With the 20th century fading into history, Silver Spring resident Isadore “Sam” Seeman decided two years ago to try to put those hundred years into perspective — by telling his own life story.
“Now, at 99, I look back on almost a century, a volatile century that endured eight wars, the development and use of the atomic bomb, vast social changes, and great technological advances,” he wrote in his 2016 autobiography, “The Twentieth Century Through My Eyes.”
Seeman, soon to be 101, wove together personal experiences and historical events he lived through. In “World War II and the Draft, 1941,” he describes approval by Congress of the draft and explains how illness exempted him from service.
In “I Meet President Johnson, 1966,” Seeman is at the White House as the lobbyist for the National Social Welfare
Assembly. President Lyndon Johnson was about to introduce the Model Cities Program as part of his war on poverty.
“I got a telegram inviting me to be there for the signing,” he says, sitting at his kitchen table in the Riderwood community. “He was typical Johnson. There were hundreds of us in the room, but he shook hands
with every one of us. As he is approaching you in line, his chief aide is next to him and asks your name and whispers it to Johnson. And he said, ‘Oh Mr. Seeman, I’m so delighted to have you here.’”
Two weeks later, Seeman received a photo of him and Johnson shaking hands. It came with a letter informing him that the president had been looking through his photos and “thought you might like to have the enclosed.”
If Seeman were to turn his own life into a play, it would go like this:
Act One takes place in Baltimore, where he spent his childhood living in 10 different places with three brothers and a sister. It was the Great Depression. His family had to scrape to make ends meet.
His father owned a grocery and liquor store, but to make extra money, his mother agreed to accept foster children from Jewish Family Services in Baltimore. When it came time for college, there was not enough money for him to attend a four-year university, so his parents sent their children to Maryland State Teacher’s College (Towson University today).
“There was no degree, but a three-year certificate would make you eligible to teach in the Baltimore Public Schools,” he said. “So all four of us did exactly the same thing. I went to Towson and so did all of my brothers. So at one point the four Seeman boys were teaching in the public schools.”
Act Two opened in 1941 during a summer visit to Washington.
“While I was sitting in the Senate gallery, I coughed up some blood, and I got to see the Capitol physician,” he said. “He said, ‘You go home right away and see your doctor.’”
Seeman was diagnosed with tuberculosis, which could not be treated with drugs at the time. He was bedridden for 14 months in a Baltimore sanitarium.
While bedridden, he began writing poetry — and since then has written more than 100 poems.
In January 1941, he wrote in “Pulponary Prison,”
Imprisoned out of doors
Immobile, I may view the wars,
Here patiently must stay.
When Seeman recovered, he knew it was time to do something else.
“I wasn’t happy with teaching anyway,” he said. “I was doing more discipline than teaching.”
Seeman took a job in the Bureau of Vital Statistics in Baltimore’s health department, where his work included educational radio and television shows in which he played a doctor named Sam, giving him a lifelong nickname.
Seeman then took time off to earn a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University in 1944 and a master’s degree in public health from the University of Michigan.
That led to his career in the federal government with the Health and Welfare Council of the National Capital Area and later with the Department of Health and Human Services. He retired from full time work in 1986, and served in an advisory role to the department.
Act Three, also known as retirement, has given Seeman more time to write, be it poems, books or a play.
He lives with his partner of 10 years, Marilyn Willner. They met after the death of his wife, Shirley, in 2006. When he wants to write he uses a voice-to-text program called Dragon to help get his thoughts down.
Seeman also collected his poems into a book called “Love and Memories.” The poems range in subject from members of Seeman’s family to Title VI — a portion of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prevents racial discrimination in federally funded programs.
Seeman’s passion for writing also led him to draft a one-man play about Beethoven, which he performed at Riderwood. He wrote a book on the history of the health and welfare council, but hasn’t found a publisher for it.
“He writes all day on the computer,” Willner says. “Whenever we’re not doing anything else, he’s on the computer.”
Asked what advice he had for those who want to live to 100, Seeman first jokes about his DNA.
“It starts with genes, obviously, and one of my doctors said, ‘Sam, you must have designer genes.’”
But he then turns serious and notes that there is something else required to reach the triple digits.
“Find or develop a passion that really drives you and keep up with that.”