Seniors | Full speed ahead Marin centenarians busy life: drum circles, protests and rock

Al Goldbaum would never call himself privileged. The retired high school math and physics teacher is a solid lefty who grew up on New York’s Lower East Side, was a union organizer who lived in a worker’s co-op in the Bronx, and at one time belonged to the Communist Party.

But truth be told, Goldbaum is in an elite group: Not only is the Mill Valley resident 100 years old, he is thriving.

Goldbaum’s days are filled with activities at the Redwoods Retirement Community, where he lives: rock ’n’ roll chorus, drumming circle, men’s group, Yiddish conversation group — and he’d never miss the weekly roadside peace vigil. He attends concerts or movies at the Redwoods nearly every night of the week, and even hosts a small, salon-type gathering once a week in his studio apartment.

A good-natured, sociable guy who loves to sing and is keenly interested in politics and current affairs, Goldbaum isn’t going to let a mere 10 decades of living slow him down much.

Just look at his schedule:

On Mondays at 3 p.m., there’s Mill Valley Seniors for Peace meetings, usually with a guest lecturer and lively discussion.

On Tuesdays, there’s drumming. Led by musician and recording artist Barbara Borden of Mill Valley, the drumming circle is a freewheeling group of about 20 who sometimes sing to the beat, as well. “You move your hands … it’s a nice thing to do,” says Goldbaum, who played the recorder for years. “We just drum and we have lots of fun.”

Wednesdays find him at Rock the Ages Chorus. They stick to classic rock ’n’ roll — Beatles, Rolling Stones, Annie Lennox and their ilk. Goldbaum, a tenor, solos on the Who’s “My Generation” (“People try to put us d-down, Talkin’ ’bout my generation …”). The two dozen men and women not only perform at the Redwoods, but elsewhere in Marin.

Thursdays take him to the Yiddish conversation group. Joining that was a no-brainer — Goldbaum was raised in a Yiddish-speaking home. His parents were Orthodox Jews from Poland who immigrated to the United States and quickly settled in New York City. Goldbaum enjoys the wide-ranging discussions among the dozen or so conversationalists. He jokes that at last, Yiddish is “in vogue.”

His weekday lineup concludes with men’s group on Friday mornings. “We just talk,” he says simply.

Then a few hours later, he’s up and running again for what is clearly a highlight of his week: the Mill Valley Seniors for Peace demonstration in front of the Redwoods, at the corner of Camino Alto and Miller Avenue. Promptly at 4 p.m., Goldbaum and a cluster of fellow stalwarts take their placards, their walkers and other assorted paraphernalia out to the sidewalk for the hourlong protest. It’s a ritual that’s been in place since the group formed before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Al Goldbaum at a Mill Valley Seniors for Peace vigil

“We go out every Friday with signs for peace,” the soft-spoken political activist says. Some drivers wave,  others honk in support.

From there, Goldbaum’s formal activities begin to wind down — though he always partakes of monthly Friday night Shabbat gatherings. He’s not particularly religious, but “he always goes because he loves the singing,” says his daughter Laura Goldbaum, 63, of San Francisco.

Laura, a registered nurse, sees her dad as often as she can. She usually joins him for dinner on Wednesdays, and afterward they watch “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and the “Colbert Report.”

She jokes that Saturday is “his day off.”

Laura spends all day Sunday with her dad. They often head over to the Depot, a popular local hangout where they can sit out in the square in downtown Mill Valley, have a cappuccino and do some people-watching. On more ambitious outings they’ll head into San Francisco for dim sum at Yank Sing.

On Sunday evenings, Laura joins her dad and some of his friends for what she calls a salon, where they talk and watch “60 Minutes” on TV.

In the old days, Goldbaum and his late wife, Etta, a schoolteacher and artist, hosted a more formal salon-type gathering. “We ran a forum the first Friday of every month for 20 years,” he recalls during an interview on a leisurely Saturday. These “First Friday Forums” featured speakers and animated discussion; both Goldbaum and his wife were involved in union and political activities. In fact, they first met at a workers’ union picnic in Van Courtlandt Park in the Bronx.

At New York City’s High School of Music and Art, where he taught for 40 years, Goldbaum was chapter chair of the teachers’ union. He came by it honestly; his father was a founder of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers union and shop steward of the pants factory where he worked.

At his bar mitzvah

“He’s unabashedly leftist,” Laura says proudly of her dad.

Al and Etta Goldbaum were avid travelers. Every summer they’d visit a different country — he quickly ticks off just a dozen, among them Peru, India, China, Israel, Jordan … With more than 60 countries on his list, there are far too many to name.

Sitting in a couch in his one-room apartment, Goldbaum points to a black-and-white photo that hangs on a wall. It’s a street scene from Sri Lanka, he notes, taking obvious pride in the shot — one of thousands he has taken over the years.

The avid hobbyist also loved taking botanical photos. The Redwoods recently exhibited several of them on a wall in the front reception area: Stunning color close-ups of delicate flowers reflect both Goldbaum’s talent and his abiding love of nature. He was a docent for 30 years at the Bronx Botanical Gardens.

There is also a permanent display of 41 of his photos at Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Hartford, Conn., near the home of his daughter Ruth Goldbaum, 64, a nurse practitioner. Etta Goldbaum was a patient at Saint Francis prior to her death seven years ago.

In addition to his many other interests, Goldbaum also tried his hand at painting. Two of his larger works hang on either side of his bed. But he just dabbled in painting, he explains, adding that his wife was the real artist in the family.

After Etta died, he began spending half the year with Laura in San Francisco and the other half with Ruth and her family in West Hartford. That arrangement worked — for a while.

Teaching physics at High School of Music and Art in New York

But things began moving in the wrong direction: Goldbaum appeared to have lost his lust for life. He was snoozing until 3 in the afternoon every day, Laura remembers, “sleeping away his life.”

She devised a plan to wake him up — getting him out, taking him to Mill Valley Seniors for Peace demonstrations and meetings at the Redwoods, where she knew he’d meet kindred spirits. And after a while, she says, people got to know him. It wasn’t long before they began asking him why he didn’t live at the Redwoods, too.

Though initially averse to the idea of moving to a seniors’ residence (where the people were “too old,” he complained), Goldbaum eventually swallowed the bait. At age 97 he moved to the Redwoods.

In no time, he was once again the dad Laura always knew, moving at full speed.

Last fall, father and daughter volunteered for the Obama re-election campaign, going door to door and working at Obama’s San Rafael office every Sunday until the election. Always ready with a smile and quick-witted comment, Goldbaum endeared himself to fellow campaign workers — “Dad was like a mascot,” Laura says.

Goldbaum still sports an Obama-Biden bumper sticker on the seat of his walker.

For his 100th birthday in November, Goldbaum celebrated with four parties: a big one at the Redwoods; another in West Hartford with Ruth, her family and acquaintances; a gathering of about 20 relatives and longtime friends in New York; and an intimate lunch on his actual birthday, Nov. 29, with Laura. (He wanted delicatessen, so they went to the hip Wise Sons Deli in San Francisco.)

100th birthday deli lunch with daughter Laura

And while there’s no denying that life has slowed down for the good-natured centenarian — who stopped playing tennis at 91 and has retired his camera — he retains his zest for life.

Goldbaum adores his two daughters and four grandsons, enjoying a close, loving relationship with them all. He takes pleasure in the company of his many friends at the Redwoods. And he’s still singing away. “I always sing wherever I go,” he says.

Asked what is his favorite song, he answers without missing a beat — John Lennon’s “Imagine” — and launches into song: “Imagine all the people, living life in peace …”

Looking back on his life, Goldbaum says he never consciously thought about trying to hit the century mark, but admits, “I’m very fortunate to be 100 and alive and kicking.”

And to those who ask for his secrets to a long, happy, healthy life? “I say, stay alive! Be involved! Do things for friends. And keep hope alive!”


on the cover
photo/courtesy of ruth goldbaum
Al Goldbaum on a visit last year to Steinhart Aquarium in Golden Gate Park

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.