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Centenarian lawyer Murray Shusterman's secret: Keep going

One of a number of our memorable stories from 2014.

Murray Shusterman travels daily from Bala Cynwyd to his Center City office. A son has another theory on what drives him: "Stubbornness." DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Murray Shusterman travels daily from Bala Cynwyd to his Center City office. A son has another theory on what drives him: "Stubbornness." DAVID SWANSON / Staff PhotographerRead more

Murray Shusterman began practicing law in 1936, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House - and he hasn't stopped working since.

Today, at age 101, he travels each day from his Bala Cynwyd home to his Center City office at Fox Rothschild, where his work has focused on corporate and real estate law.

"What? Retire? Sit in a rocking chair and wait to die?" Shusterman said in an interview. "All my life I've been active."

That's not changing as his 102d birthday nears. Shusterman drove a car until the age of 100. He played golf until last year.

The fact is, Shusterman said, he doesn't mind getting older. Particularly given the alternative. His mind is sharp, even if his hearing has dulled. His love for the law still shines.

"Murray is part of the fabric of this firm," said Michael Menkowitz, Fox Rothschild's managing partner. "I like to tease him when I see him walking out at 4 - 'What is this, a half day, Murray?' "

Shusterman also handles some estate-planning work. And his lifelong association with Temple University adds value to Fox Rothschild, where he's a ready source on Philadelphia civic and legal history.

The price of longevity, Shusterman said, is that the people you love disappear. All his oldest, dearest friends are gone. Their spouses too. And his brother and two sisters.

His wife of 65 years, Judith, died in 2005. Choosing her casket was a trauma.

So what keeps him going through the trials of aging and into work each morning?

"Stubbornness," said Philadelphia architect and attorney Robert Shusterman, 72, one of Shusterman's three sons. "He keeps pushing himself as hard as he can, and tries not to complain about things. He has a determination, a will to overcome impediments."

One thing that happens when you turn 100 is people ask your advice on the nature of life. How should they live? What should they do? How can they arc toward fulfillment and away from regret?

Shusterman's answer: Pfft. The meaning of life? Life is not a riddle to be solved. It's an adventure to be embraced. Go forward. Try your best. Get involved in causes that matter.

That's how he approached it.

"I did all the good things and all the bad things that a young fellow does," Shusterman said. "Except I had wonderful parents, and they gave me a sense of morality and generosity, and I've always acted accordingly."

When people learn Shusterman's age - he looks years younger - they often offer congratulations.

"And I say, 'For what?' " Shusterman said. " 'Did I just win a big case? If you want to congratulate someone, congratulate my great-, great-, great-, great-grandfather who gave me the genes.' "

Living into extreme old age, he said, is not something he sought or worked toward. It just happened. But it's nonetheless placed him in a rare group.

Only 54,956 people in the United States are 100 or older, according to Census statistics. That's 0.0002 of the population. By comparison, people 65 and older account for 13 percent of all Americans.

Centenarians as a group are overwhelmingly female (82 percent), usually white (83 percent), and increasingly urban. Their numbers are growing, up two-thirds between 1980 and 2010.

The oldest person in the nation is 115 - Jeralean Talley of Inkster, Mich., born May 23, 1899.

Shusterman arrived on Sept. 12, 1912, born in the Ukraine to parents who later emigrated to the United States.

That year, New Mexico became the 47th state and Arizona the 48th. The Girl Scouts were founded. The Titanic sailed and sank. In Boston, fans flocked to the opening of a new baseball cathedral, Fenway Park.

Shusterman, the youngest of four siblings, grew up first in Strawberry Mansion, then Logan, the Northeast, and finally Abington Township. The family moved to nicer homes as its finances improved.

His father, Herman, manufactured embroidery, turning out reams of embellished cloth for women's dresses and dining-room tablecloths, and making official insignia for the Army. His mother, Esther, kept house.

As a boy, Shusterman loved sports, playing baseball and football with friends, and running track at Simon Gratz High School.

When Temple offered a scholarship, he grabbed it - graduating with honors in 1933. Three years later he graduated with honors again, this time from the law school. Later on he earned a master's degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

Shusterman loved the law, loved its clarity and contradictions, believing it embodied "the dynamics of living, the progress or retrogressing that we're involved in."

When World War II erupted in 1941, Shusterman was 29, older for a potential soldier. Nineteen times he was classified 1A - immediately eligible to be drafted - and 19 times deferred, to continue serving as counsel to the Reconstruction Finance Corp., the Depression-era agency that helped the nation's banks resume normal operations.

A friend and supporter of Democrat Richardson Dilworth, the city's liberal, reformer mayor from 1956 to 1962, Shusterman spent 11 years as deputy city solicitor. He served as counsel to the Commission on Human Relations and helped write city laws on fair housing and employment.

His involvement in Jewish causes ran deep, as chairman of the city chapter of Friends of Ben Gurion University, and in leadership positions at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia and the local affiliate of International B'nai B'rith.

In 1994 he and his family gave $1 million to Temple Law School for the renovation of Park Hall, which reopened as Murray H. Shusterman Hall. Last year, Shusterman did more - donating $1.1 million to Temple Law to sponsor a professorship.

"His commitment and generosity have been an inspiration," law school dean JoAnne Epps said at the time.

Shusterman taught law as an adjunct professor for more than three decades, served on the university board of trustees, and in 1992 was elected an honorary, lifetime trustee.

Last week, Shusterman sat in his 19th-floor office, dressed in a pressed white shirt, polka-dot navy tie, and pin-striped blue suit.

On his desk was a Bar Association crystal honoring his 75 years as a Philadelphia lawyer. On the wall hung photos of Shusterman meeting presidents and statesmen - Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Henry Kissinger, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas.

In most of the photos, his hair is thick and dark. Today it's thin and gray.

He's journeyed beyond the average 77-year life expectancy of American men. But he doesn't fear death. He's planned his funeral and picked a coffin, not wanting his sons to bear that duty.

Pressed to name the best moment of his life, and the worst, Shusterman declined to do either.

"There's no such thing," he said. "A person has many experiences over time, some good, some bad. . . . The real secret is to be decent, to be fair, and to be forgiving - now and then even a friend will do something that annoys you. And don't take yourself too seriously."