A master journalist’s guide to a vibrant old age

April 26, 2011, 8:11 PM UTC

In Never Too Late, A 90-Year Old’s Pursuit of a Whirlwind Life, Roy Rowan pictures old age not as sedentary geezerdom, but as a journey of discovery, recalling his own wondrous trips aboard the world’s fabled railroads. Call it an Orient Express of the mind. Rowan wants the oldsters to keep chugging ever forward towards a new destination — meaning the goals you set for yourself, and Rowan likes them challenging.

The marvelous course of Never Too Late winds back and forth between primer and memoir. The primer part offers lessons for living a fruitful, exciting life in the post-retirement years. Rowan’s main message is to maintain a kind of aerobic high by staying extremely busy. For him, life is all about passion, and he advocates finding something you simply adore doing as your ticket to retirement express, even if it’s far removed from the job you recently left. “Learn to play a musical instrument, master a foreign language, take up sketching or painting, or enroll in a course in gourmet cooking,” intones Rowan.

That advice may sound familiar, but the book’s main inspiration — as I’ll later attest, since Rowan is an old friend and mentor — is the full, adventurous, rollicking life story of the author himself, whose ardor for journalism keeps him extraordinarily productive at age 91. Rowan enjoyed one of the most illustrious careers in the history of Henry Luce’s magazine empire, Time Inc., which publishes Fortune.

He covered the fall of China and the Korean War for Life, the legendary photo weekly, and America’s doomed mission in Vietnam for Time, escaping on the last helicopter from a rooftop in Saigon. In his sixties, Rowan was a star at Fortune, where he chronicled everything from the inside story of the Hunt brothers’ epic speculation in silver to the rebirth of capitalism in China, returning after half a century to the provincial cities where he’d transported supplies for the United Nations, and watched the civil war unfold from such close range that a bullet pierced the windshield of his jeep.

Never Too Late is filled with priceless anecdotes. There is a description of the million-man battle of Huai-Hai in late 1948 between the Chinese Communists and Nationalists that sealed Chiang’s fate, with Rowan watching from a hilltop alongside the Nationalist commander who watched his artillery with pride, certain of his superior firepower. He gives an account of Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa minutes after reading Rowan’s less-than-flattering profile in Life, and threatening enigmatically, “Just because I keep a gun in the drawer doesn’t mean I’ll use it.”

Rowan also offers a vivid portrait of his boss Henry Luce, whom he describes as intensely curious and constantly brimming with questions, and intensely opinionated as well, lecturing Rowan on how Chiang — a close friend whom Luce tirelessly championed — would triumph in China’s civil war. Rowan risked his job by telling his employer that the warfare he witnessed first hand showed that Chiang was doomed.

Nor was Luce above bullying. Rowan relates that during his stint as an editor at Life, it was an open secret among the staff that Luce had virtually chosen another editor, and a close friend of Rowan’s, for the top editorial job. Yet Luce took Rowan to lunch and ordered him to develop a competing template for the weekly. The boss pledged that if he liked it, he’d anoint Rowan to run Life. Realizing he’d fatally antagonize the editor he was destined to work for, with no real hope of getting the job for himself, Rowan simply ignored Luce’s request — and considers himself fortunate that Luce never renewed it.

Rowan extols what he calls “the three E’s” for success in life and retirement: enthusiasm, exertion and energy. Perhaps he should add a fourth quality, talent, which Rowan showed in abundance while in China working for the U.N. As an aspiring journalist, he sharpened his eye for color and detail by recording vignettes in a notebook he kept for more than 60 years, and mined for his recent memoir of China, Chasing the Dragon. Read this account of driving a jeep on China’s rough roads, full of Hemingway-esque color and clarity:

For a few months, I had driven cautiously easing my jeep in and out of craters and humps. Patience and care gradually gave way to masochism. Now I stomped on the accelerator, holding tight to the steering wheel as the jeep smashed into holes or took off in the air. Still the engine kept whirring while I sucked in mouthfuls of red dust and cursed every jolt. Lurking in the back of my mind was the hope with the next solid whack my battered jeep might may finally lay down and die. Then I could walk as intended on these ancient roads of China.

The power of positive thinking

I’m particularly drawn to two pieces of advice in Never Too Late, since I’ve witnessed first-hand how much Rowan has benefited from practicing them. The first is nurturing old friendships. His guide is 18th century sage Dr. Samuel Johnson, who declared, “Keep friendships in constant repair.” Rowan relates how staying in touch with a photographer who became Gerald Ford’s confidant and personal White House photographer gave Rowan the entrée he needed to do a long, exclusive interview with Ford for his book Four Days of Mayaguez, an account of how the cargo ship was attacked at sea by Cambodian gunboats and how Ford­­­­ — as he told Rowan in the Oval Office­­ — orchestrated its rescue.

The second is his belief in the power of optimism. Rowan confesses, or rather boasts, that he’s “loony on positive thinking.” It’s not that he ignores the facts when they spell an inevitable failure, just the blindness he witnessed in Chiang and his generals. It’s the mental exercise of “framing” or anticipating that you’ll get the story, or the date, or the job that you crave. Rowan swears that visualizing success can make it happen.

I had the pleasure of witnessing that boundless optimism in action. In 1980, I had just joined Fortune as reporter. In those days, reporters seldom wrote stories. Instead, they were assigned to work for seasoned writers, taking notes in longhand during interviews, and then typing them up on IBM (IBM) “Selectrics,” using plenty of white-out. The job may sound menial, but I got an amazing education from watching how a master like Roy Rowan absorbed telling details and searched for the right metaphor to weave into his stories.

Most of all, I learned that journalism has an entrepreneurial side. Writers need to double as convincing sales people to win the confidence of wary sources, and no one could sell himself better than Roy Rowan.

Here’s a tale that Roy doesn’t relate in his book. When I was assigned to Roy, he’d just written two extremely critical stories about the Hunt brothers of Dallas, who had just careened from gigantic gains to multi-billion dollar losses in the silver market. But somehow, Roy talked the Hunts into “telling their own story, in their own words.”

So on a Friday, we were sitting across from Bunker and Herbert Hunt in their Dallas offices. Herbert asked how much time we needed. Roy didn’t just request a couple of hours. He said we’d need most of the weekend, a request I thought was so brazen it was bound to fail. But they agreed, and Roy spent the next morning jogging with Herbert, who then cooked him a “truck driver’s breakfast” at his house. We got a tour of Herbert’s paintings, with Herbert commenting that he often bought them for the frames instead of what artwork inside. We proceeded to lunch at a Mexican eatery, then to Big Bunker’s manse, where the silver and oil magnate dropped one memorable line after another. Asked how he liked Paris — he’d just returned from the City of Light — Bunker quipped, “Sure is tough to get a bad meal in Paris. Sure is tough to get a cheap one, too.” Followed by, “When I paid my bill at the Ritz, I thought I’d bought the place.”

Roy found a memorable metaphor for our weekend with the Hunts. He called it “A moveable journalistic feast,” from Herbert scurrying around the kitchen to the news-breaking revelation that the Hunts had pledged a still-astounding $9 billion in collateral to the banks on their silver loans.

Then, Roy was just 60, and he brought the same passion to Dallas he’d shown in his early, vivid accounts of the Chinese civil war. At 91, he’s rounding still another bend into a new landscape, working with producer The Film Group of China to bring Chasing the Dragon to the screen.

The main lesson from Never Too Late is that you can keep excelling at something you love for a long, long time. Roy Rowan was lucky indeed to find what he was put on this earth to do from early on. His message is that you can find it at any age. The spires of Venice and domes of Istanbul await you. So think with your heart, pick a romantic destination, and get on that train.

More from Roy Rowan in the Fortune archives:

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