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Expert on Aging Steps Down : For USC Dean and Wife, It's Not Same Old Thing

February 20, 1986|URSULA VILS | Times Staff Writer

After a lifetime spent studying the aging process, James Birren will officially join the geriatric ranks in June when he steps down as dean of USC's Andrus Gerontology Center.

Then he plans to get busy.

Among the array of projects and interests the 67-year-old scholar and his wife, Betty, have lined up is a long-delayed dream but also a bit of self-indulgence: He wants to write children's books.

Change of Pace

Admittedly, for a man whose career in gerontology literally spans the modern academic discipline of studying the aging, it is a distinct change of pace.

Yet, a children's book James Birren envisions is tied to aging in that it is a fable that deals with time.

As he and his wife relaxed in the pleasant living room of their Pacific Palisades home, Birren spoke of one of his stories, "King Later and the Gift of Time."

"It's about a king who got tired of being pushed around by Time and gets Time out of his kingdom," he said. "Such chaos results that he finally begs Chronos to give the country back the gift of time. When Chronos does, King Later decrees a New Year's celebration and changes his name to King Earlier the Better."

Prolific Writer

For a man who disliked writing in his youth and who now does it for fun, Birren has done his share professionally. He is the author of numerous books on gerontology and recently wrote an introduction to a Swedish study of people age 70 and older.

His latest venture came as a mid-interview surprise to Betty Birren: "I was invited to do a chapter in a book on developmental psychology," James Birren said, "and I said, 'I'll take adult developmental psychology.' " His wife raised her eyebrows: "I didn't know that until now," she said.

In addition to writing, Jim Birren has committed himself to a raft of projects: He is a consultant on aging to the Carnegie Foundation, chairman of the review committee for the National Institute of Mental Health, an adviser to the Brookdale Foundation on the selection of fellows, director of the Andrew Norman Institute for Advanced Study in Gerontology and Geriatrics and professor of psychology at USC, where he will continue to work at the Andrus Gerontology Center.

He is now in Japan for a Carnegie Foundation conference involving representatives of the U. S. Congress and the Japanese Diet who are meeting with professionals to look at aging and its implications. Betty Birren, herself a developmental psychologist with expertise in gerontology and a master's degree from Northwestern, where she and her husband met as graduate students, is an observer.

Headed for South Korea

From Japan the Birrens will go to Seoul, where, in Betty Birren's words, "Jim will be owned by the Korean psychological and gerontological associations" for about a week. They also will visit with a former fellow at the Andrus Center who has returned to his Korean homeland.

As they spoke, Birren rummaged through a closet "looking for those his-and-her plaques," which turned out to be commemorations of his tenure in 1956-57 and hers in 1980-81, each as president of the American Psychological Assn.'s Division of Adult Development and Aging.

"We were the first couple to be voting members of the (American) Gerontological Society at the same time," said Betty Birren, a petite, lively woman. "Yes, I'm a semi -pro. That means I don't get paid."

James Emmett Birren, a native of Chicago, received a bachelor of education degree at Chicago State University and master's and doctor of psychology degrees at Northwestern.

He left the top job at the National Institute of Mental Health's section on aging to come to USC in 1965 at the behest of Norman Topping, then president of the university, who saw a need to establish a program in gerontology.

Birren built that program, considered by most experts the finest in the nation. With the help of a three-year commitment from USC, a contribution from Ross Cortese, real estate developer of retirement communities (Rossmoor Leisure World) and one employee, Birren quickly established a program that drew major government funding.

By January, 1973, the Ethel Percy Andrus Gerontology Center was dedicated, built largely with contributions from members of the National Retired Teachers Assn. and the American Assn. of Retired Persons in honor of their founder.

"Probably more individuals contributed to this (the Andrus Center) than to any building at any university--more than 400,000 from 50 states," Birren said in an interview in his office at the center.

"It created in me a sense of obligation. There these (older) people were, groping for some outside interest. Physical education departments were training teachers for elementary schools, high schools or colleges. But the biggest need was for exercise and health programs for those over 22.

One Employee in '65

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