Living long, living well

By Margaret M. Treadwell

Uncle Buddy, our McDonnell family patriarch at 94, recently began taking guitar lessons. The last remaining brother of seven with no sisters, his favorite song is Amazing Grace, which he practices often on the guitar and daily in his life.

“How did you manage to live so long and so well?” his nieces and nephews wonder, seeing their own fathers in him. Buddy says, “It’s because God has something left for me to do.”

During World War II, Buddy served as ball gunner on a B-24 Liberator and was also on the B-17, known as the Flying Fortress. He flew 50 missions over Europe and received the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Service medals. The faded newspaper article with accompanying handsome picture cites his “courage, coolness and exceptional skill” which contributed to the success of these missions.

“Uncle Sam” trained Buddy to be an aircraft mechanic, which he parlayed into a post war job at Brookley Field in Mobile, his hometown. He retired in 1978, and after his beloved wife of 44 years died, Buddy lived by himself in Belle Fountain, Ala., tending his pecan orchard while pursuing his hobbies – bird watching, fishing, eating out, attending church and enjoying friends. Then, Hurricane Katrina hit and changed his life.

Enter my cousin Jean-Marie McDonnell of Daphne, Ala., an artist whose mother recently died. She says, “I had wonderful help in place. I needed to figure out a way to maintain my lifestyle. Buddy needed a place where he would not be alone. I believe family members should not be institutionalized if other alternatives are available. It’s working.”

She thinks three characteristics lend themselves to Buddy’s good quality of life and therefore his longevity:

* Positive Attitude. Although he has a bad knee, terrible hearing and needs a few pills for health issues, Buddy looks forward to what each day might bring, whether it be hummingbirds, church, a trip to the barbershop, grocery shopping, or sitting, his feet up in a recliner, to watch a football game with a potential Alabama win. He posts aphorisms around his room and the one he first sees in capital letters upon awaking is THINK POSITIVE SMILE.

* Love of All Things. Buddy loves people and always looks for the good in them. He keeps a box of the cards and letters he’s received and says, “I save my cards because they have so many beautiful thoughts from friends of mine that I love.” His care extends to plants – his pecan trees, the amaryllis as it blossoms – and to all animals, especially the little dog that jumps into his lap when he positions the recliner just right for her flying leap.

* Control Over his Own Life. Buddy’s decision to move in with Jean-Marie was his choice, as was giving up driving voluntarily after a small accident. He has created a routine to keep himself healthy and on course, such as carefully taking his medications with supervision, setting up the coffeepot for the next day, hanging up his clothes, praying a nightly rosary, dressing himself – including putting on his knee brace – doing exercises in his room, practicing the guitar and attending a weekly lesson, enjoying church in a caring community, and eating out twice a week with Jean-Marie.

Buddy wrote about the high points of his life for us cousins, his surrogate children. His chapters were: My Family: Boyhood Days at Point Clear (the most vivid with tales of all our fathers); Sailing and the Lipton Regatta (where he made the team several times, sailed in many regattas all over the country, and once won a race on Lake Ponchartrain in New Orleans); Wonderful Life with Mary Louise, 44 Years; Baseball; Friends; WWII Air Force; and The McDonnell Reunions (he eagerly awaits the next one in July).

He writes simply and clearly about his life and it is a testament to his 94 years lived with “Amazing Grace.”

Margaret M. “Peggy” Treadwell, LICSW, is a family, individual and couples therapist and teacher in private practice. She can be contacted at

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