[The Montana Professor 21.1, Fall 2010 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

A model for retirees: the Herb Kirk legacy

Robert J. Swenson
V.P. for Research (Emeritus)

Herb Kirk was the oldest person to graduate from Montana State University (MSU-Bozeman) when he was awarded a B.A. degree in Art in 1993 at age 96. He may be the oldest person to have graduated from any university, as Nola Ochs had held that record, having graduated at the age of 95.

Herb's life set standards few of us can hope to meet. This was a man who reinvented himself throughout his 106 years, enjoying exciting new opportunities at all ages—all of which kept his body and mind fit. That is an achievement we can all learn from. Of particular interest to us retirees is the fact that he accomplished some of his greatest achievements after his "retirement" at the age of 60.

Herb grew up in Pennsylvania and was a student at Lehigh University when WWI broke out and interrupted his education. He joined the Navy Flying Corps and flew many anti-submarine missions around England. After the war he built a successful business career, eventually as president of the Kirk China Company, which produced fine, hand-decorated tableware. At 60 he retired to pursue other activities and moved to Bozeman, MT, where his wife Eleanor was born and had family.

Herb put his knowledge of ceramics to good use by teaching pottery for many years at MSU, particularly to Native American students.

He became an avid tennis player and now has a tennis tournament named after him. To quote from this past year's program for that tournament, "Herb Kirk's enthusiasm and desire to learn are an inspiration to all Montanans. A tennis instructor for decades, Herb won the Montana Senior Championships at age 78. Students recall his consistent urging to favor placement over power, and his opponents agreed that he 'could run anything down'.... This tournament is dedicated to his memory and his remarkable vitality."

When his eyesight began failing in his 80s, forcing him to give up playing tennis, he started a new career in running, soon becoming a world class runner. He would run at least an hour four or five times a week. When interviewed on "Good Morning America" he said, "It keeps me in good shape, active, interesting. I wouldn't do without some exercise. I'd be downhill fast." His successes as a runner required new age categories to be established for world records for the Masters class. In 1981 the oldest age class was 80+. It was changed to 85+ in 1983, 90+ in 1986, 95+ in 1991, and 100+ in 1996. Herb holds the world records for the 800 meters race for the 95+ class, for the mile for the 90+ and 95+ classes, and for the 5000 meters for the 95+. The USA Track and Field organization chose him as the runner of the year in 1986 and 1987 in the 90+ class, in 1991 for the 95+ class, and in 1996 for the 100+ class. Even though he was the reason for the addition of all these new age classes, he was most proud of the 100+ class.

At the age of 104 Herb set a new record as the oldest person to complete the 5k Governor's Cup, a race most MUS retirees would not even attempt though 30 or more years younger. Perhaps more interesting still, four generations of the Kirk family ran in the Bozeman Sweet Pea Race, which is also believed to be a record.

When WWI interrupted his college education Herb had made a commitment eventually to get a degree. He had not only exercised his body, he kept his mind active. Thus, when nearing total blindness, making it difficult to do other things, he began the journey to make good on that commitment of more than 75 years before. He enrolled as a student at MSU, successfully attaining his goal in 1993.

At his commencement ceremony, President Malone asked the 96-year-old Herb to come up on stage and make some remarks to his fellow graduates. He "ran" up to the stage, made a few remarks about a full and rewarding life, and then looked to the right, where the 50 year reunion class (20 years his junior) was sitting in their yellow robes and said, "I am really looking forward to my 50th reunion!" Maybe at commencement in 2043 MSU will recognize the 50th anniversary of Herb's degree?

He became at age 104 a Chevalier of the National Order of the Legion of Honor of France, its highest award, for helping to protect France during World War I.

Upon his death, Runner's World published the following obituary:

Runner's World Herb Kirk, 1895-2001: "On October 3, one day after celebrating his 106th birthday, Herb Kirk, reportedly the oldest man to compete in an organized running event, died of pneumonia. At the Portland Marathon fun run in September 1996, Kirk finished the 2-mile course in about 36 minutes. He set several age group records in his late 80s and early 90s. Herb, a Montana resident, holds world and American records ranging from 200m to the 5,000m on the track. He holds countless single-age records. Kirk was interviewed by ABC's Diane Sawyer and others for a 1999 profile."/1/


  1. Thanks to Herb's son Charlie for some comments and information.[Back]

[The Montana Professor 21.1, Fall 2010 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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