Lester Gingold has done enough in his 87 years to fill multiple lifetimes. Past president of the Memphis Cotton Carnival and the Better Business Bureau, board chairman of the Memphis College of Art and the American Cancer Society — the list goes on. We distilled some of the best bits of Gingold's storied career below, from General Patton's car accident to Chinese table tennis to Harry Truman in a bathrobe.
You have a long history in Memphis and elsewhere. Where does your story begin?
Well, I am originally from Birmingham, Alabama. During World War II, I served in the Combat Engineers overseas. I happened to be nearby when General Patton was killed in an automobile accident, and I took pictures of his wreck that are now in the Patton museum. Following the war, I returned to Birmingham. I started my career with Sears and eventually moved to Memphis.
Tell us about the Chinese table tennis team.
After Kissinger and President Nixon started making inroads with the Chinese, they arranged for the Chinese table tennis team to come into America, and I made arrangements for the team to come to Memphis. We were one of five cities to get this: New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Memphis. However, because of our relationship at the time, the criticism of China being a Communist country, there was a hue and cry for my scalp. People tried to get me fired from my job because they considered me a Communist just for wanting to bring the Chinese table tennis team to Memphis. It turned out to be a very exciting thing for Memphis, and I was exonerated.
What did you do after leaving Sears?
I retired from Sears when I was 59 years old and I had a call from The Commercial Appeal suggesting that I could come on as a consultant.
At the age of 59 you started a second career?
That was my first encore career.
And your second encore career?
When I left The Commercial Appeal after 15 years, I was called by MIFA (Metropolitan Inter-faith Association). At that time MIFA had a small paper called Active Times. I made a partnership with the Memphis Business Journal and we bought Active Times from MIFA and I became the publisher. After three years, MBJ was sold to the Newhouse Group and Active Times with it. Newhouse decided they didn't want to keep A ctive Times , so we closed it down and within 30 days I had started The Best Times . I've been publishing that ever since.
You have a picture on your wall of you shaking hands with President Johnson. Have you met any other U.S. Presidents?
I've met Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Truman, Johnson, Carter. Truman I met when I was giving a speech in Kansas City to the sales and marketing executives there, and the day before I said, "I'd love nothing more than to see President Truman." He was retired at that time, no longer president, and they said, "He lives in Independence and every morning at 6 he goes out to get the newspaper." So at 6 the next morning, I was out at his mailbox and I saw the paper there in his yard, and Harry Truman came out in a blue bathrobe and slippers. I said, "Mr. President, I know this is awkward, but I'm Lester Gingold from Memphis, and I'm going to make a speech here and I'd like to just talk to you for a few minutes." So we chatted for a few minutes.
And you met FDR, too?
When I was 7 years old, I was in Beacon, New York, visiting my uncle at his diner, right there where you catch the Beacon ferry to Newburgh, New York. One day I was sitting in this diner and a limousine drew up. My mother said, "That's the governor. I want you to meet him." So I walked out to the car, and she said, "Lester, this is the future president of the United States." And I shook his hand. That was Roosevelt.
What are you going to do next in your career?
Right here is my outline for a book. I have 20 chapters: "How to Grow Old Gracefully," "Diet and Exercise," "Lifetime Learning," "Creativity and Aging," "Writing Ethical Wills" — there are so many things right now that we can talk and write about.
What is the most important message that you want to send people about aging?
The philosophy of what is "old" is not what it was 10 years ago or 15 years ago. Look at Mayor Wharton — he's 65 years old and he's just starting a new career as the Mayor of Memphis. You must be positive in your outlook and be realistic in what's expected of you. Don't be embarrassed to hold a cane; don't be ashamed that you might be hard of hearing. You compensate for that in other ways. My message is to stay alive and have purpose in life every day.