The Best of My Life May Be the Rest of My Life

by David W. Smith

My father died 51 years ago, suffering a heart attack while at work. My father was only 63 and I was only 12 when he died. I miss him still.

I am thinking more about my dad lately because I am 63. Now that I am retired after 14 years as superintendent and have reached the age my father was when he died, it seems only natural to think of the past and of my father, of my adult children and of my own vulnerability. I’m beginning to think about the harsh reality that the mortality rate really is 100 percent.

But I’m also thinking about a hopeful future that was not available to my father. Perhaps my future will extend for many years. Just 100 years ago, life expectancy in the United States was not quite 50 years. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced Social Security in 1935, few Americans lived long enough to enjoy a life after work. Like my dad, FDR was only 63 when he died in 1945. In 1955, the average American was lucky to reach 70. The life expectancy today is somewhere in the 80s, with women usually living a few years longer than men.

Numerous studies today attempt to explain why some people live to be very old, even beyond 100. They all seem to identify at least one common trait. Those who live long usually remain active and engaged in family and community life. This isn’t always true of course. My father had many friends and activities. He was honest and hard working and cared a great deal about family and friends and the people he met during his milk deliveries for Borden’s Dairy in Chicago and its northern suburbs.

Extended Years

In the early 20th century it was not well known that smoking and a high-fat diet could shorten both the quality and length of one’s life. Movie stars and professional athletes smoked and even promoted cigarettes in commercials. My dad smoked more than a pack a day for 45 years and ate fatty foods at almost every meal.

Surely, today, many Americans need to lose weight, eat better and exercise more. But medical advances, nearly universal vaccinations, improvements in sanitation and the effort of individuals to maintain a healthier diet have done much to extend the years Americans have to live. We have reached the point where retirement is no longer a brief period before death.

Maybe we should retire the word retirement. It doesn’t fit the way Americans now live. Every eight seconds an American reaches age 60. Many notables, including Bill and Hillary Clinton and George and Laura Bush, have reached that milestone. The baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, will redefine what direction we can and should take with the added years we have for post-career activities.

I have been fortunate to serve for several post-retirement years as a superintendent search consultant, interim superintendent, university professor, writer, in-service speaker and accreditation consultant for overseas schools. I enjoy these activities because I stay in touch with colleagues and believe my work adds useful assistance for schools.

Another Quarter

What it means to be old is changing. Retirement is becoming more a process than an event. The word redirection may better describe this change.

If the actuary is correct, I’ll die in my early to mid-80s. That’s the general expectation for someone in my age cohort. Armed with this demographic information, I’m cautiously planning for 21 more years. I’m using 21 years because it fits a football analogy I’ve developed for myself where I’ve only finished three quarters (21 x 3 = 63), and I’m now entering the fourth quarter of my life.

While I have learned and experienced much during the first three quarters of this game called life, there is more in front of me, and the outcome is yet to be determined. I want to leave the field victorious at the end of the 4th quarter, or at least know I played as well as I could. To do this, I must have a good game plan.

I don’t mean to make light of real-life concerns by using a football analogy, but thinking about life from this perspective helps me better understand that my personal clock is ticking, that I may be sidelined at some point and, that for sure, there will be no timeouts. I need to manage the clock wisely and cherish each day as a valuable gift.

So my plan is to continue to be engaged with friends and family, volunteer activity and two part-time consulting jobs. I may be trying to hold off boredom and the feelings of no longer being relevant, but I really believe I still have something to contribute to the lives of those around me. I notice too that those whom I value become fewer in number as the years pass unless I take purposeful action. If part of life is saying goodbye to people who die or retire or move on for some reason, then I must be open to inviting new people into my personal and professional and volunteer worlds.

I look forward with anticipation to what lies ahead. I remember fondly many life memories, but I want to focus most of my attention now upon dreams and new personal and professional goals. Why not? After all, it’s only the start of the 4th quarter. I think my dad would agree.

David Smith, who retired from the superintend-ency in 2001, may be contacted at 173 Bloomfield Parkway, Bloomingdale, IL 60108.