Al Graff, Frank McGrath and Erv Polster have more than an address in common. The three next-door neighbors on Cliffridge Avenue in La Jolla have lived 289 years among them and amassed memories built on education, connection, faith or some combination thereof.
The secret to living so long, said Graff, 101, is to “never retire. Keep your mind going, and it’s surprising how you can interest yourself.”
Graff employs that philosophy even into his second century, sitting as an emeritus board member of Community HousingWorks, with which he has been active since his retirement from designing jet engines in 1983 and subsequent ordainment as a Catholic deacon the same year.
“I just changed careers,” Graff said. “I was called to help others.”
A deacon with the St. James and St. Leo Catholic community in Solana Beach, he headed the design, construction and operation of 3,700 low-income apartments from Los Angeles to Tijuana with Community HousingWorks. He also worked to open a medical and dental clinic for the needy near his parishes.
Graff was born Jan. 23, 1919, in Mandan, N.D. He moved to La Jolla from Rancho Santa Fe in 2001 to live with his daughter and son-in-law a year after his wife, Marion, died.
He spent his career with General Atomic after receiving a degree in mechanical engineering from UC Berkeley.
The jet engine, Graff said, is the most important invention of his lifetime. “I was happy to work on those,” he said.
Graff said he was most influenced by a priest at St. James, who encouraged him to become a deacon, as well as a priest from his childhood parish who recognized Graff’s potential and funded his private high school tuition. “That was one of the finest things that happened,” Graff said. “It put me in shape to go to Berkeley.”
At 90, McGrath said he’s “just a puppy.” Born Oct. 15, 1929, in Brooklyn, N.Y., he said the secret to his longevity is “a sense of humor. It saved me” while battling throat cancer several years ago.
McGrath has been cancer-free for five years but hasn’t been able to swallow food in six years — he has a feeding tube directly into his stomach. But, he said, “look around — there’s 10 people that have it worse. … I’m alive, I’m well.”
McGrath moved to La Jolla for the weather when he left the Marines in 1952. “I was driving away from Camp Pendleton,” he said, “and I thought, ‘Why am I going back to New York?’”
He spent his career in sales and promotions, working with Mission Pipe & Supply and KGB radio in San Diego and Capitol Records in Los Angeles.
“I’ve been in sales my whole life,” he said, but “music has been a big part of my life.”
He and his wife, Jean, whom he married in 1980, have taken more than 15 jazz cruises around the world and have regularly attended jazz concerts at a restaurant in Newport Beach.
McGrath said the one item on his wish list he never checked is becoming an entertainer. The closest he came is being asked to perform during karaoke cabarets on the jazz cruises. “It was well-received,” he said.
His most profound happiness, however, is in his friendships, where he said he’s been influenced the most.
“I have such wonderful friends,” McGrath said, recalling a large party they put together for him last year on his 90th birthday. “The friendships that you have, you always walk away with an addition. They give you something. I admire all my friends. It’s unbelievable. I don’t think I deserve [them]. I’ve been happy most of my life.”
Polster, 98, credits his longevity to “good luck.” Born April 13, 1922, in what was then Czechoslovakia, Polster moved to Cleveland as a toddler and settled in La Jolla in 1973 with this first wife, Miriam. Both were practicing psychologists.
The couple also founded the Gestalt Training Center in San Diego, working with students and professionals to further their practice of gestalt psychology, which emphasizes perception.
“People came to work with us from all over the world,” he said. “That was a large part of my focus.”
As well as the training center, Polster authored several books on gestalt psychology and traveled internationally to lecture and train others, saying he had a “very heartwarming time working with those folks.”
Polster said he was moved to switch from studying sociology to psychology by a professor whom he described as “elegant, wise and open-minded. He knew what he was talking about. I was enthralled with what he was telling us about human personality.”
Polster retired from his practice in 1998 but kept writing and consulting with various psychology organizations. Miriam died in 2001, and he married his second wife, Rose Lee, in 2006.
Of all his accomplishments, Polster said, the “most important was the pleasure I had in exploring life with people. That exploration was practiced pointedly in private therapy but more communally and socially in our training groups.”
Personal connection, Polster said, is “fundamental” to enduring times of stress; it has a “restorative value.”
Also important, he said, is being able to restore a sense of movement. “When something is compelling and troublesome, people get stuck with it,” he said. “Getting stuck is crucial to the suffering, and the problem becomes how do you restore fluidity from moment to moment?”
With his seventh book being released in November — about the power of enchantment in psychotherapy — Polster isn’t letting anything impede his forward movement.
Though he has the eye disease macular degeneration, Polster is still writing, using the help of a secretary and word processing adaptations to keep his ideas going. “I’ve reached the point where it’s a whole new ballgame,” he said. ◆