by Buck Institute
July 12, 2019 . Donor Appreciation
Buck docent Vernon Dwelly lives life as an adventure
With a quick wit and an engaging smile, Vernon Dwelly, fast approaching his 98th birthday, is a poster child for aging done right. When he retired 35 years ago after 31 years in management at American Express he never looked back. He sculpts driftwood, writes poetry and memoirs (he’s currently working on his second book) and travels the world with his wife Elke. Vernon recently retired as a Buck docent after 14 years of leading tours and speaking publicly about our research. He is still on the advisory council of the Dominican University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.
“I’ve always had hobbies and I like to keep busy,” says Vernon, who grew up in Liverpool, England. “Some of my colleagues from American Express literally died from boredom after they retired. In my mind, that was a tragedy. Life at any age can be an adventure if you approach it with the right attitude.”
Vernon’s sense of adventure started early. His studies at the London School of Economics were interrupted by World War II. He served as a Captain with the British Commandos, Special Services, the equivalent of the U.S. Army’s Green Berets. He worked in intelligence and counter-intelligence and first came in contact with Americans while training an advance group of U.S. Rangers prior to the D-Day invasion. “We did the training on steep cliffs in Scotland and Cornwall, around old castles and their walls. We did hand-to-hand combat and practiced night landings from submarines into ‘occupied German territory’. It was tough work.”
Life in the U.S. and beyond
Vernon visited relatives in the U.S. after the war and decided to stay in this country and become a citizen. His affinity for learning languages made him a perfect match for international assignments with American Express. He ran offices for the company in Japan, Germany, Mexico and Latin America. He speaks German, Dutch, Spanish and French and loves learning about and interacting with those from different cultures.
After he retired, international travel with his wife became a priority. “We’ve been blessed,” Vernon says, “It’s wonderful to explore the world, even as messy as it is.” Elke and he visited remote Ladakh, nestled geographically and politically between Tibet, Kashmir, India and Pakistan. They also traveled the Amazon River in South America, hiked to the top of Mount Kenya and mountaineered to the base camp of Mt. Everest. Physical discomforts and lack of suitcase space on some of those trips turned Vernon into an entrepreneur. He invented an inflatable, easy-to-pack, two-chambered pillow that still brings in some income.
Vernon was recruited to be a Buck docent after taking a tour with an architect friend. “In addition to being one of my hobbies, the Buck has always been educational for me,” he said. “The scientists are fabulous. I’m very positive about what’s being achieved for mankind and my fellow docents have become great friends.” The Dwellys have arranged for future support of the Buck by including a gift to the Buck in their trust.
A positive attitude and a life of change.
When asked what has changed during his lifetime, Vernon responds with an enthusiastic “everything!” He’s weathered a couple of major surgeries, and dealt with family issues. He says he sometimes feels like a cat that has (at least) nine lives. In addition to his curiosity and artistic proclivities, one of his defining characteristics is a remarkably upbeat attitude. “It’s always been in my nature to be positive and to be interested in the world. I’ve had patience and most importantly, I can differentiate between things that matter and those that don’t. I think many people encumber themselves with so much stuff that doesn’t matter.”
“We’re extremely grateful for Vernon’s support and thrilled that the Buck matters so much to him,” says Lisa Palma, the Buck’s Director of Philanthropy. “I’ve had the privilege of interacting with Vernon for many years and he has become a personal inspiration. Anyone looking for a guide to a rewarding later life need look no further than him.”
Science is showing that while chronological aging is inevitable, biological aging is malleable. There's a part of it that you can fight, and we are getting closer and closer to winning that fight.
Eric Verdin, MD, Buck Institute President and CEO