Retiring from a job does not mean you retire your calling

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday May 4, 2014

Unabridged from my Bonus Years column in the Lifestyle section of The Sunday Capital, Annapolis, Maryland

“A servant’s heart.”  That’s a term I’ve heard many times over the years, referring to people whose joy in life comes from serving others.

Those with servant hearts are everywhere, but because they are driven by a desire to serve rather than a need for recognition, we often don’t know about them.

A couple of weeks ago, I met a man with a servant’s heart. His name is Don Patterson. Don is a winsome, mild-mannered, non-judgmental human being – but intensely engaging. It doesn’t take long to discover what seems to be his unending faith in the ability of people to get along with each other if they just give it a go. It’s that faith, in Don’s words, that “people can learn to make positive choices,” that led to his bonus years’ career in conflict resolution.

Don and Patti, his wife of 40 years, live in Arnold. They raised two boys – one a geologist in Montana and the other a CPA. Patti, recently retired as associate director of the Naval Academy library, is engaged in their church and charitable activities.

Don “retired” in 2011 – after 36 years of teaching in area public schools at every level. His early years were devoted to special education.

Later on, he spent 15 years at Central Middle in Edgewater where he taught eighth grade science, spending the final six years as department chair.

Don has had a lifelong love affair with science – especially the earth sciences and astronomy – and loves teaching young people.

He often led annual fossil-hunting field trips for eighth graders to Calvert Cliff sites in Calvert County. The students would invariably come back with Miocene age (8-18 million years old) fossils, including shark teeth, pieces of sand dollars, coral, dolphin or whale bone and many shells. Don’s enthusiasm for fossil hunting has not waned in his bonus years, and from time to time he still goes out to Calvert Cliffs to scavenge for natural imprints from our ancient past.

But when Don retired from the school system, he didn’t retire his servant heart. He is still fully engaged serving others in various “jobs” that now consume large chunks of his time.

The spark for his bonus years’ work happened before he retired, when he was involved in negotiating a contract between the teachers union and the Board of Education. He was fascinated by the process – such as “Use ‘I’ statements; avoid ‘You’ statements;” “Avoid negative characterizations;” “Listen deeply to others;” “Be open to learning something new.”

Don also saw how mediation techniques can be used to rebuild relationships, create win-win outcomes and prepare people and groups to resolve future conflicts.

Shortly after retirement, he enrolled in a 45-hour training program to learn specific mediation strategies, skills and protocols. “I’ve discovered,” he said, “that these methods work in all settings – from families and neighborhoods to business, educational and faith institutions. You learn to trust the process. When you give people a chance to work things out, amazing results can come out the other end.”

Don’s “retirement” schedule now includes one day a week as a trained mediator with the Anne Arundel Conflict Resolution Center where he is primarily involved in court-referred mediations for parents. Purpose: To work out mutually agreeable provisions prior to the court’s imposing conditions.

The schedule also includes work in the prison system. One is “re-entry mediation” to help prepare the incarcerated to return to the world of work and family life. Another is teaching an anger management course for inmates at the Anne Arundel Detention Center on Jennifer Road. Those who complete the course earn a certificate and hopefully new self-discipline skills that lead to making better choices.

In recent years, Don has been dismayed by the decay of civility in America’s body politic. He joined with others, including Greater Annapolis Interfaith Network, to sponsor “community dialogues.” In simple terms: Discussion with respect – and without negativity.

Because his mediation and civic ventures don’t take all his time, Don volunteers one day a week at Annapolis Middle School, where he assists in science classes, helping students and providing an additional resource for teachers.

He also takes photography courses at the community college, frequently joins other seniors for weekly games of doubles tennis, and joins Patti to take Arthur Murray-style ballroom dancing lessons.

This former Catholic altar boy, who once aspired to be a priest, is active in the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis where he currently serves on a social justice task force and other committees.

As we were parting, Don said, “Remind your readers about Great Giving 2014. That’s the 24-hour grassroots philanthropy event that runs next week, starting at 6 p.m. on May 7. Urge them to go to to support the Anne Arundel Conflict Resolution Center.” Always working.

Watching Don walk away, I thought of the enduring message of Pope John Paul II in “Redemptor Hominus,” where he said, “Love gives life its meaning.”

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