A One-Hoss Shay of a Man

Austin Sprang says he lives “in the past,” which for the 96-year old means he isn’t interested in cable TV, cell phones, computers, or any other modern devices. Eschewing typing, he still writes by longhand.

With a Ph.D. in chemistry, he was never without a job. For the past thirty-three years since retiring, he has established a busy schedule for himself, reading and discussing thought- provoking theological literature, keeping abreast of the news, maintaining a close relationship with family, and being perpetually active with fix-it projects. “I don’t like being idle,” he notes.

Since 1994, after losing two wives to cancer, Austin has remained a bachelor,
though three times a week he sees a special person with whom he dines and
watches TV or plays Scrabble or card games like Kings in the Corner.

He keeps abreast of the news and politics and votes by the individual, not the
party. “I can’t leave this planet yet,” he announces. “I’m too curious both
about the results of the 2008 election and many other current events that may
change my world.”

Every July Austin gathers with his extended family for a reunion near his old
Kenton, Ohio home. He maintains regular contact with his family and since
1950 every three months has penned a round robin letter to his remaining

Among his hobbies are completing complicated jigsaw puzzles, penning clever
one-liner comments on life, reading avidly, and doing vegetable gardening.

In former times he read scientific journals, but now he pours over stimulating
religious articles and books such as A New Christianity for a New World. Among
his favorite authors are French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who
sought to integrate religious experience and natural science, and liberal
Protestant theologian Leslie Weatherhead, who speaks of the “Christian

“This term fits me perfectly,” he says. “I question everything. For me, things
have to make sense.” Every Wednesday he meets with his minister and five
others to discuss books about theological issues and moral issues of right and

His close friends are few, but he has numerous acquaintances from many years
of being active in the Clifton United Methodist Church, a “reconciling” church
that accepts everyone and is tolerant of gays and lesbians. This fact fits well
with his own tolerant approach and his eagerness to learn from others. “You
learn more listening than you do talking,” he maintains.

His sensible approach to nutrition stems from the advice eighty years ago of his
high school biology teacher: Don’t eat too much meat, consume lots of
vegetables, and watch your portions. “I eat in moderation,” he states. “I
consume half of what most people eat in a day.” Liquor and cigarettes are not
for him.

Although he works out with weights three times a week, he far prefers practical
tasks such as mowing the lawn or fixing things around the house.

“I feel plain fortunate in my life,” Austin comments. “I’m thankful for a
wonderful family -- including six grandsons and a granddaughter by marriage --
good friends, and good health. My best advice is not to fight with people,
don’t quarrel,” he adds. “In a family you can disagree, but don’t fight. Be
accepting.” He refuses to let bad things dominate his thoughts, accepting what
comes and making the most of it.

“As long as I’m aware and can take care of myself, I’m not ready to go yet,” he
insists. Enduringly optimistic, he just renewed his driver’s license for another
four years, which would bring him to age 100.

As an example of how he wants to live, he cites Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poem,
The Deacon’s Masterpiece or The Wonderful One-Hoss Shay. In that poem, a buggy is
so well-crafted that it needs no repair for over 100 years. Then all at once, the
buggy completely wears out.

“I want to go just like that one-hoss shay,” he grins.

Austin Sprang