For Melvin “Mel” Pender Jr., there’s no time to sit and retire when you can actively inspire.
The Atlanta native, who will turn 80 this month, has a lifetime of achievements to draw upon when he speaks to younger generations across the globe. The Olympic gold medalist, decorated military veteran, entrepreneur and community leader could speak along any of these avenues about how success follows dedication and hard work.
But he’s also apt to pull out a few gems of wisdom that inspired him as a youth — advice from a brilliant grandfather with a third-grade education who raised him throughout an impoverished childhood.
Listen to your elders. They’ve already experienced what you’re going through. Read voraciously. It’s the key to learning. And this one: “Never give up. Continue to strive no matter how old you are.”
That’s advice Pender still follows to this day, along with his own life’s motto, straight out of Scripture: “To whom much is given, much is required.”
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“My wife and I, our mission in life is to help others,” Pender said.
His purpose-driven life has also inspired the Georgia Institute of Aging and LeadingAge Georgia to present Pender with the 2017 Positive Aging Icon Image Award at its annual gala Nov. 5 at the Atlanta History Center.
This top award goes to an older adult who continues to contribute selflessly to society at every stage of life.
Pender said he was “very honored” and “very grateful” to be selected for the award, adding that it puts him in the company of “really great people who have been selected in the past.” Last year’s award winner was former U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young.
Profiles of Positive Aging awards will also be given to 22 other Georgians, ranging in age from 45 to 103, who exemplify what it means to live a positive and influential life while aging.
“All of these are unsung heroes and heroines who lead such interesting lives. It’s not just what they’ve done in the past, but what they’re doing today,” said Jacquelyn Thornton, senior vice president of LeadingAge Georgia.
She said the honorees are people who embrace aging and are still learning, growing and doing things such as writing books and starting businesses well into their 70s and 80s.
LeadingAge Georgia is a nonprofit organization that “strives to dispel the negative stereotypes of aging and promote a culture of positivity and inclusion,” Thornton said. Its membership represents senior communities and other senior care providers.
During the gala, Pender will speak about some of his latest initiatives and his autobiography, “Expressions of Hope: The Mel Pender Story,” which he co-authored with his wife, the Rev. Debbie Pender.
Pender is recognized for his lifetime contributions, beginning with the construction of the first swimming pool for African-Americans in Lynwood Park, the community where he grew up. Among other notable achievements: he is a decorated Vietnam veteran; a gold medalist in the 4-x-100-meter relay in the 1968 Olympics; the first African-American track and field coach at West Point Military Academy; world record holder in two track events; and inductee into nine different halls of fame.
Pender has always been committed to children, serving on Boys and Girls Clubs of America, the Special Olympics Committee of Georgia and numerous other organizations and boards.
“I love helping young people,” Pender said. He gives motivational talks at high schools and other venues, and often hears of youths’ despair over the nation’s current social unrest.
“These are some crazy times we’re going through in America right now,” Pender said. “I grew up in the civil rights era and served two tours in Vietnam. To see what’s happening here in America right now, it’s heartbreaking. Young people ask me all the time, ‘Why? Why is this happening?’”
Pender says that while he doesn’t have an answer for that, he still believes America “is the greatest country in the world” and encourages young people to dream big and then work hard to make those dreams come true.