When Art Linkletter visited Santa Rosa five years ago, he told a story of how he was visiting a nursing home where he was autographing and giving out his publicity photos to residents. One elderly woman with a smile was repeatedly looking at the photo she had just been handed, and then looked at Linkletter and then back at the photo.

Linkletter continued, “I asked her, ‘Ma’am, do you know who I am?’ She smiled and said, ‘No, but if you ask at the front desk, they’ll tell you.’ ”

Sometimes, I feel like I need to check in at the front desk.

I thought of that story the other day when I heard about the passing of Linkletter at the ripe age of 97. He was a class act.

He was also part of our  family lore. Shortly after I was born, my parents took a trip with friends to Lake Tahoe and were invited up on stage during one of Linkletter’s shows in Reno. They did some kind of passing game involving a grapefruit.

Knowing how much my mom admired the man, I took her to see Linkletter when he came here in 2005 as part of a “Frontiers in Aging” lecture series organized by Spring Lake Village. We even had an opportunity to spend some time with Linkletter back stage after the show, which pleased my mom to no end. I have to admit I enjoyed the whole experience more than I anticipated.

What struck us most about that day is that Linkletter, the radio and TV host know for such shows as “House Party” and “People Are Funny,” showed class and graciousness, even though it was often denied him during his life.  Above all else, Linkletter knew how to tell a great story and hold an audience. He didn’t resort to foul language, sexual references or gimmicks.

For two hours — nearly half of it he spent standing up on stage – he captivated the audience that day by relaying stories, occasionally reciting poetry — and always telling jokes.

He spoke of his stays at the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House and visits with presidents, from Truman and Eisenhower to George Bush Sr. and George Bush Jr. He talked about friends such as Walt Disney and Henry Kaiser. And most of all he talked about his interviews with kids and with seniors.

“Kids and seniors say the darndest things,” said Linkletter. “Kids don’t know what they’re saying and seniors don’t care.”

He said he once interviewed a woman who was a centenarian. “I asked her, what’s the nicest thing about being over 100 years old.” She thought about it and said. ‘There’s so little peer pressure.’”

When Linkletter was born in 1912, the average life expectancy of a male in America was 47 years. For him, it was probably even less given that he was abandoned as an infant in a small town in Canada where he was adopted and raised by a preacher’s family.

At that time, just 5 percent of the population of America was over 65. Today it is about 12.5 percent. And by this year, it was predicted that 21 percent of Sonoma County residents — 110,212 people — will be 60 or older.

In 1960, there were only about 3,000 people in the United States over the age of 100. By the time of Linkletter’s death, there were  nearly 70,000.

By the year 2050, America will be home to an estimated 1 million centenarians.

So what’s the key to being one of them?

Linkletter gave some suggestions: Don’t smoke. Watch what you eat. Most of all, maintain your interests, your friends — and your sense of humor.

Toward that end, Linkletter talked about the days he would interview children as part of his radio program. He used to let the school teachers in Los Angeles pick out kids (from Kindergarten to first grade.) A limousine would pick them up and bring them to the studio where they were see the studio and have lunch before the show.

Linkletter said that one day on his show he was trying to talk to a little boy who seemed very down.

“I said to him, ‘Why are you so glum?’ And he said. “My dog died last week.’”

Linkletter said he was sorry and he understood that losing a dog was like losing a member of the family. “But isn’t it nice to know that you’ll see him some day with God in heaven?” Linkletter said.

“And the boy looked at me funny and said, “What would God want with a dead dog?’”

Sonoma County is often visited by well-known speakers. But few are better able to tell us who we are — and who we are becoming — than Art Linkletter. We should all age as well as he did.

– Paul Gullixson