As It Happens

'What's the fuss about?' Canada's oldest man dismissed hype over his longevity, says son

Canada's oldest man, Montrealer Robert Wiener, died earlier this week at the age of 110.

Robert Wiener, a retired Montreal oral surgeon, has died at the age of 110

Robert Wiener, Canada's oldest man, has died at the age of 110.

Transcript

On his 110th birthday in October of last year, Robert Wiener became Canada's oldest man. Wiener died Sunday at home in his beloved city of Montreal.

The former oral surgeon spent many years lecturing at McGill University, where he encouraged the next generation of dentistry students. He also founded dental clinics for Jewish Montrealers of limited means.

Neil Wiener shared some of his memories of his father with As it Happens host Carol Off. Here is some of their conversation.

I know you spoke about your father at his service. What were the things you wanted people in the room to remember about him?

Well, there were three important things to my father: His profession as a dentist — he was dedicated to his profession at which he worked very hard. 

My dad was also very much involved in community activities, all of which of course was done voluntarily — and he made a real contribution to the community.

And family was very important to him. And he had an exceptional relationship with his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, which was a remarkable goal.

Wiener with his son Neil at his 110th birthday in October 2018. (Submitted by Aviva Lowe)

He had a lot of attention on the national news on his birthday. Was that one of the things that he cared about?

There was a lot of media buzz about my father when he turned 110 as Canada's oldest man. And [to] that he said repeatedly, "What's the fuss about? It's not as if I won the Nobel Prize. I'm just an old man."

And so this was typical of my dad. He was a very modest man.

What was he like? How sort of mobile and agile was he?

My dad led a very active life. He was an athlete in his younger days. He played inter-collegiate hockey. He was the goaltender of the Queen's University hockey team in 1929 and 1930.

And he continued to lead an active life, both physically and intellectually.

In terms of exercise, my dad bought a stationary bicycle from Eaton's in the 1970s, and used it everyday until just a month or two ago. And he was very disciplined about that.

Exercise was very important to him, and I'm convinced that that was of part of the reason for his longevity. 

Must have been some good genes in there too, right? Because ... his brother, your uncle Dave, lived to almost being 110 as well. 

That's correct. One of the articles that somebody sent to me identified my father and my late Uncle Dave as the two oldest male siblings in history. My uncle lived to 109 without any disease, until the very end. My dad lived to 110 without any disease.

So obviously there's something in the family genetics which contributed to their longevity.

Wiener is flanked by his great granchildren, Adina and Daniel Fridman, at his 110th birthday celebration. (Submitted by Aviva Lowe)

He did a lot of things in order to bring dentistry to people who didn't have the means to pay for it themselves. ... Tell us a bit about that.

One of the most important things my father did was to start the dental clinic at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal. This is a clinic where people can obtain free dental care, and it's also training for residents in dentistry.

I remember when I was a youngster, my dad would spend one morning a week at the clinic, at the Jewish General Hospital, rather than at his private practice. And at the same time, he was teaching one morning a week in the Faculty of Dentistry at McGill.

He didn't receive any compensation for teaching at McGill, but after he had taught for 25 years, the university kindly gave him a very handsome black captain's chair with a McGill crest and his name on it.

In addition to seeing people who didn't have the means to see a dentist, he also had some quite extraordinary famous people who came to see him.

After my dad graduated from McGill in 1936, he had a fellowship at the Zoller Dental Clinic at the University of Chicago. And my dad was there for I think about eight years, and saw [novelist] Thomas Mann while he was there — and also Enrico Fermi, the man who split the atom. So he had some illustrious patients while in Chicago.

I remember my dad telling me one story: Once a month, a group of dentists from the Zoller clinic would go to the Illinois State Penitentiary. And on one of those visits, my father actually treated Nathan Leopold, of the notorious Leopold and Loeb, who had committed the crime of the century, in I think the 1920s — the murder of Bobby Franks. And then they were defended by Clarence Darrow. 

So he treated Nobel laureates, and those at the other end of the spectrum, so to speak.

There's so many extraordinary stories about your father. Is there one that you cherish — that you remember and tell others?

We had a wonderful family party in October to celebrate my dad's 110th birthday, and my brother collected letters from the prime minister, the governor general and the Queen — which was quite extraordinary.

But I think I thought that by producing a letter from Carey Price — the goaltender of the Montreal Canadiens. So it was from one goalie to another, even though my dad had played in the 1920s and 1930s.

And when we finished the luncheon, my dad turned to me and said, "I have to send a thank-you note to Carey Price."

That's the type of man he was. He was unfailingly polite. He treated everybody with respect, such that he wanted to send a thank-you note a thank you note to the goaltender of the Montreal Canadiens.

Interview produced by Ashley Mak. Q&A edited for length and clarity.
 

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