10 Famous Accomplishments Made Late in Life

Susan Boyle
At 48, Susan Boyle is one of the younger people featured in this list.
Associated Press

In the spring of 2009, people all over the world became transfixed by a video clip of a woman singing. In just three weeks, the video of the woman's performance was downloaded more than 180 million times [source: Cutler]. It wasn't a starlet singing her latest Top 40 hit, though, but a 48-year-old unknown amateur belting out a 29-year-old song from a Broadway musical.

No one expected much of Susan Boyle when she stepped onto the stage of the reality television program "Britain's Got Talent," and that's partly why her performance of "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Miserables is so compelling. Subconsciously or not, we expect success from young and beautiful people. We delight in child prodigies and can rattle off youthful accomplishments, such as Mozart composing at 5 and Bobby Fischer winning chess championships at the age of 13. And when someone has success, we're apt to say that this is something he or she was born to do; after all, Tiger Woods picked up his first golf club when he was 2.


That's why stories like Susan Boyle's catch us by surprise. All too often, we pass certain birthdays and become resigned to the fact that the window for pop superstar success or for writing the Great American Novel has closed. However, the ten accomplishments on this list prove that you're never too old to make your mark.

10: Laura Ingalls Wilder Publishes "Little House in the Big Woods"

little house on the prairie tv show
The "Little House" books were turned into a popular '70s TV drama starring Melissa Gilbert as Laura Ingalls (left).
Fotos International/Getty Images

Laura Ingalls Wilder's best-selling series of books began with "Little House in the Big Woods," which chronicled her pioneering childhood in the late 1800s. The books were so well-loved that NBC adapted one into a pilot and then a TV series ("Little House on the Prairie") that aired from 1974 to 1982 [source: Suoninen]. "Little House" still airs in syndication in the U.S. and abroad today, and Wilder's popular books are still in print.

However, Wilder didn't publish her first book until she was 64. She started out as a teacher at the age of 15, and married Almanzo Wilder (a farmer) at 18. She wrote several articles on farming and rural life in the early 1900s, eventually becoming poultry editor for the St. Louis Star. Later in life, she started documenting her own story, at her daughter's encouragement. She finally published "Little House in the Big Woods" in 1932 and continued the series about herself and her family, ending with "These Happy Golden Years" in 1943, at age 76 [source: Encyclopædia Britannica].


9: Benjamin Franklin Signs the Declaration of Independence

Benjamain Franklin
Benjamin Franklin (standing center) was the oldest original signer of the Decalaration of Independence.
MPI/Getty Images

Renaissance man Benjamin Franklin is known for many things -- including founding the first public library in the U.S. at age 25, and establishing the first official fire department at 29. But he's also known for a much later achievement: signing the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Franklin didn't put his John Hancock on that historic document until he was 70, which made him the oldest signer [source: Kindig].

Franklin only attended school until age 10, when he started an apprenticeship as a printmaker under his brother, where he first got interested in writing. He eventually began his own publishing company, where he published the influential "Poor Richard's Almanac" and was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1751 and to the Continental Congress in 1775. He had actually retired from publishing at the time he worked on and signed the Declaration of Independence [source: Kindig].


The Declaration of Independence wasn't the only founding document to which Franklin penned his name. He was the only person to sign all three of the major documents that founded the U.S.: The Declaration of Independence, The Treaty of Paris, and the U.S. Constitution. The Declaration of Independence officially announced that America was freeing itself from British rule, and Franklin not only signed the document but worked with the Continental Congress in 1776 to help write it [source: Twin Cities Public Television]

8: Nelson Mandela Becomes President of South Africa

Mandela, Boesak
Nelson Mandela shares a laugh with fellow freedom fighter Allan Boesak in 1993.
Onyx Media/Gallo Images/Getty Images

Known for his struggle against apartheid, the system of racial segregation that was in place in South Africa since 1948 [source: BBC News], Nelson Mandela was a revolutionary who didn't see the fruits of his labor until much later in life.

Mandela was part of the African National Congress (ANC), a group that campaigned against apartheid. After 69 blacks were shot dead by police during the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, Mandela and like-minded members of the ANC turned from nonviolence and began a campaign of economic sabotage instead. He was arrested and convicted of sabotage in 1962 and sentenced to life in prison in 1964 [source: BBC News].


In 1980, his friend and fellow lawyer Oliver Tambo launched a campaign to free Nelson Mandela, and 10 years later South African president F.W. de Klerk did just that. In 1994, when he was almost 76, Mandela was elected president of South Africa in the first election that was open to all races in that country's history [source: BBC News]. On his 80th birthday he married his third wife Graca Machel.

7: Bill Wilson Starts Alcoholics Anonymous

Christian Slater, Bill Wilson,
Christian Slater visits with actors portraying Bill Wilson (left) and Robert Smith (right) in the off-Broadway play "Bill W. and Dr. Bob."
Bruce Gilkes/Film Magic/Getty Images

Bill Wilson didn't start out as an activist or a counselor, but at age 40, he founded an organization that's helped millions of alcoholics regain control of their lives.

An army man and a businessman, Wilson struggled for most of his life with depression. After serving in the military during World War I, he went to Wall Street to work as a stock broker, where he was very successful despite being a heavy drinker. When the market crashed in 1929, Wilson's alcoholism spun out of control. In 1934, a friend who had overcome a drinking problem through principles found in the spiritual group, the Oxford Group, paid him a visit. Wilson didn't stop drinking immediately, but that conversation definitely made an impression. He entered a hospital to "dry out" and there had a religious experience that made him vow to stop drinking [source: Stepping Stones].


However, after leaving the hospital the Wilsons fell on tough financial times and he was desperate to have a drink again. He contacted another alcoholic, a surgeon named Robert Smith who also attended the Oxford Group [source: Stepping Stones]. Their five-hour conversation kept Wilson from taking that drink. Realizing the value of one alcoholic helping another to keep from drinking, the two men searched for others to help.

In 1935, at age 40, Wilson teamed up with Dr. Smith to lay out the tenets of an organization devoted to helping alcoholics recover. But it wasn't until a 1941 Saturday Evening Post article that Alcoholics Anonymous really took off in popularity [source:Nilsson]. Today, Alcoholics Anonymous is a worldwide organization that boasts more than 2 million members [source: Alcoholics Anonymous].

6: Mother Teresa Begins Her Work with the Poor

Mother Teresa, Nobel Prize
Mother Teresa won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 at the age of 69.
Keystone/Getty Images

Although Mother Teresa became a nun at 18 years old, it wasn't until she was 38 that she left her convent and opened a school in the slums of Calcutta [source: Biography].

For 17 years she taught at St. Mary's School for Girls in India. During that time she experienced what she referred to as "the call within the call" to work with the poor and the suffering she saw in the streets of India. At 38, she left the Sisters of Loreto to move into the slums where she started a school, and also tended to the sick and the dying. After a few months, she was joined by other volunteers, many of them former students [source: MotherTeresa.org].


In 1950 at age 40 she established the "Missionaries of Charity" order with 13 nuns. This eventually became a world-wide organization that helps the sick, the poor, the dying, as well as disaster victims through a network of religious houses, schools, hospices, and charity centers in more than 120 countries [source : The Nobel Foundation].

In 1979, at age 69, Mother Teresa received the Nobel Peace Prize for her work [source: The Nobel Foundation].

5: Julia Child Learns to Cook

Julia Child
Bon appétit!
George Rose/Getty Images

The name Julia Child is synonymous with culinary excellence, which is why it may be surprising to learn that in her mid-30s, Julia Child had to ask what a shallot was [source: Grimes]. The year was 1948, and she had just moved to France with her new husband. Though she didn't speak French and could barely cook, Child fell in love with French cuisine and became determined to learn how to make it herself.

Up to that point, Child had been at a loss for what to do with herself. She had vague aspirations of writing, but once noted that she attended Smith College at a time when women became either nurses or teachers [source: Schrambling]. Though much has been made of her potential espionage career, in truth, Child didn't come alive until she studied at the celebrated Cordon Bleu cooking school. "To think it has taken me 40 years to find my true passion," she once wrote to her sister-in-law [source: Mellowes].


And though she may have identified that passion, it took several more years for her hard work to pay off. It took more than a decade and several rounds of rejections before the tome that Child co-authored, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," was published, and she didn't begin her long-running PBS program "The French Chef" until she was 51.

4: Peter Mark Roget Compiles Thesaurus

Peter Mark Roget, circa 1820
The man you can thank for your synonyms, circa 1820.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Peter Mark Roget was nearing his 70th birthday when he was forced to retire from the Royal Society, London's esteemed collection of scientists, so that the younger generation could begin its work [source: Winchester]. At that point, Roget, who was born in 1779, had done many things worthy of a secure legacy. He had developed the log-log slide rule, which allowed mathematicians to work with logarithms long before the calculator made an appearance, and he had published many medical and scientific papers, including several entries for the fledgling Encyclopedia Britannica. He was even indirectly involved with the invention of motion pictures, thanks to his paper on the human eye's ability to create a persistent image even when the image is briefly interrupted.

Instead of resting on his laurels, though, Roget turned to a project that had interested him since the time he was a young man: a scientific ordering of language. Long compelled to make lists of similar words, he envisioned a book that would not define words, but group them according to a classification, such as "space" or "moral powers" [source: Winchester]. The first edition of Roget's Thesaurus was published when Roget was 73, and he oversaw every update until he died at age 90 [source: Upchurch]. Though writer Simon Winchester argues that Roget's book was never intended for the masses, but rather for scholars interested in these classifications, Roget managed to create one of the most enduring reference materials in his retirement years.


3: Gandhi and Granny D Walk for a Cause

Gandhi during the Salt March to Dandi.
Gandhi during the Salt March to Dandi.
Topical Press Agency/Stringer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Throughout his life, Mahatma Gandhi demonstrated how to fight for a cause in a nonviolent way. One of the most important acts in his quest for Indian independence occurred in 1930, when Gandhi was 61. That year, Gandhi led the Salt March to Dandi to protest the salt tax the British had imposed on the people of India. Weighing just 99 pounds (45 kilograms), Gandhi set out to walk approximately 200 miles (320 kilometers) with a group of followers [source: Weber]. He even carried his own luggage when he saw a family member pass it off to a servant. The journey took three weeks and ended with Gandhi illegally collecting a block of salt, a move that set off civil disobedience throughout the country and that is now regarded by historians as a central moment in the fight for Indian independence.

Even those who feel they can't compare to a luminary like Gandhi should be heartened by another impressive walk for a cause. In 1999, at the age of 89, Doris Haddock began walking the 3,200 miles (5,150 kilometers) between Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. to raise awareness for the issue of campaign finance reform. Granny D, as she is popularly known, walked 10 miles (16 kilometers) a day on her journey, even skiing when conditions required it. She relied on the kindness of strangers for her housing and meals over the 14 months that her walk took. In 2004, Granny D unsuccessfully pursued a seat in the U.S. Senate, making her one of the oldest candidates for major public office.


2: Ray Kroc Franchises McDonald's

Ray Kroc in front of McDonald's
Ray Kroc enjoying a hamburger
Associated Press

All the young whippersnappers in business school may have you thinking that entrepreneurship is for the young, but consider the example of Ray Kroc. Kroc, born in 1902, spent 17 years of his adult life as a paper cup salesman, and then he spent approximately another 17 peddling the Multimixer, a machine that could craft five milkshakes at once.

The invention was originally intended to appeal to drug stores with soda fountains, but Kroc had better luck selling the invention to hamburger joints and drive-ins. That meant Maurice and Richard McDonald, who owned a few hamburger restaurants in California and Arizona, were perfect potential customers for Kroc. The brothers McDonald purchased 10 Multimixers, so Kroc went to see them in action. Impressed by this restaurant that sold cheap hamburgers, french fries and milkshakes quickly to a hungry public, Kroc suggested that the brothers franchise their operation on a national scale. The McDonalds were interested, but didn't know who could manage all those stores. Kroc volunteered himself for the job.


At the age of 52, despite battles with diabetes and arthritis, Kroc set out to build the McDonald's brand. Seven years later, he convinced the brothers to sell out their shares, and he became the owner of a franchise that would sell more than a billion hamburgers by 1963 [source: Pepin]. Kroc continued to be involved in McDonald's operations until his death in 1984.

1: Grandma Moses Picks Up a Paintbrush

Grandma Moses painting
Grandma Moses, hard at work on a painting at age 99.
Associated Press

When Anna Mary Robertson Moses died in 1961 at age 101, then-President John F. Kennedy released a statement praising her paintings for inspiring a nation, noting, "All Americans mourn her loss" [source: New York Times]. Governor of New York Nelson Rockefeller had declared on her 101st birthday that there was "no more renowned artist in our entire country today" [source: New York Times]. President Harry S. Truman once played the piano just for her.

Who was this woman who captivated U.S. presidents and art audiences at home and abroad? Anna Mary Robertson Moses was better known to the world as Grandma Moses, a woman who didn't begin to paint until the age of 76, when her hands became too crippled by arthritis to hold an embroidery needle. She found herself unable to sit around and do nothing, even after a long life spent working on farms.

Grandma Moses never had any formal art training -- indeed, she'd had very little formal education at all -- but she painted every day, turning out more than a thousand paintings in 25 years [source: May]. When an art collector passing through her town saw the paintings selling for a few dollars in a drug store, he bought them all and arranged for them to be shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Even with her newfound fame, her topics remained the same: nostalgic, colorful scenes of farm life, such as the first snow or a maple sugaring. That doesn't mean that Grandma Moses' audience was limited, however; by the time of her death, she had paintings in museums as far away as Vienna and Paris.

Lots More Information

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