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From F. Scott Fitzgerald to Y2K: The life of Steven J. Hirsch '17, Princeton's oldest alum

When the clock reached midnight Jan. 1, most people in the world were excited to say they had lived in two centuries. But the New Year brought a more significant feat for the University's oldest living alumnus, Steven J. Hirsch '17 — a life that spanned three centuries.

Hirsch was born in 1895, and he celebrated his 105th birthday Jan. 25 with family and friends in San Francisco. In addition, he received flowers from President Shapiro and a "Happy Birthday" fax from the granddaughter of his former classmate F. Scott Fitzgerald '17.

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It might be difficult to picture life without many of the luxuries of the modern world, but Hirsch doesn't need to imagine such a time. He has lived it.

"Having lived in three centuries, [Hirsch] antedates the common use of everything we use in our every day lives — not only the microwaves and laptops, but electric lights and automobiles too," son-in-law Jim Loebl '48 said.

Telephone tag

According to Loebl, Hirsch used to tell stories of how his father had the only telephone in almost all of New York. People would call his house not to speak to the family, but to talk to neighbors and friends. It was Hirsch's job to find whomever was being telephoned and bring that person to the house to talk.

"He remembers New York City before they put the subway in," granddaughter Susan Grasso '84 said. "He has pointed out where the horse and carriage used to pull up and park on the street."

Hirsch lived in New York City for 101 years of his life, with short leaves while at college and in the military service. He married Dorothy Bloch in 1924 and has two daughters, Dottie Loebl and Barbara Rosston.

His wife died in 1964, and he has been a widower ever since. In December 1996, just short of his 102nd birthday, Hirsch moved to San Francisco to be closer to his family. All his friends and contemporaries had died, Mr. Loebl said.

'Princeton bond'

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The University has always been a part of Hirsch's life — his two older brothers having graduated in 1905 and 1912.

"I know he always loved the University," Mrs. Loebl said.

While at Princeton, Hirsch was a member of Colonial Club. Many of his good friends were members there, and "he has a great fondness for the club," Mrs. Loebl said.

"Princeton has always been the one thing that was near and dear to his heart," Mrs. Loebl said.

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Hirsch even kept in touch with Ike Grainger '17 until he died in October, just short of his own 105th birthday, she added.

In 1994 and 1995, Hirsch — at the ages of 99 and 100 — was awarded the silver cane at University reunions, honoring him as the oldest alumnus in attendance.

"He was very proud of that," Mrs. Loebl said. The following year, however, he became ill and has not been able to attend the ceremony since he left New York.

"To this day he enjoys Princetonians from all classes," Mrs. Loebl said. "They seem to share that special Princeton bond."

Hirsch has always been an avid Princeton football fan, and until he was 100 years old, he used to attend the games, Mr. Loebl said. "He had more fun when [Princeton] used to win though," he added.

Military man

Hirsch is a veteran of both world wars, and he still has many painful memories that he prefers not to discuss.

"He's always been a very private person," Mrs. Loebl explained.

In June, Hirsch was awarded the French Legion of Honor for his service in France during the First World War. He was part of the infantry in the trenches from April until September in 1918.

"He always said [World War I] was a very interesting and impacting experience for a young man to go through," Mrs. Loebl said.

In September 1918 Hirsch was sent back to the United States to train a new division in Platsburg, N.Y. The most difficult part about this stage of the war was the Spanish flu that "mowed everyone down," Mrs. Loebl said. "There was so much flu around that it wiped out all the boys that he had trained."

Hirsch was a lieutenant colonel in World War II and was involved in the U.S. Army's air intelligence. He was "tired of walking the war," she said.

In the 1940s Hirsch was sent to India where he contracted a form of malaria called "Black Water Fever," which was fatal at the time. However, he fought the sickness and was released to inactive duty.

"[The sickness] obviously had no appreciable effect on his life span," Mr. Loebl said.

In November 1921, Hirsch attended the interment of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, D.C., according to Grasso, which had special a meaning for Hirsch because of his involvement in France during World War I.

Learning to fly

Just four years after the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, N.C., in 1903, Hirsch — at the age of 12 — sat between his father's legs in a two-seated open-cockpit plane and flew over Long Island, N.Y. Because of this experience, Hirsch has "no fear of flying whatsoever," Mr. Loebl said.

Hirsch worked as an investor in the stock market for the family company, The Bloch Brothers, and for himself.

"The changes he has seen in aviation and communications and every transportation are just incredible," Mrs. Loebl said.

Hirsch has always enjoyed spending time with his family. "He was always and still is a lot of fun to have around," Grasso said. "He gets a kick out of his great grandchildren now."

As Hirsch enters the new millennium and continues to live in its quickly changing society, his most remarkable attribute — "his ability to keep an open mind about people and their changing attitudes and ideas" — will probably serve him well, Mr. Loebl said.

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