Age 60: Andrew Der
Rolling with the Punches
Published: March 20, 2013
When Andrew Der was 3 years old, he ran from Hungary to Vienna and finally to Washington, D.C..
This was in December 1956.
“Hungary had a brief war with the Soviets,” Der says, sipping a beer in Sláinte, a few blocks from his Fells Point home. “They actually successfully drove the Soviets out for five days. That pissed Moscow off, so they sent a huge battalion of tanks back. They were actually razing—that’s razing with a Z—the city. We walked to the Austrian border with the clothes on our back.”
Der and his mother and father came to the U.S. under a refugee program. “A farming family in West Virginia sponsored us,” he says, his voice cracking almost 60 years later. “I remember hanging out with their son. They knew nothing about us. They just did it for no other reason than to be nice.”
Der made the most of his new surroundings, heading to college and becoming a teacher of marine biology. “I actually ran a boat,” he says. There followed a stint teaching environmental studies in public school: “The most fun job I had.” Then he spent 17 years at the Maryland Department of the Environment.
Bureaucracy did not suit Der—though he endured it long enough that he now collects a $500 monthly pension he says he never knew he had coming.
Der says he left the state job to work as an environmental consultant, sometimes with waterfront developers. He settled in Burtonville with a wife and two kids, commuting to work in Baltimore and feeling unloved.
Six years ago, in a doctor’s office for a stress-related reflux problem, he was told he had cancer. Der says he had to wait a month for the prognosis—word of whether he’d likely live or die.
Three month after that, his mother died. The next year, he lost his job as the housing bubble burst. And then Der did something unusual for an unemployed man fighting cancer. “I left my marriage,” he says. He moved out of the house four years ago. Has a daughter, 17, and and son, 19. The daughter is an honor student. He’s not in contact with his son. “I don’t know why,” he says.
“I was an involved dad,” Der says. “I would get up at night to change diapers. Even at night, after a nightmare, they called for me,” he says. “That’s my best memory.”
The change allowed him to explore his own passions. “I pursued something I had kept putting off doing—freelance writing,” he says.Der is a travel and environmental writer now, which he does along with his environmental consulting.
The writing doesn’t pay much—but it does pay for the travel. Lately, he was at the Marriott in Cancun. They have a sea turtle hatchery. “I got a picture of me holding a baby turtle,” he says.
A 20-year student of Tang Soo Do, a blend of Taekwondo and Kung Fu, Der lost a kidney to cancer but says he is healthy otherwise. “I did everything right,” he says, meaning diet, exercise, no smoking.
He fills his time with a motorcycle (his dad always wanted one, he says) and other pursuits. “At 57 years old, I forced myself to learn snowboarding for the first time,” he says. “I said, ‘I don’t care how many times I fall.’ And I did it.”
For decades, Der was a long-term planner. Now, he says, “I’m so used to not thinking into the future too far.”
Age 10: Jaya Mandala | Age 20: Jaclyn Jones | Age 30: Andrew Syropoulos
Age 40: Samuel E. Lee Jr. | Age 50: Maureen Kramer | Age 60: Andrew Der
Age 70: James E. Locklear | Age 80: Mario Carrion | Age 90: Laura Johnson
Age 100: Lucille Brooks
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