Transitioning to Retirement

by Ruth E. Sternberg

Jerry Gordon doesn’t have much time to reflect on his decision to retire. The former Bloomingdale, Ill., superintendent is too busy planning his next fishing trip to Canada.

Since leaving his post in July after 18 years on the job—part of a 33-year tenure in education—the 57-year-old has picked up the activities he always enjoyed. He traveled to Costa Rica on a golf trip, and he has spent some time in the kitchen.

“ I love to cook,’’ he says. “I never had time. I try to at least share the dinner responsibilities here, if not do a majority of it. I made a chicken gumbo that turned out really good.’’

Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, Carole Spahr spends a lot of time wondering if she made the right decision. She was forced to leave her superintendent’s post in the Perkiomen Valley, Pa., schools in 1999 to care for her aging parents. Now Spahr feels compelled to fill her time with activities that she isn’t sure can replace the feeling of accomplishment she derived from running a suburban school system with more than 3,800 students and a $37.6 million operating budget. It was more than a full-time job. She has taken up gardening. Gradually she is beginning to enjoy it.

But occasionally she is reminded of what she is missing.

"I had a friend call me about getting back into some Middle States (Association) evaluations. It’s almost like I’m trying to deliberately stay away but keep getting drawn back in.’’

Franklin B. Walter, former state superintendent in Ohio who left the job in 1991 to teach and consult, says he has seen a lot of administrators leave the fold without fully considering the life change they are facing.

“They’re so involved that not to be involved requires real adjustment,’’ says Walter, a former member of the AASA Executive Committee. “I think the key is for people to really be sure that they’re doing the right thing. Some retire because they’re frustrated or because they think it’s the thing to do. They’ve got 30 years in. … But a lot of them don’t have many hobbies. They tend to work all the time, and they find they’ve got more time on their hands.’’

The Adrenalin Rush

Retirement can be a time of pleasant anticipation—sleeping beyond sunrise, trying out new hobbies, reconnecting with family and taking long-planned trips. But superintendents face unique challenges as they move from frenzied morning-to-evening work schedules to relatively empty days. Many find the decision to retire bound up with the anxiety of leaving a well-established environment with a lofty set of expectations for the unknown world of independence.

“You have this regular schedule, and you’re constantly busy. And you compartmentalize your life. It’s hard to turn that off,’’ says Jim Parsley, former superintendent of the Vancouver, Wash., schools.

For others, it’s a question of switching to a more low-key role. “The superintendent has a lot of power, a strong identity,’’ says Nancy Knight, who retired July 30 as superintendent of the Hi Point Joint Vocational School District in Bellefontaine, Ohio. “You need to be able to let go of that and be comfortable with who you are.’’

Some can’t. They discover after cashing in their retirement benefits they can’t do without the adrenalin rush of hard work and major responsibility. They leap into another administrative post, working for another school district or an educational agency. Others choose consulting, either full or part time, or teach at the university level as an adjunct professor.

Parsley, 61, who spent 22 years as the Vancouver, Wash., superintendent, still works full time as an independent consultant for LSW Visioning Planning and Pearson Digital Technology. He specializes in architectural planning and administrative technology, areas of expertise in which he gained a reputation during his school district days.

“I’m a super type-A,’’ he says. “The idea of sitting around and watching ‘Oprah’ is not my idea of retirement. I know how to work. I don’t know how to play as well as I should.’’

But some find that even after a well-planned decision, they face the unexpected: the death of a spouse or a sudden shift in finances. Dennis Rectenwald left his job as superintendent in Port Clinton, Ohio, two years ago to find that the premiums for health insurance he took for granted as a negotiated benefit had skyrocketed.

Ted Rokicki found himself looking for new purpose just six years into retirement from the top schools position in Berlin, Conn., after his wife suddenly became ill and died.

Those who decide to make a clean break from the working world say the decision ultimately is worth it. Their best advice: Stay moderately busy while doing something worthwhile. Make new friends. Don’t sit around the house. With time, patience and concentration, the result can be a new sense of self-security.


Balancing Act

Jerry Gordon doesn’t mind helping Speer Financial rope in some education clients. He gets to see a lot of old friends across Illinois. But his part-time work with the Chicago-based bond dealer comes with a caveat: Golf season is sacred.

Gordon says the most important consideration of retirement has been making sure his life is multifaceted. Otherwise, he quips, what’s the point?

“One of the things you need to think about is what other interests do you have?” he says. “If your life is defined 24-7 by being a superintendent, if that’s all you can do, well you’ve got to find something else.’’

Gordon, who retired July 1 after 18 years as superintendent in Bloomingdale, located 20 miles west of Chicago, plans to maintain his long-standing mix of community activism and personal leisure. He’ll continue to help organize the school district’s float for the annual Character Counts community celebration and stay involved in the annual countywide middle-school leadership conference. “I always felt I was a community builder, not a school CEO,’’ he says.

A former Texas superintendent, Clayton Downing, has stayed active too—and it’s the reason he’s happy in retirement. “We don’t sit around bored and wonder what we are going to do,’’ he says.

Downing, who left the top berth in the Louisville Independent School District two years ago after 17 years on the job, sells antiques with his wife Wanda. The couple owns 90 acres in east Texas where they plan to build a vacation home. With three grandchildren, they participate in frequent family events. Yet education remains part of his life. Downing periodically consults for Paine Webber and teaches a course at Texas Woman’s University.

Immediately after he retired, Downing ran for the Texas legislature. He lost in the party primary, but it propelled him to take charge of a statewide school-funding coalition. Downing is working nearly full time now representing high-wealth districts with their efforts to reform the way public schools are funded.

At 60, he admits some days he feels like he’s overdoing it. “My wife and I felt we had more control of our time when we were working than we do now. I guess we’ve overcompensated,' he says.

But, he adds, “I think the ones who need to be careful are the ones who just quit and don’t do anything.’’

Finding Meaning

Carole Spahr still thinks longingly of the meetings with colleagues and the strategy sessions. In Perkiomen Valley, she delighted in implementing new reading, math and science programs for students. Her school district was growing rapidly with five new schools opening in five years.

“We were tops in technology in the state when I left there,’’ said Spahr, 65.

But when she retired in 1999, Spahr barely had time to think the decision through. She was too busy supervising her aging parents’ health care.

“The (nursing) home would call and tell me I had to be there. … I was back and forth every weekend," she says.

When she finally left the superintendency, it seemed like a relief. But then there was the silence and an empty calendar. Filling the spaces has been a slow process.

At first, travel filled some of the time. Spahr and her husband Bill, who’s also retired, went on a cruise through the Mexican Riviera and planned a January sailboat trip to Belize with her brothers. The couple has a place in Florida. The Spahrs also have four children and four grandchildren living nearby.

Remodeling consumed some of the time. The couple sold their home in Montgomery County, just outside Philadelphia, and moved to a smaller house in northern York County, 10 miles from Harrisburg. They spent $75,000 on a new kitchen and an addition.

But when the workers left, so did the routine.

“The thing that surprised me the most was my lack of structure,’’ says Spahr. “When you're a superintendent, you’re so programmed. Every minute counts. … Either you are fighting with contractors or you are trying to get the relationship between parents and staff on an even keel. … You felt like you were doing something good for kids.

“Suddenly, I don’t have any routine. It's like, ‘Do I want to clean the house or not?’ I think, 'Come on, get busy. Be productive.' Here’s that feeling that you’re wasting your time. A feeling I didn’t expect to have.’’

Spahr found Bill was hanging around a little too much. “I’d be at the computer and turn around, and there he was,’’ she says.

But recently Spahr found a new interest.

“We bought a place that’s a little over three acres and is in real need of some tender loving care,' she says. "The community college was offering a (horticulture) course. So we went.’’ She now is a step away from becoming a master gardener and is an active member of the local flower club. She took charge of its last show and is designing the club’s yearbook.

She's found she still has a use for her education skills. She occasionally helps others in her class who are having trouble grasping the techniques.

After a recent class, she said, “I don’t know how many came up to me and asked me questions. It felt real good.’’


New Friends

Robert Spencer carefully considered when he would retire. The former Lakeview, Mich., superintendent and his wife, Jill, a retired elementary school principal, wanted to move someplace where they could enjoy the outdoors and share each other’s company.

When he departed on June 30 after 19 years in the top job, the Spencers sold their home near Battle Creek, Mich., and moved to a lakeshore home 230 miles north, near the Mackinaw Straits.

Now, as they recover from a whirlwind of summer travel to family celebrations, the couple confronts a task some overlook as they focus on finances or new activities.

“The challenge we will face during the winter is starting to connect socially in the area where we now live,’’ says Spencer. “We’re still relative newcomers. We’re going to live here for the next few decades so we have to anticipate how we’re going to get involved in the community and develop new relationships.’’

The couple has a plan to get out to as many events as possible. “We’re going to some township potlucks,’’ he says.

So far, Spencer said the change is refreshing and the pressure is gone.

“As a superintendent, you bring some positional credibility,’’ he says. “On the other hand, informal relationships are pretty easy. There are a lot of people in this part of Michigan who are retired professionals.’’

Still, he has a need to be involved in educational life. “It was pretty intense work. There’s always something coming at you,’’ he says. Spencer worked in the 3,400-student Lakeview district for eight years but previously spent 11 years managing the 2,400-pupil Central Montcalm district, also in Michigan.

He says he will look around the community for new opportunities, maybe finding something he can do 15 to 20 hours per week. He’s thinking about helping negotiate teacher contracts for school boards. He may help an accrediting agency advise school districts on realigning curricula with state and federal standards.

His wife also has been asked if she wants to consult. They’re mulling it over. After all, there’s a lot to do in upper Michigan during all seasons.

“I don’t want to get too busy,’’ he said. “We just got our cross-country skis waxed.’’

Unexpected Upheaval

Sometimes change isn’t a choice.

Ted Rokicki saw his plans—and his life—derailed in 2001 when his wife, Rosanne Danielle, died of cancer. Rokicki, then 70, had been retired from the superintendency since 1995. He also had worked for several educational agencies, including the Connecticut Center for School Change in Hartford, where he advised schools as they implemented new programs, and the Connecticut Department of Higher Education, where he helped design a certification program for those entering teaching from other careers. He also filled in as interim superintendent for four months in Burlington, Conn.

Danielle, 57, had not yet retired, and the couple had been putting money away, planning to travel. “She was supposed to retire on her birthday, Nov. 1, when she would have been 60,’’ he says. “We were going to go back to Italy.’’

They planned to move to Seabrook Island, near Charleston, S.C., where they had another home.

Since Danielle’s death, Rokicki has made some difficult decisions. He has put his Burlington home up for sale and plans to live in South Carolina alone. He is seeking new interests but says, “You can’t just shift gears.’’

Rokicki is used to being active. Besides his work for the state, he recently finished a stint teaching graduate school. He used to run an aerial photography business from his own Cessna 172, which he sold a few years ago.

Contact with people always has been important to him, especially in an educational setting.

“I miss the camaraderie,’’ he says. “They were fun and alert and quick-witted. And I miss the give-and-take with young people. When I was a high school principal, I used to teach a course called aviation science—all the intricacies of flying. I took kids out to the airport and they flew with me.’’

Rokicki has turned to family, spending time with his and Danielle’s children, each from previous marriages. He cares for her 91-year-old mother.

“I’m going to volunteer to help with the Habitat (for Humanity) program. I’m going to donate money and help with the labor,’’ he says. “There’s a little elementary school close to Seabrook Island. They always need volunteers. I grew up as a very poor kid in Toledo. I love to read. I’ll do some of that.’’

He says friends are trying to fix him up on dates. He isn't sure he's ready for that.

“Whether there's somebody else in my life, I don’t know.’’


Financial Worries

Sometimes finances can make a well-laid plan more challenging.

Dennis Rectenwald had promised his wife he would retire from the Port Clinton, Ohio, schools and go into business with her, running a bed-and-breakfast.

“I looked at it and thought, ‘I’m giving an awful lot of energy, hopefully to benefit other people. But what good is it going to do me if I don’t have that same time to give to my wife and two daughters and grandchildren? When my daughters were growing up, they didn’t see me much.’’

The job had also lost some of its allure.

“I always told our teachers, ‘When your job is no longer fun and you’ve run out of ideas and are coming to work to accept a paycheck, it’s time to leave.’ … I had been there for so long . I think I’m very tough on myself. How creative can you be after 18 years? How many graduation talks can you give that are unique and different?’’

Rectenwald had suffered a heart attack in 1997. That made him start looking at ways to reduce stress. In 2002, at age 55, he retired. He and wife Linda, a retired hair salon owner, bought an old home on nearby Put-in-Bay Island in Lake Erie. Now he tells friends, “I rent golf carts and clean toilets.’’

He also has time to visit his 91-year-old mother in Fremont, Ohio, and spend time with his 2-year-old grandson. “He likes to ride in Pop Pop’s truck,’’ Rectenwald says.

“Most people tell me I’m much more relaxed than I ever was. I can enjoy some of the smaller things in life that before just kind of passed me by—stupid things like flowers or reading a book.’’

But retirement hasn’t been a financial breeze. Rectenwald recently learned his health insurance premium, managed by the Ohio State Teachers Retirement System, was increasing to $300 a month from $170.

“That was a biggie,’’ he says—until he received a second notice. His coverage was going up even higher to $600 a month this year. Keeping coverage has required some tough choices.

“My wife is a cancer survivor, and I’m a heart attack survivor. We are probably about as high-risk as you can find.”

To keep his premium around $450, Rectenwald has opted for a higher deductible, approaching $5,000 for the couple. In the meantime, the couple has had to watch expenses, and so far it’s working out. Fortunately, Rectenwald has other investments, including rental properties, though they aren’t completely paid for yet. To earn a little extra income, he served as an interim superintendent from January to April 2003 in nearby Upper Sandusky.

The pair hopes the summer business will pick up over time.

“We’re doing well, but it’s not a profit-maker yet,’’ he says. “We have all those startup costs. … If we can see our way through to age 65, we’ll be fine,’’ he says.


New and Old Roles

Nancy Knight says retirement success is all about attitude.

For her, that’s meant adjusting to a change, from sitting in the top chair to providing the top lap.

"I'm Nana,' she says, referring to the name her four grandchildren have given her. 

Retired from her job July 30 after eight years as superintendent in Ohio’s Hi Point Joint Vocational School District, Knight says she’s got plans. She wants to redecorate her home and is looking at carpet samples.

“I’m not bored,’’ she says. “We have a farm. We have cattle. We use artificial breeding and you have to see if any of them are cycling. You have to check the fences. I even raked hay. I’d never raked hay before. It was kind of fun.’’

But Knight, 61, says she’s lucky. She has known both sides of a career. Knight stayed home with her family for 10 years when her three children were young. She entered education 20 years ago through nursing and become connected to the community in ways she still relies on. She remains a board member of several organizations, including United Way of Logan County, Mary Ruttan Hospital and Ohio State University’s Lima campus.

“That keeps me in contact with the group of people I’m used to working with,’’ she says.

She also knows how important time can be. Her husband, Dave, who is retired from a management position with International Harvester and now is a Logan County commissioner, was diagnosed in June with rectal cancer. He recently faced surgery. “We’re coming along with that,’’ says Knight

“My mother has Alzheimer’s, and I thought, ‘I want to enjoy life.’ That was kind of a motivation.’’

Ruth Sternberg is a free-lance education writer in Columbus, Ohio. E-mail: ruthestern@insight.rr.com