A presidential spouse explores how to retire successfully, citing his wife as an example (opinion)
A presidential spouse explores how to retire successfully, citing his wife as an example (opinion)

Our national obsession with rankings confirms the deep competitiveness stirring within us. That quality provides the lifeblood for gambling syndicates trying to entice us into betting. It also provides oxygen for publications like U.S. Ruse & World Distort to remain, somehow, relevant. People genuinely concerned with quality assessments of colleges and universities are lured into accepting simplistic numerology compiled to enhance circulation numbers, not to advance the public good.

This situation has irritated me for years, but I’m probably fighting a losing battle. So rather than continue to sulk, I’m thinking of starting my own ranking system, focusing on the underappreciated topic of how college and university presidents and their partners handle details of retirement. Having participated in and observed the adaption of my wife, former college president Elaine Maimon, to this new chapter, I’ve gained insights qualifying me to judge how competently this momentous move is undertaken.

Before her retirement, I worried that separation from numerous preoccupations of the presidency would, ironically, have a negative impact. I anticipated awakening at night to her mumbling about fantasy problems and by other twitchy manifestations of presidency withdrawal. Recollections of unfinished business may pique a conscience eager for action. Such symptoms aren’t uncommon because for committed people adrenaline ebbs slowly, making tranquility hard to ease into.

In fact, well before leaving the office for the final time, the retiree-to-be should anticipate separation anxiety. Change will require adaptation. If nothing else, the advent of discretionary time will prove that. Every new phase of life has its obstacles to and opportunities for enjoyment. Savvy planning can minimize the former.

Thoughts like these led to my proposal for evaluating retirement plans. To qualify for ranking in my system, I invite you to submit an essay about preparing for, then actually beginning to live, the next episode. Specific criteria for evaluation, along with their relative importance, are listed below. But before the curtain rises, I’ll share some observations about Elaine’s and my handling of the situation.

We wanted to live in an aesthetically pleasing environment. In the past, proximity to nature, to landscapes that helped detoxify tension, was a distinct plus. Time spent observing, from our various homes, distant mountains, prairies unfolding before us and sunlit lakes was always restorative; therefore, we considered carefully possible new surroundings.

Choosing a specific area was easy, since we had both grown up in Philadelphia, and our immediate family still lived there. Warning lights flashed, however, because once again I’d have to endure chronic misadventures of the Phillies, Eagles and Sixers, but few decisions in life can be perfect, so I stifled that qualm and, as they say, “took one for the team.”

After exploring many residential possibilities, we opted, finally, for a high-rise condo overlooking the Delaware River. With its varied traffic, it constantly compels attention. Our second day as reborn Philadelphians, I watched a tugboat guide a large freighter down the river and couldn’t resist comparing that effort with a president’s helping a university navigate the obstacles and opportunities of higher ed. Obviously, I, too, needed time to disconnect the old from the new.

The horizon before us evolves constantly, inspiring our version of “smell the roses.” We are mesmerized by acrobatic swallows and snack-alert sparrows. We marvel at pastel sunsets. Even the distant rumble of approaching storms eerily captivates. Twelve stories above ground level, we are aligned with nature in gratifying new ways.

Indispensable Ingredients

Now, let me specify ingredients I consider indispensable to a re-envisioned life and rank them in importance. Half the point total I award essays will be based on opportunities for regular physical exercise and your commitment to taking advantage of them. Elaine and I are fortunate to have choices: attractive walkways, bike paths, a workout room and an indoor pool. I can’t overemphasize the importance of this criterion. Retirement is the phase when expediting health can and should be addressed directly. For many people, presidential duties have precluded diligent attention to physical well-being in the past. Nothing in retirement is more important than remedying that unavoidable oversight.

Another 20 percent of the point total will be based on voluntary activities perpetuating interest in higher education. Withdrawal from long-standing commitments to a mission can be exceedingly difficult. Therefore, involvement in worthwhile but scaled-back projects should be considered. Elaine, my model retiree, has become a consultant, working with faculty and administrators at several universities. With them, she shares elements of what she learned in 24 years as buck stopper at three institutions. She helps guide journeys into new territory. Her work as an adviser at the American Council on Education is fulfilling. Still, she has time to plan visits with our grandkids and make selections for upcoming movie nights. The former ever-available emergency response coordinator now enjoys relaxation time, a somewhat strange but savory indulgence.

Involvement in activities encouraging self-fulfillment also comprises 20 percent of the point total. Allowing the mind to explore, to harvest ideas possibly facilitated by years of academic experience but, owing to executive duties, insufficiently nurtured, can invigorate a newly imagined life. With most mandatory activities over, life’s electives can be sampled. Want to try writing fiction? Go ahead. Certainly, presidencies provide ample raw material for potential plot lines. Enjoyment of good art could encourage attempts at oil painting. Possibilities are numerous. Just reflect and create!

Finally, 10 percent of the point allotment is earned by activity promoting the well-being of one’s new location. Community involvement isn’t new to former presidents. Now, a different form beckons.

Elaine writes regularly for The Philadelphia Citizen, the attraction of which for her is evident in its motto: “What Happened? What Does It Mean? What Can We Do About It?” Her zeal for bettering higher education is replicated now by desire for improving her hometown. She sees the importance of communicating the value and needs of higher education as central to civic life in Philadelphia. In her case, she also strives to improve the national higher education narrative. She participates in podcasts and does television and radio appearances on the subject.

Closing that office door and, finally, relinquishing the key can liberate. New freedom should encourage construction on one’s own terms of that seeming oxymoron, an “active retirement.” The advantage of setting a personal schedule rather than being yoked to a collaborative one is incalculable. Now, wisdom emerging from having been there and done that can cohere and be shared. And enjoyment no longer has to be a distant enticement.

Before retirement, I never envisioned how its parts needed to blend for the smooth functioning of the whole. I hope these reflections have helped you with your own plans. In preparing your essay for my new ranking system, you may have questions about issues I’ve raised. If so, feel free to contact me. Seriously.



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