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Golden Years Are Go-Getting Years for Activist, 71

October 14, 1985|URSULA VILS | Times Staff Writer

By his own estimation, Neel Buell is a failure, at least at one thing: Retirement.

"I just can't get the hang it," said Buell, who lives in Fountain Valley.

He has tried three times, he said, the first after 27 years as a Navy officer. Somehow, however, he's still working, on one thing or another: as a California Senior Legislature senator, as chairman of the National Silver Haired Congress, as "dean of heresy" for community college programs for the aging in Orange County.

And, he says, his life has never been more satisfying, never happier.

"I never just retire. I always retire to something," he said, taking a lunch break between recent California Senior Legislature sessions in Sacramento.

"I had always been interested in aerospace, in missilery, and after I retired from the Navy I wound up working on the Saturn-Apollo program at the McDonnell Douglas space division in Huntington Beach. It was a wonderful opportunity.

"Meanwhile, I was moonlighting, teaching in a community college. I decided to retire to teaching--so they made me an administrator." His task was programs for senior citizens.

Buell, 71 and looking 10 years younger, slim, attractive, a man to set the hearts of the Golden Girls aflutter, said that seniors really do not like that term. On a trip to Europe he decided to adopt the term in general use there, emeritus.

"The Emeritus Program at Orange Coast College started with three classes, 100 students--and within a year wound up with 4,000 students, all senior citizens.

"We made up our own classes. 'How to Help Your Widow While She's Still Your Wife' was one. It grew out of a problem a banker had with a woman who wanted to put $50,000 in her checking account. He knew it was not a wise move but as a banker he was not permitted by law to advise her and, of course, it was not in the bank's interest that he advise her to do otherwise. We got an attorney, an investment counselor and a banker to talk to the class."

Buell also began learning about political semantics. When an official objected to "Beachcombing Senior Style," he simply changed the class name to "Intertidal Ecology."

"That one had so many side effects," he said. "We would take a busload of seniors to a tidal pool at Corona del Mar. It was a transformation. They'd go from an elderly thinking, elderly acting group to a bunch of kids. They'd get off the bus like old folks, slowly and carefully, and the next thing you'd know they'd be climbing over rocks and splashing in the surf.

"Education is more than reading, writing and arithmetic."

Buell has been active with the Senior Legislature since its inception in California five years ago. Now adept at parliamentary procedure and maneuvering, he admits to a certain amount of confusion at first.

"The first year I felt like Christopher Columbus," he said, smiling. "Columbus didn't know where he was going, where he was when he got there or where he had been when he got home. That's how I felt."

For the past 2 1/2 years Buell has been involved with the National Silver Haired Congress, a movement to form a similar lobbying and advisory group to work on the federal level.

Recently named chairman of the steering committee, Buell emphasized that the National Silver Haired Congress is not designed to replace any existing program, such as the White House Conference on Aging. He also is concerned about its makeup and funding.

"Who is selected? How do you get those people to go to Washington? We do not want a country club set so we have to be funded," he said. "Perhaps funding could be by income-tax check-off. In one state the group was funded by a major political party--and that is not a good idea."

Buell noted that the California Senior Legislature's major agenda item has been a national health plan--a federal matter that the State Legislature cannot bring about.

In his concern about the deprived elderly, Buell backed a funding program to help enable less-affluent persons attend the Senior Legislature--and found inequities in that also. He related it to a congregate meal program that he was involved with in Orange County.

"The congregate meal program was free," he said. "My generation doesn't want anything for free. We want to be able to pay our way. The man who shows up for a congregate meal in his yachting cap isn't looking for a free meal; he wants company.

"We have fixed it now so a person can pay the price of a meal or put more--or less--in the kitty if he wants.

"I am also on the board of TLC--Transportation, Lunch and Counseling. We have to get people to the senior centers, transportation, for a good meal, lunch. Counseling comes in the form of classes--coping, assertive, intergenerational, how to be a volunteer. . . . This is the thing that has had such an impact on my life."

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