Bookshelf: ‘CBS Sunday Morning’s’ Mo Rocca proves age is just a number

Colonel Sanders, Jimmy Carter and Rita Moreno among his ‘Roctogenarians.’
Mo Rocca is the author of "Roctogenarians."
Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

Credit: Simon & Schuster

Credit: Simon & Schuster

Mo Rocca is the author of "Roctogenarians." Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

Mo Rocca has a thing for people in their later years.

The “CBS Sunday Morning” correspondent and recurring panelist on NPR’s “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” launched the podcast Mobituaries in 2019 that mined fascinating, little-known details about the lives of the deceased throughout history and pop culture.

Subjects have ranged from Lawanda Page (Aunt Esther on “Sanford & Son) to the poisoned oak trees at Auburn University. That same year, along with co-writer Jonathan Greenberg, Rocca published the book “Mobituaries: Great Lives Worth Living,” which became a New York Times bestseller.

Now the duo is back with a new book, “Octogenarians: Late in Life Debuts, Comebacks and Triumphs” (Simon & Schuster, $28.99), an intriguing and humorous look at people (and a few animals) who have done extraordinary things late in life.

“I’ve gone from the dead to the pre-dead. We are moving in the direction toward the hotter demo,” Rocca joked during a phone call earlier this week.

“Older people, I’ve always gravitated toward them. They have more to say. They generally know themselves better, and they’re more surprising,” said Rocca.

For four seasons, Rocca filmed a show on the Cooking Channel called “My Grandmother’s Ravioli” where he traveled the country cooking with older men and women and chatting them up.

“It was one big excuse to hang out with them and hear their stories. One thing became apparent very quickly, they cared a lot less about what other people thought of them than younger people, and we all want to get to that place,” he said.

Writing “Roctogenarians” was the publisher’s idea, but once Rocca heard it, he was all in.

“I’m 55,” he said. “Like all projects I gravitate towards almost in a selfish way, this was a chance for me to look for inspiration and kind of a road map for myself as well. And I’m delighted that we could deliver a book that includes (artist Henri) Matisse and Clara Peller (known for her “Where’s the Beef?” commercials for Wendy’s).”

Other subjects range from Colonel Sanders, Rita Moreno and Jimmy Carter to Carl Reiner and Mr. Pickles the tortoise.

Not surprisingly, Rocca discovered some commonalities among the people he researched and interviewed.

They’re all people who did not accept the conventional wisdom that the third act of life is a time for winding down or clocking out. … Another thing is that even the ones that were very accomplished earlier in life were not interested in victory laps, which I think is really important. They’re very much in it. They’re very much in the moment.”

One of his favorite examples of that is architect I.M. Pei.

“The Louvre was an 800-year-old palace. But it was also kind of a behemoth … in need of a major makeover,” Rocca said. “I.M., who at that point was already in his 70s but was very established and celebrated, came up with the idea of placing a glass pyramid in the middle of this French palace. There was an uproar … That is such a rock ‘n’ roll move and fittingly he went on to design the Rock & Roll (Hall of Fame) in Cleveland. He’s one of the best exemplars of roctogenarians. What a bold, badass move to do that.”

Forced to pick his favorites among the book’s subjects, Rocca admits he favors the writers like Laura Ingalls Wilder and Frank McCourt.

“In the case of Frank McCourt, he really had to be convinced that his story was worth telling. And thank God he did because ‘Angela’s Ashes’ is so great,” he said. “So many people don’t think that their story is worth telling, and I find that very sad.”

That’s why Rocca ends the book with a sweet piece about his mother, who immigrated from Colombia by herself as a young adult.

“(S)he’s private, and I think, like a lot of people, for much of her life thought her story wasn’t worth telling. So, the fact that she allowed me to write about her at all is a great gift.”

Mo Rocca will be in conversation with WABE’s Lois Reitzes 7 p.m. June 13 at First Baptist Church of Decatur. Tickets include a signed copy of the book. The event is presented by WABE, the Georgia Center for the Book, A Cappella Books and the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library. For details go to

Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and contributing editor The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She may be reached at