December 2, 2021

Lots to talk about

Two local men in their 90s share views on life

Travis Dunn/contributing photographer

Gordon “Gordy” Wheelock and Francis “Fran” Uhlir joke around during an interview Tuesday in the Cortland Standard conference room. Uhlir, who just turned 93, and Wheelock, who will turn 93 July 18, sat down to discuss their lives, their beliefs and their opinions on current events.

On the surface, about the only thing that Gordon “Gordy” Wheelock of Homer and Francis “Fran” Uhlir of Cortland have in common is their age: Uhlir turned 93 on Friday and Wheelock will turn 93 Thursday.

In almost every other way, the two men are very different — in their political and religious beliefs, in their habits and their backgrounds.

For instance, Wheelock, a former logger and local politician, is a lifelong registered Republican and was raised in the Baptist Church, while Uhlir, a retired teacher, is a registered member of the Green Party and an atheist who left the Catholic Church decades ago.

Yet to sit down for a conversation with the two of them together, some areas of similarity and agreement begin to emerge.

Both, for instance, are quick-witted and have a keen sense of humor. Both are still remarkably active — physically, socially and politically. They are both coffee drinkers, who also like to eat their fruit and vegetables.

And there are even areas, it turns out, where the two men agree politically, though this is a narrow area.

But they also have something else in common: A willingness to sit down with a stranger with completely different beliefs and have a civil — and at times humorous — conversation.

What follows is a distillation of that conversation, which ranged from their personal lives and habits to their beliefs and opinion on a variety of subjects.

Tobacco

Uhlir said he tried smoking once as a kid, hated it and never used tobacco again.

Wheelock said he chewed tobacco from age 18 to 80. He smoked for two years in his early 30s but immediately quit after, “I set the woods on fire with my pipe,” and almost burned up his logging equipment. “That done me with the smoking, right there,” he said.

Alcohol

Uhlir drinks sparely, sticking to a two-drink maximum policy his whole life. He last had an alcoholic beverage 15 years ago.

Wheelock said has always been a moderate drinker, and he still enjoys a cocktail.

Coffee

Both men are moderate but regular coffee drinkers. Both said that a pot of coffee will last them for days. Both started drinking it early: Uhlir started at age 2, and Wheelock perhaps as young as 3.

“Back in those days, they didn’t know coffee was bad for children,” Uhlir said.

Neither man seems particularly affected by coffee.

Wheelock said he sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night, drinks of a cup of coffee and goes back to sleep. Uhlir also said coffee doesn’t affect him much; during college, he said he would take NoDoz while drinking coffee, yet still fall easily asleep after studying.

Heredity

Both men had several relatives who were long-lived. Wheelock had several close relations who lived into their 90s and 100s, including his mother, who died at the age of 98. Uhlir had a brother who lived to 91, and his paternal grandmother lived to 94.

Exercise

Both men are and have always been active. Wheelock was an athlete when younger, playing baseball, basketball and soccer in high school. He also played baseball in the senior league until he was 80 and continued as an umpire until he was 85. He grew up on a dairy farm, where he did farm chores daily from childhood until early adulthood. He later became a logger. Wheelock said he doesn’t exercise these days “as much as I need to.”

Uhlir, who was “clumsy” as a child, said he has always been physically active, but not athletic. Since early adulthood, Uhlir has done calisthenics every morning before breakfast. Since having a heart valve replaced, Uhlir regularly works out on rowing and elliptical machines.

General health, diet, mobility

Both men have had a heart valve replaced, and they immediately took out their wallets to compare medical cards when they found out they’d been through the same operation.

Uhlir is a vegan. Wheeler said he eats “whatever I want.”

Uhlir walks slowly but unaided. Wheeler uses a walker. Both men still drive.

Background

Uhlir is originally from Endicott. He’s a first generation on his father’s side; his father’s family were immigrants from Moravia in what is today Czechoslovakia. Uhlir’s first language was Moravian, a Czech dialect; he learned English just before entering school. His parents worked for the Endicott-Johnson Shoe Co. in Endicott.

Wheelock has lived in Cortland County his whole life. He lives in Homer in a house he built in 1957. His father was a dairy farmer, and his mother worked for the corset factories in Cortland.

Education

Uhlir has a BFA in speech and theater from Ithaca College, and a master of arts in speech in public speaking from the University of Missouri.

Wheelock skipped two grades and graduated from McGraw High School at age 15. He spent two semesters at Syracuse University, but he didn’t like it and didn’t continue.

Military service

At age 16, Wheelock tried unsuccessfully to join the Navy during World War II, but was rejected for being underage. He was later drafted, but failed his physical because of a heart murmur.

Uhlir served in the Marine Corps from 1944 to 1946 but never left the country, serving in North Carolina and Texas.

Married with children

Both men were married and had children. Both men also married women who already had children. Uhlir was 35 when he married; his wife had two children, and they also had a child together. Uhlir has no grandchildren.

Wheelock married at 21; his wife already had one child, and they had a daughter together. Wheelock has four grandchildren, at least eight great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild.

Uhlir has a cat named 007, but both men have otherwise lived alone since their spouses died.

Work

Wheelock, who grew up on a dairy farm, worked most of his life as a logger. He also worked for the Brockway Motor Co. in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Uhlir has taught English, literature, speech and public speaking in high schools and community colleges. He moved to Groton in 1969 to teach at Tompkins County Community College. He moved to Cortland in 1972 and has lived here ever since. He retired from TC3 in 1993.

Religion

Uhlir was raised Roman Catholic but left the church decades ago. He has been an atheist for 60 or 70 years, he said.

Wheelock was raised Baptist and was once active with the First Baptist Church of Homer. He stopped attending services around 1975, but he said he is still a believer. “Billy Graham for me was a great evangelist,” he said.

The Great Depression

Both men said they were deeply affected by growing up during the Great Depression.

“You just didn’t have anything,” Uhlir said. “Food was scarce. You didn’t get new clothes to go to school in the fall. …It was just a long string of poverty.” He remembers eating a lot of potato soup that was more water than potato.

“One thing it taught me was to hang in there and keeping trying to do what you can to survive,” said Uhlir. “You know, you don’t just give up. You have to keep going anyway. You can’t just lie down and go to sleep and forget about it.”

The effect on Wheelock was a little different, because he grew up on a farm, where his family could grow and raise a lot of their own food, he said. “We always had enough to eat,” he said. But his family still struggled. “We didn’t have a lot.” His mother economized by making shirts out of cloth feed bags and quilts out of scrap fabric, he said. The lesson he and others learned, he said, was “to be a little industrious — scrimping here and saving there.”

Local politics and activism

Uhlir helped found Central New York Spay Neuter Assistance Program in 2002. He also attends local political talks and meetings and writes letters to the editor.

Wheelock was a one-man Cortland County political institution for more than two decades, starting out as a board member for the village of Homer for 18 years, then serving for six years as the county legislator from Homer.

Political affiliation

Wheelock has always been a registered Republican, “but I sure as heck don’t vote Republican all the time,” he said. He considers himself “a moderate conservative.” “I’m not afraid to spend money,” he said. “I learned that in business. You’ve got to spent money to make money.” He is supporter of President Donald Trump.

Uhlir, who is very liberal, last year registered as a Green Party member because he “lost faith” in both major parties. He said he has found inspiration in Bernie Sanders’ campaign, especially in the enthusiasm that campaign has generated among young people. Uhlir said he is no fan of Trump.

Trump’s America

Wheelock is generally supportive of President Trump and his policies, though not uncritical.

“Trump is not running this country as a politician, he’s running this country as a business,” he said.

Overall, said Wheelock, “conditions are good,” particularly the stock market. He said he didn’t at first like Trump’s apparently war-mongering behavior, but said he thinks that’s a ruse, since Trump “backs right off” after making threats to scare opponents. “Maybe it sounds like he’s being a dictator, but I don’t think that he is,” Wheelock said.

Uhlir’s disdain for Trump was clear, as he railed about Trump’s policies on tariffs, low wages, income inequality, and immigration, and that was just a warm up. He said news media accounts about Trump published in 2016 showed patterns of behavior so disturbing that he still doesn’t understand how anyone could have voted for him. “The man is subhuman,” he said.

Wheelock acknowledged some of Trump’s personal faults, but said he still believes that Trump is a better president than Hillary Clinton would have been. “I’m sure we’re better off today with Trump in there than we would’ve been with her,” he said.

But despite these sharp disagreements regarding Trump and current national politics, Uhlir and Wheelock did find other areas of agreement.

Uhlir gave credit to Trump for his stance against China on theft of intellectual property, which Wheelock also said he liked. This was the only positive thing Uhlir had to say about Trump.

They also seemed to agree over Uhlir’s idea to increase aid to Central American countries to stabilize those countries and prevent the mass migration. Wheelock liked the idea. “Oh, yeah, that would be the ideal way to do it,” he said. “But I don’t think Congress could even agree on that.”

But they disagreed strongly when the conversation turned to news media coverage of the current migrant crisis. “If they (the media) would just be quiet about it and not write up all this bunk stuff … you know, drinking out of toilets …” Wheelock said.

“Well, it needs to be known,” Uhlir said. “Is this what the United States should stand for? Treating people like this?”

Money in politics

This was the most striking area of political agreement between the two men. Uhlir said he thought big money had completely corrupted the national political process, and Wheelock agreed.

Uhlir said average Americans can counter this trend by making small donations. Uhlir said the U.S., in his opinion, “has been an oligarchy from the get-go.” He said that true democracy will only come about when “more of the common people get involved and get interested…”