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Not the Retiring Type : No Mere Layoff Threat Can Stop 90-Year-Old Albert Christopher

August 16, 1995|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Albert Christopher's worst nightmare was that he'd be forced into early retirement by his county's budget crunch.

Christopher is 90.

He was devastated when his boss, Pastor Herrera Jr., director of the Los Angeles Department of Consumer Affairs, gave him the news: Christopher was one of the temporary employees who had to be let go as a result of the department's annual operating budget being slashed by $160,000 to $640,000.

Even though Christopher had started at the department as a clerical worker 12 years ago--at the age of 78--he is technically a temporary employee.

He is also technically a retiree, having retired in 1950 after teaching third- and fourth-graders in the New York City public schools for more than 25 years.

But Christopher isn't buying into any of that golden years stuff. He loves to work. He loves to work so much that he hasn't taken a vacation in 19 years.

"Our 90-year-old wonder boy," Herrera calls him. Christopher is always at his desk promptly, having taken the bus in from his home in Hollywood. (A native New Yorker, Christopher never learned to drive and figures he's a little old to start now.)

His salary supplements his teacher's pension and Social Security, but this is more than a job to Christopher. He never married, having taken care of his diabetic mother until she died, and has outlived his six brothers and sisters. His 30 co-workers are "like my second family."

So there was doom and gloom in the office as word got around. A jovial man, Christopher was downright teary at the prospect of being cut loose. "I love it here. I like the work, I like the people . . . and we have good coffee here."

"We love you, too," Herrera assured him. So much so that he was scrambling to find a way to keep Christopher, contacting various agencies that fund job programs for the aging.

Earlier this month, the Feds came to the rescue.

Richard Lieboff, director of the city's Title V Senior Employment Program under the aegis of the Department of Aging, called with the good news: Title V will pick up Christopher's salary--$4.82 an hour--"indefinitely." Albert Christopher will not be retiring just yet.

"I'm absolutely ecstatic," Herrera said. "It's a wonderful opportunity to keep him on board and not have this disruption in his life at his age. I'm very happy for him. I'm very happy for the department. The whole department is very happy for him. They really were pulling for him."

Christopher, who was taking his customary afternoon nap when Herrera called to tell him that he would not be laid off this week, was also ecstatic. His reaction: "I'm going to continue working until I drop."

His age has never been an issue with his co-workers. Said Christopher: "I feel at ease here. I'm not pressured. They give me my work and I do it, and that's that. I try to solve my own problems."

"An inspiration to us all," said one of the young men in the department. Which is why Herrera doesn't measure Christopher's contribution solely in terms of dollars and cents (although he enjoyed teasing Christopher that he was going to dock him for the time he took posing for photos for this story). "People of his generation were very responsible," Herrera said. "They have a work ethic that really has an impact on the younger generation."

Christopher was a gift when he came to the Department of Consumer Affairs in 1983, one of four workers placed there by the National Council on Aging, which paid their salaries for five years through another Title V program. At the end of that time, Herrera had them transferred to the department's payroll; three are still there.

"What a wonderful opportunity," Herrera thought, to get all that know-how, experience and job stability that older workers bring.

Although at the time Christopher had been officially "retired" for 33 years, he'd done similar stints with the Small Business Administration and the Social Security Administration. At the SBA, he said, "I was only supposed to be there one year. They kept me five. They didn't want to let me go." Social Security also extended him.

In deciding to come to Christopher's rescue, Lieboff said, "I feel very strongly that someone like him should continue to be a contributing member of society--and that he make the determination about when he wants to retire."

Health has never been an issue. Christopher rarely takes a sick day and has no complaints aside from "a little high blood pressure" and a cataract. "He's doing better than any of us," said Herrera, who's young enough to be Christopher's grandson.

Whereas many retirees look forward to travel, Christopher figures his traveling days are over. "I've traveled halfway around the world already," and even though he's a spry 90, the physical rigors of travel "are catching up with me."

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