Skip to content

Excerpt From A Kind of Genius: Herb Sturz and Society's Toughest Problems

An excerpt from <i>A Kind of Genius: Herb Sturz and Society's Toughest Problems</i>, by New York Times urban affairs correspondent Sam Roberts.

Vacationing in Paris in the early 1970s, rummaging for something to read in English, Herb Sturz came across The Coming of Age by the French existentialist writer Simone de Beauvoir. The book, which discusses the mistreatment of older people in society and the loneliness with which they sometimes struggle, inspired him to start Easyride, to transport the homebound, solitary elderly to the world outside their door. “It was the first time I thought seriously about the problems of aging people,” says Sturz. “What struck me in the book was the poignancy of what it was to grow ... older, to lose friends and access, to face ageism. I decided that I’d try to do something about it.”

Early in 2005, Sturz and Jack Rosenthal (by then the president of the New York Times Company Foundation), who were both well beyond customary retirement age (and both maintaining a quarter-century-long tradition of attending opening day together at Yankee Stadium), were struck by a demographic disconnect. More Americans were living longer; more had mentally and physically healthy lives; more retired better educated and with learned and acquired skills. Yet the value of well-educated and retired older Americans was being woefully wasted. Few opportunities exist for retirees to engage in public service.

Characteristically, they decided something needed to be done to address this gaping inefficiency. Rosenthal envisioned ReServe and would become its driving force and chair its board (Sturz is vice chairman). To improve the lives of older people, it was founded on two premises: retirees would eagerly apply those skills at nonprofit and public agencies for pay, and enough enlightened agencies would seize the opportunity. Both hypotheses proved correct. By mid-2008, ReServe had matched 450 participants, three-quarters of them college graduates and more than four in 10 with master’s degrees, with 110 nonprofit agencies.

Paid volunteerism might have an ironic ring to it, but there’s a rationale behind the philosophy. “For most of the participants,” Claire Haaga Altman, ReServe’s former executive director, explains, “it is not about the amount they are paid but the fact that they are paid.” Having retired from his law firm, Fritz Schwarz volunteers for a modest stipend at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. “An organization and a person are simply more committed to each other when the person is paid,” he says.

“With 8,000 Americans a day turning 60,” Sturz says, “I could not tell you right now where ReServe is going to end up.” But considering the pace at which it is expanding and being replicated, the program appears to be feeding a hunger. “It is inertia,” de Beauvoir wrote, “that is synonymous with death.”

“These individuals still have a lot to teach and contribute, and they aren’t satisfied just sitting around until they die,” Sturz says. “They want to live until they die.”

From the book A Kind of Genius: Herb Sturz and Society's Toughest Problems by Sam Roberts.  Excerpted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group.  Copyright © 2009.