CLEVELAND — By almost any standard, Dr. Howard Tucker has led an extraordinary life. To call him accomplished is an understatement. To say he has experienced a multitude of adventures doesn’t begin to tell the whole story.
The neurologist and WWII Navy veteran has been practicing medicine since 1947, holds a second degree in law, was once airlifted off a mountaintop in the Alps, and has survived both COVID-19 and a broken neck.
And now, after 100 years of life, he not only still sees patients twice a week at St. Vincent Charity Medical Center, but is entering an entirely new phase as an emerging TikTok star, and subject of a feature-length documentary.
His fans can watch the mild-mannered doctor from Cleveland Heights throw a baseball, give dating advice to Leonardo DiCaprio, and try a burrito for the first time. And yes, you heard that right, he has fans, and millions of views on TikTok.
“We have people contacting us asking ‘Can we go meet Dr. Tucker?’ ‘I live in Ohio, how can I meet him?’” said Taylor Taglianetti, a documentary filmmaker from New York, who, together with Tucker’s grandson Austin Tucker, is producing a film about Tucker’s life entitled “What’s Next?”
It turns out, turning 100 makes you a little bit of a rock star.
On his 100th birthday this past July, Tucker received letters of congratulations from five of the six living U.S. presidents and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, plus a personal serenade from country music legend Dolly Parton.
And the following day he threw out the first pitch at a Guardians baseball game. Taglianetti says they may organize some meet-and-greets with Tucker and his many admirers so he can answer all their questions.
Oh, and there’s that whole Guinness World Records thing. In 2021, Tucker became recognized as the oldest practicing physician in the world.
“It bewilders me. I just can’t understand it,” said Tucker about all the fuss. “People say to me, you’re doing pretty good for a hundred, and I say to myself, how many 100-year-old people have they sampled? I don’t think I’ve ever met another 100-year-old person. I have only met myself.”
But beneath the genuine humility there is a hint of childish delight in the fanfare that has surrounded his centennial milestone. His intellect — and wit — are still intact and sharp as ever. And, as it turns out, applying for the Guinness World Record was sort of his idea.
“A man died, and the obit said he was a barber. He was in the Guinness Book of World Records. He was 98 years old and the oldest barber in practice in the world,” said Tucker. “And so that’s why I asked Austin if we should look into it.”
Austin did. And after months of inquiries and a lengthy application process, they got the news.
“Right before his 99th birthday we got the call that he got the record,” the younger Tucker said. “And that was the wakeup call for me. It was an opportunity for me to really sit back and think: ‘Wow, I’ve never truly understood what my grandfather has seen over almost a century of being around, but also over seven decades of practicing medicine.’ ”
That’s when Austin Tucker says he realized not everybody has grandparents in their 90s who still go to work, and also when he and Taglianetti, his former NYU classmate, began to hatch a plan to tell his grandfather’s story. At first, he says, he thought it would be something short – maybe a 10-minute profile. But once they began interviewing him, they realized they wanted to make a full-length film.
As sharp as ever
This slender, grey-haired man is maybe 5 and a half feet tall, with a sharp mind and an even sharper wit. He quotes Winston Churchill and Dorothy Parker, and has thoughts on just about everything, having experienced or read more than most. It seems immediately obvious that this is a man who not only refuses to retire, but has probably never spent an idle moment – physically or mentally – in his 100 plus years.
He still exercises two miles on the treadmill or stationary bike four times a week, reads the paper with his wife of 65 years over breakfast every morning, then puts on a bowtie and heads to the hospital where he still teaches neurology residents and sees patients. And when the occasion calls for it, he’s been known to pull an all-nighter to prepare a new medical lecture for his students.
His grandson says he was even sneaking out of the house to go to the hospital during the height of COVID-19, 98 years old at the time, although the doctor remembers it differently.
“Well, I had to work,” he said. “I put on a mask. The hospital didn’t tell me to stay home. They said everyone should come to work. In medicine we have a responsibility. If you take it seriously, you follow through.”
And as if medicine wasn’t enough, 40 years into his medical career, he earned a law degree while working full-time, passing the Ohio Bar Exam at the age of 67. These days, in his days off from the hospital, he also works on the side as an expert witness, reviewing medical cases — an intellectual challenge he says he loves.
“I get as much enjoyment out of reviewing records as I would if I were golfing. … And it’s less expensive, too,” Tucker said with a chuckle.
What prompted him to go to law school? He read an obituary about a man who was supposedly the oldest man to have ever passed the Ohio bar exam. He was 62, he recounts.
“I think I have him beat by 5 (years). I suppose I ought to call the Ohio State Bar Association and ask them,” he said, looking over at his grandson across the table.
“I guess we have to now,” his grandson replied.
A bit of luck and a life well lived
There are some signs that Tucker is slowing down.
For example, he holds the handrail now when he climbs the stairs.
He no longer does the NordicTrack anymore because he says his balance is off, and he only walks two miles on the treadmill at a time instead of the previous three to four.
He’s also given up downhill skiing in favor of snowshoeing at the behest of his family. They also would prefer he give up driving, but Tucker says he’s not ready to hand over the keys to the BMW he bought at age 94 yet. “I can’t lose my independence,” he said.
He may also be the luckiest man alive. This month he was getting rabies shots after being bitten by a bat, and undergoing physical therapy after taking a tumble down a flight of stairs that necessitated spinal fusion surgery.
A decade earlier in his 80s he walked away from a skiing accident in Colorado that fractured the second cervical vertebrae – the same vertebrae he points out that killed Sonny Bono and paralyzed Christopher Reeves. And in his 70s he was airlifted off a mountaintop in the Alps in a basket suspended from a helicopter, after he slipped and broke his kneecap while hiking with his wife.
And yet, he never lost his sense of humor. When the medic asked if he would like a tranquilizer to calm his nerves, he recalls asking, “Will it cushion the fall?” The joke he recalls, was lost in translation.
A living legacy: 75 years in medicine
There are not a lot of working doctors that can see a patient and say “Wow, I haven’t seen that in 50 years,” but Howard Tucker is one of them.
The neurologist earned his degree in medicine from Ohio State University 75 years ago, and was among the first Jewish members of the medical faculty at Columbia University in New York. He later returned to Ohio to join the faculty of what was then known as Western Reserve University and worked for over a decade at the Cleveland Clinic.
As a doctor he has lived through the polio epidemic, the last outbreak of smallpox, the discovery of DNA and the rise of modern genetics. And he has seen advances in technology he could once never have dreamed up.
Twice a week you can still find Dr. Tucker at St. Vincent Charity Medical Center. And if by chance you are his patient, he’s likely to spend some extra time with you. While he says he appreciates the advances technology has made in medicine, he believes it shouldn’t come at the expense of the doctor listening to the patient.
“I am always running behind,” he says. “The patient in front of me is the important one.”
Medicine back in in the early days was much more cerebral he says.
“We didn’t have CAT scans. We didn’t have MRIs. We had our brains. … We had to think through a problem – so it was fun in those days.”
Tucker says he never followed a strict diet or ran marathons. He came home every night for dinner and to spend time with his four children, and then went back to work. He and his wife had a tradition of and drinking martinis on Friday nights. The secret to his longevity he says is doing a little bit of everything- but not too much. “Everything in moderation,” he said.
So what’s next?
“Oh, I expect I’ll keep working until it’s over with,” he says speaking of his eventual death with the clinical confidence of a physician who has fully embraced the one thing he knows medicine can’t cure.
“You know, life,” he says, “is a fatal disease.”