There are so many questions we ask ourselves just for the existential fun of it: If you could bring one item onto a deserted island, what would it be? If you could only choose three books to read for the rest of your life, which would you pick? And of course, the one question that stumps even the most practiced participants: If you only had one year to live, what would you do with it?
When you take away the “ifs,” these questions definitely aren’t as fun to answer…especially that last one. When one woman’s fatal diagnosis forced her to consider it for real, her unusual answer took her on an adventure that was a whole lifetime in the making.
If you had seen Norma Bauerschmidt in passing, you probably wouldn’t have paid her much attention. With her thick glasses, puff of gray-white hair, and kind smile, she looked like any ordinary grandmother.
But Norma’s family always knew she was special. At 90 years old, she had walked to the beat of her own drum, usually with her husband by her side. In fact, the couple had defied expectations their entire lives.
Norma hailed from Ohio, and it was clear early on that she craved adventure: Her nose was always buried in a book, and she went on imaginary adventures all over the world. And the older she got, the more she yearned for something beyond her quiet Midwestern life.
Her wish ended up coming true, just not in the way she’d hoped. When World War II arrived, she became a nurse with the U.S. Navy. It was exhausting but exciting work, and for the first time, she felt like she was doing something worthwhile.
But after the war ended, Norma found herself back at home with an unknown future…until she met Leo. In 1948, Norma and Leo became Mr. and Mrs. Bauserschmidt and started their own lifelong adventure. Like all great adventures, however, their journey wasn’t easy.
Over the next 67 years, the couple struggled to keep their household afloat financially, and they were even forced to grieve the loss of their beloved daughter, Stacey, to cancer. Though they were happy together, the responsibilities of family life made any hope of adventure disappear.
When Leo died in 2015, their plans for adventure seemed impossible. Norma’s best friend and partner for 67 years was gone, and she was left on her own. For the first time in decades, Norma’s future was once again open and unknown…until a mere two days later.
Two days after Leo’s death, Norma found out she had stage 4 uterine cancer. The 90-year-old sat in the doctor’s office and listened to talk of treatment options, surgery, radiation, chemotherapy…all things that would terrify anyone. But Norma wasn’t just anyone.
Despite her bleak diagnosis, Norma denied treatment. She was inspired to live her life the way she always dreamed: on the move. She remembered her childhood dreams of traveling the country, and she knew it was her last chance to finally make these dreams come true.
Her son, Tim, and his wife, Ramie, sold their home and bought a 36-foot mobile care facility so they could bring Norma’s dreams to life. With their poodle, Ringo, in tow, the unique trio set out on their 15,000-mile adventure across the United States.
Norma went from NBA games to whaling ships in the Pacific Northwest. She was face-to-face with wild animals and even went zip lining. She ate and drank whatever she desired, but despite her newfound fulfillment, there was still one unchecked box on her bucket list.
Norma had a very specific lifelong goal. She and Leo had promised each other to make this one-of-a-kind dream come true, so when Leo died, the hope went with it…until Tim and Ramie made a surprising discovery.
While they were packing Norma’s clothes and papers, they found a stack of advertisements for hot air balloon trips. Tim remembered his parents’ lifelong dream of riding in a hot air balloon, and he knew that now was the perfect time to make this dream a reality.
Just in time for Christmas, Tim and Ramie gave Norma the surprise of her life when they presented her with a ride in a hot air balloon. As they watched Norma’s gleeful reaction to the surprise, they came to a realization.
Together, Tim and Ramie knew that they couldn’t keep Norma’s unique story to themselves. They created a Facebook page called “Driving Miss Norma” to share Norma’s cross-country experiences with the world, and before long, it was a hit.
Thousands of strangers became friends as Norma’s fame grew. Her childhood self would have never believed that she’d become an internet sensation featured on the Today show and the evening news! The world was inspired by her bravery in the face of terminal cancer.
Norma wrote in her diary about each experience she had on the journey. She never mentioned cancer, pain, or fame; Only the simple things she noticed on the trip that made her happy. When Tim found out, he knew what he had to do.
Tim and Ramie transformed Norma’s diary into a book. They hoped that Driving Miss Norma would inspire people to chase after their own dreams, regardless of age or circumstance. Tim and Ramie planned on debuting the book with Norma by their side…
But on September 30, 2016, their journey with Norma came to an end when she quietly passed away. They had traveled over 13,000 miles, visited 32 states, and had a life-changing ride in a hot air balloon. Tim and Ramie had one more adventure in mind.
They made Norma’s memorial service public so everyone, from family to fans, could celebrate her amazing life together. Instead of asking for donations or selling books, they asked all of the attendees to do one unusual task.
“Take your grandmother out for lunch,” was all Tim and Ramie asked of their guests. They hope Driving Miss Norma inspires even the most ordinary of grandmothers to get in touch with their wild side. After all, if Norma can soar in a hot air balloon, so can you!
In fact, it was this waltz with the wild that fueled 97-year-old Ingeborg Neufeld. The Austrian grandma was more like Norma than other seniors her age. Though she didn’t ride in hot air balloons, she did sing her guts out in a death metal band.
“Old people are often excluded from life,” she explains. “When you’re old, life is a lonely land. All your relatives are gone, your friends are gone, and no one really cares. People don’t want to hear the truth.” But she was going to give it anyway .
You see, eighty years prior to this memorable television event, Inge’s world was rocked forever. She was a 16-year-old Jewish girl living in Vienna when World War II broke out and took her father away forever.
After several years of living in hiding, her mother took her to Switzerland where they lived as refugees. “I saw four years of Hitler, of prosecution, and I escaped over the mountains where I almost froze to death.”
Eventually, Inge managed to get a job as a housekeeper in a villa used by American spies. After the war, she was offered American citizenship, so she and her new husband Otto moved to Hollywood where they made quite an impression.
The two were musical prodigies who ended up writing for Dean Martin, Nat King Cole, and Doris Day. “Otto and I composed because we had nothing left except for our talents,” she said in an interview.
“After a while, I got very tired of that Hollywood life,” she said. “It’s all fake. So I left.” Inge instead focused all her energy into a new project that she has started with a couple of younger friends.
While some may find it hard to believe, Inge has taken her love for music and her passionate words to become the frontwoman of a heavy metal band called the TritoneKings — and she is having the time of her life.
“It’s important to stay active and surround yourself with young people and keep trying new things,” she explained. She never dreamed of being in a band, but she proved that it’s never too late to tread a new path.
“I met Inge almost 15 years ago in school,” her bandmate says. “One summer she started writing these poems about blood and death, and I told her ‘these sound like death metal lyrics,’ she said ‘death metal, what is that?'”
Inge’s poems, or lyrics as they’ve become, cover her views on the world, and she has seen quite a lot of it. “Let me stay here some more time,” she sang. “I have a message for humankind, learn a lesson from my forefathers’ wisdom.”
Since she doesn’t believe she can sing well, she screams her lines about growing older, about violence, about the slow destruction of the Earth and about how much life itself changes over time.
“Every one of my songs has a message,” she said. The first one is: don’t destroy what you can’t replace. The second is an even heavier message: you can’t avoid death, so you might as well laugh about it.”
Although Inge makes it look easy, leading a metal band in your 90s is no walk in the park. She can only record a few lines at a time and once forgot her own lyrics during a performance. “My spirit is very willing but my flesh is very tired…”
Nevertheless, TritoneKing has already produced 4 singles that all come with music videos, in which Inge rocks out as if she was only 72. They are called Totenköpfchen (skulls), Trümmer (rubble), I’m Still Here, and The Universe Echoes Back.
“You have to do something which makes you happy,” she said. “Some people drink, some people party… I write poetry. If I just wrote my poetry, nobody would hear or read it, but if I perform them on competitions, millions of people will hear it on YouTube.”
Inge was right; she and her band became a sensation despite her recently celebrated 97th birthday. “We know that this gives her energy, that this keeps her alive,” her bandmates said.
“I am alive,” Inge responded. “I don’t have to do special things to prove that. My concept of heaven and hell is that if in the moment of death you realize your life was full and good, you are in heaven. If you think ‘I should have done this or that,’ that is hell.”
When people asked her how they can obtain that heavenly feeling she said, “naturally, I always smiled. I smiled my way from poor to rich. I smiled my way out of the Holocaust. When you’re down and out, everybody tramples you.”
So confident in her message, Inge spread it on Switzerland’s Got Talent. As she walked onto the stage, a room full of questioning eyes stared back at her. “I am Inge and my biggest talent is not singing, but surviving,” she said. “You may laugh at me, but not until you do the same thing when you’re 94.”
And then she sang — and blew the judges way. “Forget the worm, forget the tomb, drink and eat and sing and laugh, then the devil will go back to hell.” While Inge’s age is relevant to her current stardom, her words stand incredibly powerfully on their own.
How long she will continue to record with the band is unclear, but it doesn’t matter to her — she is happy. “I’ve said that old age is a lonely land, but it can also be a beautiful land. There is total freedom.”
“Love affairs are rare, now it is the wind that caresses my hair, but the scent of a flower and the song of a bird are still there. Old friends are mostly gone, replace them with the young, they appreciate your stories of times gone by.”
Much like Inge, Bob Williams has inspired thousands in his old age through a similar optimism as well as compassion. While Bob is not musically talented, he touches hearts through his actions nonetheless.
The Quad-City Times
A resident of Long Grove, Iowa, the WWII veteran is known by most for his time as a high school teacher and football coach in nearby Davenport. But even with his reputation as a war hero and educator, Bob has become a legend in his small town of 800 for an entirely different reason.
Every Saturday, the 94-year-old rises bright and early with one very special purpose in mind. Pulling on his signature yellow slicker, Bob begins down the street and heads over to his local Dollar General.
HERSHEYS / YouTube
Bob is a familiar sight as he enters the small discount store, and he greets each employee by name as he shuffles up to the counter. Pulling a crisp 50-dollar bill out of his wallet, the cashier knows exactly what the elderly man is here for: chocolate.
HERSHEYS / YouTube
Handing him two full boxes of jumbo Hershey bars – one with almonds, one without – the cashier smiles as Bob cracks open one of the containers and hands her a full bar. Gifting another to the customer in line behind him, Bob heads back out into the streets of Long Grove, determined to make as many days as he can.
Known as “The Candy Man,” Bob Williams has been handing out jumbo Hershey bars to complete strangers in his community for the last 11 years. He was inspired to begin his mission of kindness after reading about a number of “pay it forward” initiatives being promoted across the country.
HERSHEYS / YouTube
Given his lifelong love of chocolate, Bob decided to make his trips to the dollar store worthwhile by sharing his sweets with others. Starting off with purchases of just three bars, Bob would keep one for himself and give the other two away. The responses he got were astonishing.
“You’d think I’d given them keys to a new car,” Bob said of the reactions to his initial act of kindness. “Honest to God, these people were thunderstruck.” From then on, the veteran knew exactly what his “pay it forward” movement would be.
The Des Moines Register
Over the years, Bob has given out over 6,000 Hershey bars within his community. Though he typically reserves his bars for people that “look like they could use a smile,” strangers aren’t the only ones that can expect a sweet treat from this kind old man.
HERSHEYS / YouTube
Jan Hartwig-Heggen, a close friend of Bob’s, estimates that he’s given her between 200-300 chocolate bars, most of which he leaves at her front door. “That’s his signature,” she said. “You always know when Bob has been there.”
Crittercam / Flickr
Another lucky resident that receives frequent visits from “The Candy Man” is Darla Fay, who Bob jokingly asked to be his Valentine one February before handing her an extra-large Hershey bar. Since then, Bob has visited Darla almost every day, always making sure to have some chocolate saved for her.
“Do you remember as a kid, the excitement and joy you felt when you first saw all the gifts Santa left under the Christmas tree?” asked Darla. “That’s the feeling I get when Bob surprises me with a Hershey bar. It just makes me feel like a kid again.”
Travel with Bender
So, how does the 94-year-old keep up with the demand for his satisfying sweets? By stashing them, of course! Bob is known to keep around 500 chocolate bars in his freezer at a time, and he always makes sure to rotate them out so that he’s gifting only the freshest chocolate.
Unsurprisingly, Bob has become something of a celebrity in Long Grove, with nearly everyone knowing his name and his mission. Not a day goes by where cars don’t honk their hellos at him as they pass, and some residents will even approach him to exchange a hug and a smile for a delicious chocolate bar.
HERSHEYS / YouTube
Recently, a local magazine called Our Iowa did a feature on Bob and his remarkable hobby. After reading the article, one of Bob’s neighbors sent it to her son, who worked in Hershey’s corporate strategy department. He presented the story to company executives, and, right then and there, they were hooked.
Inspired by Bob, Hershey began their Heartwarming the World campaign, which sought to spread kindness and compassion nationwide. Taking a page from “The Candy Man’s” book, Hershey encouraged their employees to hand out chocolate bars to strangers, including those recently affected by Hurricane Florence.
HERSHEYS / YouTube
Not only that, but Hershey’s also reached out to Bob directly to make him part of their family. Cutting him a check for $1,500, the company promised to provide Bob with “all the bars he’ll ever need.” Now that’s a kiss!
With all the recognition Bob has received from his giving, he was able to purchase a nearby park bench to serve as a memorial for his late wife, Mary Elizabeth. Visiting the bench daily, Bob says that it’s really his wife who gives him his instructions to deliver his treats each day.
The Des Moines Register
But beyond it all, Bob’s mission is about more than just handing out Hershey bars to strangers. For “The Candy Man” of Long Grove, he hopes that his one small act of goodwill create an avalanche of kindness for people everywhere.
“I hope everybody picks up on that,” said Bob. “We need to lighten up and smile a bit more. Share whatever you can with people. There is no charge for that last bit of advice.”