The secret to long life is simple, according to Wallace Gatrell: “You wake up one morning after you go to sleep. [Then] you do that for 100 years.”
Gatrell’s face lights up when he says this. At 101, Gatrell has had a lot to enjoy, since he says he believes family is what makes a life well lived.
Gatrell and his wife, Ruth (who died in 2017, at age 95) raised eight children. He is grandfather to 45, and has more than 200 members in his extended family.
His home in Farmington contains relics of his life: Family photos, the grand piano Ruth bought with her earnings as a piano teacher, and books he’s loved — notably a copy of his favorite, “The Swiss Family Robinson.” The book has no copyright date, but has his young penmanship on the pages, indicating it could be as old as he is.
Gatrell has seen a lot since his birth in Utah in 1921. Some of it matches the predictions a British novelist, W.L. George, made in a 1922 newspaper essay that first ran in the New York Herald — and was published in The Salt Lake Telegram, the afternoon version of The Salt Lake Tribune back then, on May 14, 1922.
What predictions came true
In his predictions, George gets a fair amount of things correct.
He wrote that he expected the main changes would be brought about by science, pointing to “new rays” that will “illumine” people who “will be much the same.” X-rays were discovered in 1895.
Insulin had been discovered only a year before George’s article. A few years later, in 1929, the first polio patient had been saved by an artificial respirator, an “iron lung”; the first tests of Dr. Jonas Salk’s vaccine didn’t start until 1952. In 1982, the first artificial heart was transplanted, at the University of Utah Hospital.
George predicted that flying would become commonplace. His estimate that a flight from the United States to Europe would take eight hours is almost spot on; a trip from New York to London takes around seven hours on a standard jet. He also predicted, correctly, that wireless phones would become the norm.
He predicted that movies, which were still silent, would soon have sound. The kinescope was still in development in 1922, but only five years later, “The Jazz Singer” would become the first talkie in theaters. George quipped that the “movie actress of 2022 will not only need to know how to smile but also how to talk.”
George called himself a “cautious feminist,” and correctly guessed that women would follow their own career paths. He predicted there would be women in Congress (currently there are 149), the judicial bench (out of 115 justices in its history, only five have been women) and the president’s Cabinet (there are 65 in the Biden Cabinet).
As remarkable as those achievements are, George wrote, they will not “wipe out the effects on women of 30,000 years of slavery” and it’s “unlikely that women will have achieved equality with men.” As of 2020, according to the Pew Research Group, working women in the United States made an average of 84 cents for every dollar a man earned.
George also forecasted shortages in fossil fuels. “Coal will not be exhausted but our reserves will be seriously depleted, and so will those of oil,” he wrote. A gallon of gas cost 25 cents in 1922; AAA reported that as of April 27, the national average for a gallon of gas was $4.13.
War, Pearl Harbor and a love story
George’s most telling statement connects back to war. In 1922, the world was only four years removed from The Great War — what history now records as World War I — and George predicted that war would persist, even if less frequently.
“I suspect that those wars to come will be made horrible beyond my conception by new poison gases, inextinguishable flames and light-proof smoke clouds,” George wrote. “In those wars the airplane bomb will seem as out of date as is today the hatchet.”
The bombs remain, though they are often delivered by missile or by remote drones. And George doesn’t conjure up the idea — first suggested by Albert Einstein and other scientists to President Franklin Roosevelt in 1939 — of an atomic bomb.
Gatrell witnessed the continuation of war himself. He was enrolled in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) at Salt Lake City’s West High School and at the University of Utah. He joined the Utah National Guard as World War II was building up in Europe and the Pacific.
Gatrell was among the first group of soldiers that arrived in Hawaii just after the Japanese military’s attack on Pearl Harbor. He was on board the USS Tasker H. Bliss, headed for the Philippines on Dec. 6, 1941 — the day before Pearl Harbor — when the unequipped vessel was attacked.
The ship made it back to San Francisco, loaded artillery onto the SS Lurline (a luxury ocean liner), and set sail again — arriving in Hawaii on Dec. 23, 1941. They were the first reinforcements after the Pearl Harbor attack, and though there weren’t any other attacks, their artillery load helped with defense.
During his service, Gatrell received a Purple Heart, a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, among his other decorations.
Of the experience, Gatrell recalls being seasick on the fantail of the first boat, and seeing that it had turned around.
What stuck with Gatrell during the war, and every day throughout his life, was “my Ruth,” he said.
Two of his children, Garth Gatrell and Tamara Van Tassell, said their father had asked their mother if she wanted to marry him before he left. She said no, taking her father’s advice not to marry a man going to war.
“Sometime in  she wrote a letter and said, ‘I guess you’re the right person,” Garth said. When Wallace Gatrell got off the boat in San Francisco, he pulled out a handful of quarters and told the operator to let him know when he ran out of money. He did run out of money, but the operator didn’t cut him off.
Ten days after he and Ruth had their phone conversation, they got married.
The wedding was rushed, the kids said, because their parents were worried Wallace would get shipped out again. During the reception, Wallace’s brother came out and told him that he’d gotten a call saying to report the following Monday to be discharged.
Wallace Gatrell went to work with a railroad company, but after a strike that lasted 100 days, he enlisted once more — so his growing family would have a more steady source of income.
The merits of futurism
Many of George’s predictions proved accurate — but even he recognized that he wouldn’t have to answer for his speculations, true or not.
“There is a good old rule which bids us never prophesy unless we know, but, all the same, when one cannot prophesy one may guess, especially if one is sure of being out of the way when the reckoning comes,” George wrote.
Jaehee Yi, an associate professor at the University of Utah, is also a fellow for the Social Work Health Futures Lab — a nationwide program that uses futurism as a base for conversations and new thinking.
“Futurism is any activity that is intrigued by, cares about, and prepares for the futures,” Yi said. “In the past, futurism was connected to some kind of revelation from spiritual beings, such as crystal balls, fortune telling, tarot cards, oracles of Greece.”
Today, futurism is more about how we prepare for different scenarios in the future, and should be forecast from angles of social interactions, relations, immigration, race, gender, environment and other factors.
Yi said she has noticed an interest in the field, “triggered by our conscious and unconscious fear and worry about what is waiting for us.”
Futurists today rely on “signals,” according to Yi, which “can be anything that you can gather around you,” and they make us imagine different scenarios. For example, she said, one might overhear someone say coffee will go extinct in 20 years and then imagine the different possibilities of why that may or may not come true.
These signals and possibilities help futurists try to prepare for a better future.
George’s thinking process, Yi pointed out, was linear — taking current trends and extrapolating them ahead — not revolutionary.
George got a fair amount of things wrong, too. He predicted detachable floors would make housework easier. He said Americans would eat four pills as a full meal. And he believed Americans would settle for, at most, a 7-hour work day.
He also predicted birth control would become legal worldwide by 2022. In today’s world, women’s rights are attacked daily, many women don’t have access to proper contraception, and reproductive rights are under threat with the possibility of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning the 1973 decision of Roe v. Wade.
George also had lofty, wholehearted aspirations for views of race and immigration, particularly in the United States. He wrote confidently that “the idea of North and South, East and West, will have almost disappeared,” and that the idea of the “American race [that] will have taken so definite a form that immigration would not affect it.”
“In fact, current society cannot be farther from those predictions,” Yi said.
As a social worker, futurist and scholar, Yi said one prediction she’s “very concerned” about is the future of human connection. “If you think about how friendships were 100, 50, 10 years ago and [how they are now], we have been drifting apart from friends,” she said.
Yi declined to make any other predictions about the next 100 years. But, she said, “there is a huge merit to making predictions in this age, especially if we think of futurism as a way to imagine the futures and choosing the best future [among] them and trying to realize that. … We may not be able to predict a future, but we can make a future.”
The next century
Gatrell wears a blue work shirt, a gift for his 100th birthday, with these words embroidered over the pocket: “100 years, 100 great grandchildren, and still doing poorly.” He doesn’t speak much, but he’s very much present, his sense of humor evident.
Wallace and Ruth, their children said, taught them the value of financial responsibility, education, the ability to fix things, and being gracious. They talk about camping along the Alcan Highway in Alaska, and how they always had fun — even though they didn’t grow up with a television.
Ruth died in 2017, and though Wallace has kept living, he’s ready to go meet her. Tamara, their daughter, said, “he realizes they don’t teach you how to die as well as they teach you how to live.”
Gatrell doesn’t have any predictions for the next 100 years, either. His children said there’s bound to be more medical discoveries, and maybe humans will be living on the moon and Mars by then.
Anyone daring to predict what the world will be like in 2122 might take inspiration from George’s 1922 essay: “The world takes care of itself; it has been doing so for hundreds of centuries and is still spinning… that is its chief occupation.”
Bad news — war, political strife, disease, hunger, suffering, intolerance — may shake one’s confidence in humanity, in its tenacity to persevere, commitment to innovate and dedication to live.
George saw that coming, too.
“The future will be difficult; what does that matter?,” George wrote in his final paragraph. “So was the past difficult; difficulties did not prevent its turning into a tolerable present.”
A sampling of historic Utah moments
1921: First Black woman graduates from a Utah college • Mignon Barker Richmond becomes the first Black woman to graduate with a college degree in the state of Utah, from the Agricultural College of Utah (now Utah State University).
1934: Indian Reorganization Act • This law passed by the United States Congress allowed Indigenous people to “govern their affairs by a tribal government.”
1934: Earthquake • A 6.6 magnitude earthquake in Hansel Valley, Utah, is believed to be the most severe earthquake recorded in the state’s history.
1941-1945: World War II • Japanese Americans were detained during the war in internment camps across the country — including the WRA Topaz camp in Delta, Utah. Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the Enola Gay — the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima — chose Utah’s Wendover Army Air Field for training for the mission.
1940s: Lagoon desegregates • Robert E. Freed opened Lagoon’s swimming pool and ballroom to Utah’s Black population, becoming one of the first amusement parks to break the color barrier.
1957: Native American voting rights • Utah, along with North Dakota, becomes one of the last states to allow on-reservation voting rights for Indigenous people.
1978: Revelation on priesthood • The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reverses a long-standing policy that excluded Black men from becoming priests.
1982: First artificial heart transplant • Dr. William DeVries performed the world’s first permanent artificial heart transplant at the University of Utah. Barney Clark, a Seattle dentist, lived for 112 days after the operation.
2002: Winter Olympics • After winning a bid that exposed bribery of some International Olympic Committee members, Salt Lake City played host to the world from Feb. 8 to 24, 2002. The event forever changed Utah’s economy, and made Mitt Romney world famous.
2020: Census data • Utah is found to be one of the fastest-growing states in the country, with a population growth rate of 17.6% over 10 years.
Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.