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One hundred years of change, through one man's life and legacy: "The Book of Charlie"

 A portrait of David Von Drehle. He is standing in front of a distant mountain range with a baseball cap on his head.
Photo courtesy of Simon & Schuster
Author David Von Drehle is the author of "The Book of Charlie," which captures perspectives on American history through the life of his neighbor, who lived to the age of 109.

"The Book of Charlie" is a new book by David Von Drehle about his friendship with Charlie White, his neighbor in Kansas City, Missouri.

Von Drehle and his wife, journalist Karen Ball, first met Charlie when they moved from Washington D.C. to Kansas City, Missouri in 2007. At that first meeting, they found Charlie washing his girlfriend’s car, and later learned that their new neighbor was 102 years old.

White was an MU alum with a graduate degree in medicine who, later in life, became a doctor. He passed away in 2014 at the age of 109. "The Book of Charlie" captures Charlie White’s legacy, his life and his Stoicism as the world around him changed. He found joy in it - right to the end.

David Von Drehle is at Skylark Bookshop Thursday, Oct. 5, talking about the book.

KBIA’s Evan Holden spoke with Von Drehle. Here’s an excerpt from their conversation.

Evan Holden: How was it ... when you were interviewing him ... with, like, his memory and stuff like that, since people's memories aren't always perfect?

Von Drehle: Well, a lot of the things he told me I was able to check. Because, you know, when he, for example, talked about as a boy watching Union Station in Kansas City being built, I was able to check that against the story of creating one of the largest train stations in the world at that time.

Holden: So a big aspect of the book is about, like, change and stuff like that. How was learning about the story of this person going through events like the influenza pandemic, and comparing that to the tumultuous times that we are having now?

Von Drehle: One of the overall messages of "The Book of Charlie" is that while we are living in very tumultuous times, these are not the first tumultuous times. ... As you say, we were going through a pandemic. But Charlie lived through a worldwide pandemic, over 100 years ago, that killed millions of people around the world: the influenza epidemic of 1918. We talk about the divisions and the hatred that many people feel kind of poisoning American political life right now. We are no more divided than we were in the 1920s. That was a time of great racial strife and political strife.

Holden: Did Charlie change you perspective on life? If so, how?

Von Drehle: Well, Charlie helped me with my lifelong quest to adopt and maintain the ancient philosophy of Stoicism. Being a Stoic kind of has a bad rap. People think it means not having feelings or not showing feelings being bottled up or repressed. But actually, Stoicism is not about that. It's a very happy, very freeing kind of philosophy because it reminds us that a lot of what we deal with in life is not in our control. The way other people behave is not in our control. Our health, whether we have an accident or run into, you know, misfortune, as Charlie did several times in his life, we don't control these things. We don't control the government; we don't control what other countries do. The only thing we control is ourselves, our own choices and the goals we set for ourselves, the way we try to spend our time and focus our thoughts.

You can find more information about the Thursday, Oct. 5 event, at Skylark Bookshop.

Evan is a sophomore studying journalism at the University of Missouri.
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