Bruce Sundlun picking up his new Buick Lucerne, May 2007
Former Rhode Island Governor Bruce Sundlun, my father-in-law, took a big step yesterday. After driving since the Great Depression, he gave up his driver’s license. For a man who turns 90 this coming winter, it wasn’t easy….for him or us. This came after a long period of pleading from his family, incidents that resulted in police action, reports in the Providence Journal detailing his lack of driving prowess, and ultimately, some self-reflection. We are extremely proud of his decision to turn over his license to the Rhode Island DMV. We also know how difficult it can be for a family with an older driver.
What wasn’t reported in the news stories about my father-in-law’s driving is that we, his family, had been trying to persuade him to give up driving for some time. Most of us refused to drive with him, but that didn’t work. He still wouldn’t give it up. Over time he relinquished the controls and became a passenger, mostly because the option was going out by himself and following behind….way behind!
Whenever we broached the subject of his driving, the Governor’s response was always the same ” I’m a good driver!” he would growl. “I’ve been trained to drive by the FBI, the CIA and the DEA.” He didn’t seem the least bit phased when we countered with the fact that this training occured when Truman was president! No, his argument often fell on deaf ears, especially when he backed into my brother-in-law’s car in his driveway.
This is a man who survived being shot down by the Nazis during World War II, won the governor’s race after two defeats, faced the anger of customers whose troubled banks he shut down, and beat cancer. The man who fought hard against the naysayers to bring a first class airport to Providence wasn’t going to give up driving just because we asked him to.
In fact, two years ago he needed a new car and liked our car and wanted one exactly like it. He wanted it to look sporty, and have all the options, namely Onstar so he wouldn’t have to use a cell phone while driving. Thank goodness for that. We wisely talked him out of getting a navigation screen, since the last thing my father-in-law needed was a monitor full of colorful maps to distract him from keeping his eyes on the road.
I had to drive his car last year and Kara and I were stunned by the high mileage. He drove often and everywhere. He came to Hartford to visit us, all around the state for fundraisers and charity events, to his alma mater Williams College for a reunion, Boston to visit one of his granddaughters and New York City for an event. He was also driving to his office at URI every day.
My father-in-law kept driving for a number of reasons, including peer pressure. He has friends who still drive….friends who are older than he is! Just last summer, over lunch Kara and I were trying to persuade Bruce to give up driving when his 90 year old friend came over. Here is how the conversation went:
Bruce: “How are you, my dear?”
Friend: “I’ve had a dreadful day. I had to drive my grandson to the train station near URI, and then take another to the airport and then drive to Providence for an errand and back to Newport.”
She didn’t exactly help our cause. We should point out he also has a 92 year old friend who still drives.
I think my father-in-law should use his experience to help others. The Rhode Island DMV should put him in a PSA explaining how people can help with a loved one who should no longer drive.
The cities of Providence and Hartford should build housing for seniors downtown, within walking distance to stores, services, and hospitals. It might make giving up a driver’s license less traumatic.
This morning Kara said “I am so proud of my Dad.” We all are.