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Louis StokesMythbuster: Louis Stokes

retired U.S. Congressman

Date of interview: June 1999

A trip to former U.S. Congressman Louis Stokes' new office at Case Western Reserve University's Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences illuminates one vibrant road of his future. The school hallways are filled with bright, bold colors. Modern artwork covers the walls. Students are passionately discussing social policy issues in open, congenial spaces. The school represents innovation in social work and the future of social policy and justice. This is all too fitting for a retired U.S. Congressman who concludes a distinguished 30-year career serving his community and his country, while continuing to look forward as he takes on two major assignments in his "third" career.

We sat down to dialogue with Congressman Stokes as he embarks on his journey as both Visiting Scholar to the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences and Senior Counsel in the Washington D.C. office of Cleveland law firm Squire, Sanders and Dempsey.

How would you characterize successful aging?
I'm not sure I know precisely what the term "successful aging" means. If by successful aging you mean continuing to be active and involved and productive, not withstanding that one is older than 65 years of age, then that might be a good definition of successful aging.

I have worked since I was 12 years old. I have never been without a job. I love work. I feel good when I am productive and I am involved and being active. I perhaps overdo it in the sense that one should have hobbies. People say to me all the time "what are your hobbies?" Frankly, I don't have a hobby. My hobby is work. I just love work. If anything has enabled me to fit your category of successful aging, it is that I have spent a lifetime working.

Do you feel that there are myths held to seniors?
Yes, there are myths relative to aging. I suppose there are also some realisms relevant to it, in the sense that many people tend to think that simply because you have grown older, you are supposed to act in a certain way. I don't know how to act old. I try to think young. I try to act young, in the sense that I don't think of being old. I think of someone who has gracefully matured and aged.who by virtue of the maturation process just continues going on.

How do you continue to "age successfully?"
I think it is attitude. When I was growing up, someone age 50 was an old person and in fact in many cases, you really thought of them as being decrepit. Often, they lent credence to that because that's the way they acted. They stopped working, they stopped being productive. They stopped being involved. They just sat around. By sitting around they just deteriorated.

When you look at what is occurring in terms of the aging process in America, for instance, the fastest growing segment of American society is those who are 85 years of age and older. As more and more people fall into the category of those reaching age 100, I anticipate that into the next millennium people will start gravitating towards age 200. How can I at age 74 think that I'm old? I'm a baby next to those people. That means I've got a whole lot more years to live.

I did not feel that I wanted to continue serving in the United States Congress because the pressures are tremendously impactful on a person and I saw myself not needing to continue at my current age with my congressional responsibilities. I was working 12-14-16 hour days seven days a week. That's the only way I knew how to do it. That's the pace I set for myself. After 30 years I felt I didn't need that particular pace. At the same time, I knew I could not go home, sit down in front of my TV set, read my newspaper and fall asleep in the chair. I had to become involved again.

With your public service career behind you, to what are you looking forward now?
The challenge of engaging in a third career at the age of 74 is very exciting. To think that I've now come back into the practice of law is thrilling. I practiced law for 14 years as a criminal trial defense lawyer before I went to Congress. I spent 30 years in Congress. Now, to come out and have a worldwide law firm, Squire, Sanders and Dempsey, accept me as Senior Counsel in their firm is very flattering. Most law firms kick you out at 65. The fact that they said "you've got value to us, we'd like you to be a part of this firm" at the age of 74 should say something to a lot of seniors and juniors. In respect to one of the myths that after 65 you don't have much utility to a law firm, for them to reach out and take a man who is 74 years old and say "oh yes he does have value" should cause some of the law firms to rethink that myth.

Simply because one reaches age 65 does not mean you are not still totally possessed of your faculties. You have more to offer at this age. In my own case, I bring 30 years of service in the United States Congress to the law firm. Thirty years of experience, responsibility at the highest level of the United States government, which also means the highest level of government in the world. It seems to me that it was wise on their part, too. With it come influence, contact and knowledge.

Perhaps even more challenging is something I've never done before, and that is to have the opportunity to teach and come back to Case Western Reserve, which was my school, where I as a young person matriculated. To think that I come back to that same school and have the opportunity to teach young people is extremely challenging. I think I bring to them something that other members of the faculty have not had the advantage of doing. I come from experience in having served the United States Congress. I bring to academia something very special. To try and talk with young people, be challenged by them, to try and engage them in meaningful dialogue and to help their thinking process is all very challenging to me.

What do you want younger people to understand about seniors?
Young people need to look at seniors as a fountain of knowledge. I had a different attitude towards older people as I came along in my profession. Both in the law and in politics, I sat at the feet of some giants. I learned from them and I used everything I learned from them to enhance my own qualities and talents. For instance, as a young lawyer, I was picked by a man named Norman S. Miner. Norman Miner was probably the greatest criminal lawyer this state has ever seen. He became a legend in the courtroom. He selected my brother and I when we were very young lawyers for his firm. For eight years, I sat behind Norman Miner in every top murder case in this city. We tried everything from murder cases all the way down to assault and battery. When I left him after 8 years, just sitting behind him and trying cases with him under his guidance for 8 years, I was an accepted, acknowledged accomplished trial lawyer. Where else could I have gotten that kind of experience had I not been able to sit at his feet and learn from him.

In the same way, when I entered politics, I followed examples set by my brother [Carl Stokes] who sat at the feet of people like John O. Holly of the Future Outlook League, W.O Walker, publisher of the Call and Post, Charles V. Carr, Councilman Jimmy Bell. We sat there and learned from them and they taught us so much. Where can you get the benefit of avoiding the traps that they could keep us from falling into by virtue of telling us about them. You've got the opportunity to learn from those more experienced and enhance your own ability. Apply my experience to those in other fields and it represents what I said earlier. Seniors are a fountain of knowledge and experience from which people can benefit.

What would you say to the seniors who are sitting at home and are hesitant to get out and be more active?
So many of our seniors still can be involved in the community. Not all of us have the same energy level, nor do we all have the same interests or are motivated in the same manner. An excellent opportunity is RSVP [Retired Senior Volunteer Program]. Peg McCarthy, its recently retired director is an example of what it is to have energy and instill volunteerism in people. I've been to RSVP events where luncheons have 1,000 people. All of them are over age 65. All take pride in the fact that they volunteer hundreds of hours a year in their communities.

Nothing is more beautiful than to see seniors standing up receiving certificates for the number of hours that they volunteered. Many of them still want to be involved after retiring in the same way that I still want to be involved. Some of them go into high schools or social service agencies. If they don't really want to work at jobs, they can volunteer time in their community. They bring so much in terms of their experience and knowledge to organizations and people in the community.

In the last 30 years, what experience from service as a U.S. Congressman stands out in your mind?
The types of things that have made me proud are little things. I often receive letters or get stopped by people who thank me for something that I did. Sometimes it's a mother who will say "you don't know me but I wrote to you asking for your help in getting my son to return from military service temporarily for a family funeral. You got him back here in 48 hours." That is something that they haven't forgotten that we were able to provide for that family, an opportunity for that young person to return when the family was in need. Those are things that make me most proud because that's why I went to Congress. To be able to provide service to people are the little things that tell you that you are doing your job.

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Congressman Louis Stokes passed away on August 18, 2015 at the age of 90.