Redskins 20-Eagles 14. Sammy Baugh threw 2 touchdowns to Aguirre. Home at 6: 30. Japan bombed our possessions in Pacific early today.

July 20, 1969. TV: All channels run minute-by-minute accounts of Apollo 11 flight. Even baseball games were sidetracked. Yanks beat Senators 3-2 in 11 innings. Saw Neil Armstrong step onto the moon.

Family events, such as the birth of his granddaughter, warranted equally dispassionate mention:

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