Strauch & Son

At 101, John Strauch remembers the joy of welcoming his only child into the world. Jack is 77 now. They're two family men keeping each other young.

June 17, 2000|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

John Louis Strauch remembers the most remarkable moment of his 101 years. It happened at 3 o'clock in the morning, Nov. 7, 1922.

In his Pigtown rowhouse, he heard the doctor upstairs call out, "It's a lanky boy."

The baby's first cry brought elation, Strauch said. "I couldn't wait to get to the office to hand out cigars and tell the guys."

Seventy-seven years have passed since John Strauch's only child, John George "Jack" Strauch, was born.

The son went off to college, then to war, became a manager at General Electric, moved three states away, married, raised four children, lost his wife to cancer, retired.

And came home.

The son never planned to spend his retirement sleeping on the daybed in his dad's living room at Charlestown, a retirement community in Catonsville.

It just happened this way. Happily. And why not?

Family always came first for the Strauchs. Why shouldn't it come last?

They've been together now for a decade, two independent widowers sharing a little apartment cluttered with a century of memories told in the hundreds of photographs and figurines that cover every surface.

Dominating their rich little landscape is an oval portrait of the woman who most influenced their lives: Elizabeth Diehlmann Strauch, John's wife for 75 years, Jack's doting and enterprising mother.

She died in 1996, but her lush African violets still grace the coffee table, and her Royal Doulton china dolls still rest in glass cabinets.

Above John's favorite corner of the sofa is a pair of porcelain macaws, a gift from Elizabeth's baby sister, Emma Savin, now 85.

Father and son share a deep reverence for Elizabeth, a woman, they say, of towering strength, with a keen business mind and the ability to lead any group she ever joined - especially her own family.

Elizabeth was the matriarch, the decision-maker; John the quiet, dependable father who never drank or smoked much, worked for the B & O Railroad 46 years and always came home on time.

Perhaps their secret to longevity is their refusal to dwell on the past.

Together, father and son are a walking advertisement for everlasting vitality.

John is a soft-spoken centenarian with an amazing memory who still files his own tax returns and plays rummy with his great-grandchildren.

Though he has trouble walking and says he can't write anymore, John still plays cards at several Charlestown clubs that he and Elizabeth helped form a decade ago.

And he is still so lucid that his advanced age is only apparent when he recounts his own oral history: As a boy in the early 1900s, he watched a teen-age George Herman Ruth Jr. pitch a baseball at St. Mary's Industrial School in Southwest Baltimore.

He found the future "Babe" exceptional.

Jack, the son, is an indefatigable septuagenarian who studies French and Spanish, babysits his grandchildren and goes country and western line dancing several nights a week with a lady friend.

A recent Friday night finds father and son; Emma Savin, Jack's beloved "Aunt Em"; and Jack's lady friend at a union hall near Baltimore-Washington International Airport with a couple hundred line-dancing fanatics.

Early in the evening, the dance captain introduces John to the crowd.

"John was born in 1898," says the captain to applause.

Jack spends most of the night on the dance floor, never seeming to lose his breath - and only taking breaks to make sure his dad keeps to his two-beer limit. John's blood thinners don't mix well with beer, his son warns.

Em sits happily with John, her favorite brother-in-law, ruminating about what a good soul Elizabeth was and wishing she could still jitterbug.

A reporter asks if she remembers anything about Jack's birth. She was 8 when her nephew was born.

"How old are you now?" John asks his sister-in-law.

"Eighty-five," she shouts over the country music twang.

"Well, then," he says emphatically, "You should remember."

When Jack is not dancing, he is watching over his dad's shoulder, making his doctors' appointments, forcing him to exercise his legs by walking to pick up Jack's lunch every day at Charlestown.

Recent news that John has a blocked artery in his neck prompted his son to make an appointment for a second test.

"I don't want to go," the old man says, pouting.

"Well, you're going," Jack says.

The test this week showed that one artery is indeed completely blocked, giving John a chance of a stroke any time from one to 20 years from now.""I'll be happy if it's 10," John said yesterday.

The news didn't surprise him. "I suspected it, so I prepared myself for it. If there's nothing that can be done, there's no use worrying about it," he says.

"God has looked out for me. I certainly didn't do anything to live this long."

John and Jack's living room is a microcosm of their previous homes. Each has a card table that serves as his "office," stacked with bills, other mail, checkbooks, insurance policies.

When Jack came to Baltimore 10 years ago, he only planned a temporary stay in his parents' apartment, while he looked for a new house.

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