Nobody Does it Better

Retirees bring top-of-their-game skills to second careers.

Illustrations by Dante Terzigni

Obviously some skills improve with time: Our presidents are elected at the average age of 55. Pro cyclist Jeannie Longo won the last of her 59 French national championships in 2011, at age 52. Frank McCourt published his best-seller Angela’s Ashes at age 66 after retiring from a teaching career.

These role models and others have quietly been setting the standard for the “new retirement.” Today’s retirees are aging well, bringing fresh energy and sharply honed skills to meaningful encore projects ranging from intense hobbies to startup companies.

Tackling these encore careers pays off in self-worth but also in a boosted quality of life: Learning new skills significantly decreases memory loss in older adults, according to a 2013 study from the University of Texas. In other words, continuing to apply your hard-earned smarts to new challenges keeps your brain sharp longer.  

Fully 60 percent of workers age 65 and older are currently working full-time jobs, according to September 2015 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That has grown from only 55 percent in 2007. And it’s not just economics driving this trend—just 31 percent of retirees are working because they have to, according to a 2014 survey from Merrill Lynch and think tank Age Wave, while 62 percent said they keep working to stay mentally active.

Virginians are exemplifying this trend in creative ways from opening small businesses to competing in sports and going back to school. Here we talk with five encore workers who are bringing new energy to a variety of second careers, and finding that the challenge of work keeps them mentally healthy and engaged.

Growing Better With Age

Bob Fuss expected to spend a year just decompressing from a stressful job after retiring with a pension from a 40-year career as a CBS news reporter. Instead, at age 60 he ended up diving into a full-time writing project.

“I never thought I had the patience to write a book because I’ve worked in radio writing 35-second stories,” says Fuss. “But what happened is, over the years I had been taking notes on my iPhone. I started writing down [work] stories, adding another story and another story. So when I retired I already had hundreds of pages of these notes. I just had to put them in order and fill in parts I left out.”

Fuss lives in Alexandria, where he worked covering national politics until he retired in May 2014. “I thought I’d give myself a year before making any commitments,” he says. Instead, less than a year later he published Kidnapped by Nuns (March 2015), a collection of stories about his career on the campaign trail.  

“As a political reporter I lived under very strict rules about never expressing an opinion,” he says. “Now I could say a lot more. Now I could say what I wanted to say.”

Fuss spent a year planning for his retirement and says he didn’t have any problems transitioning to a less-structured routine. He has shifted into an author’s lifestyle, giving book talks and considering the possibility of a new project. “You never know,” he says. “I love to travel and I write up travelogues for friends and family.” Fuss has visited locales from Andorra and Manitoba to Tonga for his work but now plans more fun vacations: “Maybe the next book will have something to do with that.”

Stepping Up a Hobby

Pete Tempest spent his career working as a probation officer in England and then in a children’s home in Virginia Beach, where he emigrated in 1981. At age 69 the competitive cyclist was ready to collect his pension, spend time with his two grandsons and ride his bike.

“I guess prior to retirement I rode about a hundred miles a week, mostly on the weekends,” says Tempest. “Now I can get out and average 150-200 miles a week. I can ride when I feel like it. I go out at lunchtime. I can tailor my time around the weather.”

With more time to train, the 72-year-old has found he is only getting faster.

Tempest, who used to practice judo when he lived in England, now competes in about half a dozen bike races each year, frequently winning medals in his age category. “My theory is if you keep doing something long enough you’ll outlast them,” he jokes. He has an eye on competing in the USA Cycling Masters Road National Championships this year in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

The flexibility of retirement has clearly boosted his athletic career, allowing Tempest to train more, eat better and get more rest. He also took a part-time job in a bike-repair shop in order to learn how to maintain today’s technically complicated bikes, while also saving money with discounts on bicycling gear.

“On local rides I’m generally the older fellow out there,” he says. “My ambition is to keep up with the local fast guys.”

Tempest says he keeps up with riders half his age: “There’s no negativity out there and I love being part of that wonderful enthusiasm.”

Encore Entrepreneurship

Carolyn Hawthorne loved teaching so much that she thought she might stay at Hermitage High School in Richmond even after 30 years of service made her eligible for a comfortable retirement.

Then, at age 56, Hawthorne decided to start her own business with her husband, a medical-equipment salesman. “We liked the idea of being independent and having control over the direction the business went,” she says. And the Hawthornes are not alone. The percentage of entrepreneurs over age 55 has risen in recent years, from 14 percent in 1996 to 23 percent in 2013, according to a 2013 study from the Kauffman Foundation.

The two opened a Jan-Pro commercial cleaning franchise serving Richmond and Charlottesville in February 2003, when they both still had day jobs. Says Hawthorne, “I did the books and other work after hours. There were nights when I was doing payroll until 3:30 a.m., then I’d go home to crash for three hours and then get up and go teach all day. Something had to go.”

Hawthorne opted for retirement in 2006 and shifted to being the full-time company president. She’s now age 65 and running a “multimillion-dollar company with 90 unit franchisees and hundreds of customers,” she says. The work is as challenging as her first career, but with one important difference.

“As a teacher I had a bell that told me what time I had to be at work, a bell to eat lunch, a bell to stop eating lunch, a bell to go to the bathroom, a bell to make a phone call,” she says. Running a business that helps franchisees open and run their own businesses allows Hawthorne to continue teaching, but on her own terms.

“When I thought about retirement I knew I didn’t want to vegetate. My whole life has been dedicated to others and I wanted to continue that,” says Hawthorne. “And the more our business grows, the more I realize I can do all those things with this business.”

Passion for a Mission

After 29 years as an executive with paper company Xpedx, Mike Brogan found himself in the middle of a corporate merger that made him feel like it was the right time to go. Living in Lynchburg, Brogan was only 53, but a sturdy financial plan enabled him to take early retirement in late 2013. It was a sudden move, one he hadn’t taken much time to plan for.

“Those first few months, I’d wake up right at 5:30,” says Brogan, who is originally from Roanoke. “I would grab for my phone to see what had happened overnight, who needs what by 9 a.m., what conference call is now scheduled for 7 a.m. Then I’d breathe a little sigh of relief when I remembered I didn’t have to deal with the crisis of the moment.”

Brogan spent several months catching up on house repairs and exercise, and then he got a phone call. James River Day School, the private school his three children had attended, wanted Brogan to rejoin their board of directors, which he had served on years earlier.

“I said I would think about it,” Brogan says. He didn’t relish following in the footsteps of many former executives by becoming a “professional board member,” he says.

At the same time, Brogan knew he was too young to leave the business world entirely, plus—and perhaps most important—he loved the school. And then a position opened for director of development. Brogan accepted the role in mid-2015 and moved into the world of nonprofits.

“That was a good fit,” says Brogan, now 56. “To me, it was a noble cause, to be able to influence the school’s future. I can make a difference helping bring more classroom space and a new science lab, a new turf field. If I can do that, I can say I’ve had positive impact. That’s all I want to do.”

Back to the Books

After moving with her retired husband to a cabin in rural Oriskany in Botetourt County, Carol Lewis expected to dabble in kayaking, fishing and a little travel. She had earned an electrical engineering degree in her 30s, and her varied career had included teaching and publishing. Lewis thought she was ready to slow down. Instead, she went back to school.

Lewis was only 48 and her husband Jack age 60 when they arrived in Oriskany. Over the next several years Lewis continued to work part time as a freelance editor. The couple also found themselves caring for older family members and neighbors in their sparsely populated county. To boost their medical knowledge, both earned emergency-medicine certifications, then two-year nursing degrees. When Carol was 60 and her husband 72, they signed up for a bachelor’s program at Radford University.

“Nursing school is incredibly difficult,” Lewis says. “Like most engineers I was fairly arrogant. I knew a lot about computers, but I didn’t know anything about the body. I was not prepared for how hard this was.”

Lewis and her husband would get up at 4 a.m. to work 12-hour clinical shifts, then come home to study, all while Lewis was still working on freelance publishing projects.

Both earned their degrees three years ago when Lewis was 63 and her husband 75. They now volunteer in conjunction with a local church as “faith community nurses” to support area residents.  

“The community needing us is a crucial thing,” says Lewis. “I get up every morning excited about the day. Caretaking made me realize that I felt needed, and that is crucial to staying mentally healthy and engaged, and feeling vital.”

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