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New film hails life of resolute centenarian Julius Barthoff

Julius Barthoff, shown as a boy growing up in Chicago, suffered hearing loss as an infant. Julius Barthoff, shown as a boy growing up in Chicago, suffered hearing loss as an infant.
June 5, 2011

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Caitrin Lynch, an associate professor of anthropology at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, met fellow Needham resident Julius Barthoff while doing research for her book about older factory workers leading meaningful lives.

While he didn’t become a major figure in her book, Lynch never forgot the positive attitude and generous spirit of the 97-year-old who contracted diphtheria as an infant and consequently suffered progressive hearing loss. She received a handwritten card from him shortly after his 99th birthday, which read, “How is your study? Now in my 99th year, I am struck by our society’s fascination with the number 99. It is really just arithmetic. What counts is how one has reached this longevity.’’

Lynch was so moved that she resolved to share his story as a lifelong advocate for the hearing impaired.

In Lynch’s new film, “My Name is Julius,’’ Barthoff is featured e-mailing with friends around the world, celebrating his 100th birthday, and distributing newspapers to neighbors in his senior housing building. In the film, Barthoff says, “I think that hearing loss affected my entire life. I was up against a society that looked at hearing loss as a stigma. But at one point, I decided, ‘Hey, I’m not going to let hearing loss run my life. I’m going to learn how to cope.’ And I think I cope to the best of my ability.’’

Barthoff won the 2009 Oticon Focus on People Award, which recognizes individuals who become positive role models for people with hearing loss.

Barthoff died on April 29, 2010, before he could see the documentary, which Lynch produced with Titi Yu, a New York-based director who has done work for PBS and the History Channel. The crew included a number of Olin students.

“Julius would probably have been embarrassed by the attention, because we had to work so hard to convince him that his story is compelling,’’ Lynch said. “His story gets at the bigger issues of aging, hearing loss, and how community service and connection are so important throughout one’s life. He was truly an inspiration.’’

Lynch’s book about senior factory workers — “Making Needles, Making Lives: Age, Work, and Value in an American Factory’’ — is scheduled for publication by Cornell University Press in spring 2012. For more information about her documentary, visit www.juliusfilm.com.

Cindy Cantrell

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