Living Century PBS Series: History through Centenarian Eyes

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For video producer Steven Latham "every stereotype of aging just went out the window and really turned my world upside down about what it meant to get old." He had just met his first centenarian, Senior Olympics shot-put champion Ben Levinson, age 104. Now, Latham had no doubt about the value of producing a series of public television programs about some of the more vital people who had lived almost every day of the 20th century. But where would he find others?

Latham and his coproducer, Christopher Carson, had heard about 107-year-old Rose Freedman-the last remaining survivor of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire-but finding her, and discovering if she was even alive, seemed a daunting challenge. Latham's research tool seems laughably obvious now-he Yahooed. Within moments, his Internet search on Yahoo turned up a Rose Freedman, not in New York, where she had spent most of her life-but 100 yards down the street from his office in Beverly Hills.

"I literally ran out, got flowers and went over to her apartment and introduced myself," Latham said. Freedman, more than a survivor of one 90-year-old tragedy, proved to have lived "an extraordinary life, beginning as an immigrant in New York."


The witness Freedman bore to the past century included saving the life of an Austrian spy during World War I and caregiving for two of her children who contracted polio. After turning 100, this "very lively and funny woman," an avid painter and basketball fan, began studying Spanish, Latham said. Three Miracles, his half-hour documentary about Freedman, also proved to be the last onscreen appearance by the video's narrator, the late Jack Lemmon.

Three Miracles and A Teacher and Student for Life-about Ray H. Grist, who helped develop the first atomic bomb as the director of the Manhattan Division of the Manhattan Project-won awards at 18 film festivals and were originally aired on PBS in 2001. (When Latham and Carson found him at age 103, Crist was teaching college and pursuing research on ways to protect the environment.) These two programs will be aired on PBS in April along with three new productions under the series title "The Living Century."

* Double Duty profiles Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe, at age ioo the oldest living former player from the Negro Baseball League. Guys and Dolls writer Damon Runyon appended the moniker "Double Duty" on Radcliffe after watching him in the 1932 Negro League World Series. In a double header, the versatile athlete caught a game for the great Leroy "Satchell" Paige-then took the mound to pitch a shutout in the second game. He played on the first integrated semipro baseball team, a dozen years before Jackie Robinson broke the Major League color barrier.

* A Peaceful Warrior is about journalist Robert St. John, who survived a vicious beating by the Al Capone gang after the young reporter exposed Big Al's brothel operation, and later broadcast live for NBC during the blitzkrieg while the Nazis were bombing London. St. John, who wrote 22 books, became the first American broadcaster to report the surrender of Japan and the end of World War 11.

The only one of the five programs to run one hour (the others are 30 minutes long), A Peaceful Warrior is hosted by Walter Cronkite, and part of it compares St. John's wartime experience with that of Perfect Storm author Sebastian Junger-representing the next generation of correspondents-as he covered Afghanistan and other war-torn areas after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. St. John died Feb. 7, at age 100. …