July 29, 2012

Robert, it has just struck 70 by your hour glass

On July 29, 1882, the journalist and humor writer Robert J. Burdette wrote to his friend, the Hoosier Poet James Whitcomb Riley (who was five years younger):

My boy, tomorrow I will be 38 years old. How's that for new hair, a third crop of teeth and a cord of wood without spectacles every morning before breakfast... And I'm just as happy as I was when I was weaned. Happier, my son; far happier.

In less than four decades, Burdette had gone from his home state of Pennsylvania to Illinois before settling in Iowa (he would later move to New York, followed by California). "Every year is radiant with blessings," he wrote to Riley, "every mile is bright with God's goodness, but my own faults bristle among the flowers, and my own wretched handiwork mars and stains the fair plan of every day." He looked forward to the future, hoping he would do something better than what he had accomplished in his first 38 years — though he expected his time was limited:

I want to live to be 70, because I think I have a right to my "three score years and ten". I want my whole ration, but I don't care for any more. I have about as long to live now, as I have already lived, and I want every day of it. But when our good friend Death knocks at my door and says, "Robert, it has just struck 70 by your hour glass," I will go with him just as willingly as I ever followed the chairman of a committee. Seventy years is enough of it... I am going to take it for granted that I'll live to be 70. And I won't ask for another day. 

Burdette was nearly correct: he eventually became a Baptist minister, which he thought was a more valuable role to society than a humorist, and he lived less than four months after his 70th birthday was celebrated in 1914.


  1. Poor Riley only lived to be 66. I hope that Burdette was still as happy to greet the Grim Reaper at 70 as he was in his prediction at 38.

  2. Great point. Come back tomorrow for the second part of a two-parter on Burdette!


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