“Retiring” to full-time community service

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday June 10, 2012

In 1986, when John “Rusty” Porter was 54 years old, he and his wife, Virginia, an elementary school principal, moved to Annapolis.  Last April, the Rotary Club of Annapolis recognized Rusty with its “Service Above Self” award, the highest honor for community service that it confers on non-members.   With Rusty now closing in on 80 years, I thought his bonus years story was compelling.  So I gave him a call.

“Rusty,” I said, “this is Phil Burgess.  I would like to write about how you have spent your bonus years in community service.”   After some give-and-take, Rusty agreed to meet, so I said, “What about tomorrow?”  The “tomorrow” I was referring to was a Monday, but Rusty said, “Tomorrow really doesn’t work for me.  I’m tied up most of the day in volunteer work – from 10:00 am till1:00 pm at Hospice Treasures and from 2:00 pm till 7:00 pm with the Anne Arundel Medical Center, so we need another day.”

In trying to find a time to meet I found out that Rusty is fully engaged – not just on Mondays and not just in our community but also in the world, helping others and building new assets to make the world a better place, and he does it all as a volunteer.
Rusty has a fascinating story.  After graduating from the University of Massachusetts and playing football for the NFL’s Chicago Cardinals (now in Phoenix), he joined the Air Force, where he served as a command pilot of a B-52 heavy bomber, flying 28 missions over North Vietnam.  He later served 18 years as the director of Defense Research and Engineering in the Office of the Secretary of Defense where he specialized in electronic warfare and communications.  After retiring from government service, he worked in business, finally deciding to spend his “retirement years” in Annapolis.

But Rusty and Virginia are anything but retired.  Both are volunteers with Hospice Patient Care, and Rusty is now in training for a new Hospice venture that focuses on the special needs of veterans suffering from what we used to call “battle fatigue.”  Both served several nights a week as volunteer hosts at a 16-bed homeless shelter on West Street.  Both are volunteers at AAMC where Virginia works for the hospital’s human services institute and Rusty volunteers as an aide in the short stay unit.  Virginia served as Senior Warden at St. Anne’s parish, and both serve on the St. Anne’s Church/Clay Street Partnership to support the young people of the area.

When I asked Rusty what volunteer work is most satisfying, he paused for a minute and then said, “Habitat for Humanity.”  Why?  “Because Habitat has a tangible but also heart-warming result.  You build a house from nothing.  You can see it.  You can touch it.  More importantly, you work side-by-side with other volunteers to build it and with the family who will be occupying the home as they contribute their “sweat equity” to the completion of the project.”

“But most importantly,” he said,  “you can see the pride of the family as they move in to a home they helped build, and over the years you see their kids finish school and go on to the community college or the university.  You see people not only taking good care of their home, but improving it.  Working with Habitat and working with families who are seeking to improve their lot in life has to be the most satisfying.”

Rusty has participated in Habitat since arriving in Annapolis in the early 1980s, first as a volunteer pounding nails and then, from 1994 to 2002, as president of the board of Anne Arundel Habitat.  During Rusty’s tenure, Habitat was responsible for building or refurbishing scores of new homes for families that could use a boost.  In 2008, Arundel Habitat celebrated the opening of its 100th home,  Rusty is still involved as Habitat expands to other areas, including South Baltimore.

In 2005, Rusty and Virginia (who have six children and 11 grandchildren and eight Midshipmen for whom they have been home sponsors) established an organization called “Mark 10:14” – after the Scripture which says, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them…”  The purpose: To create opportunities for inner city kids in Annapolis to be exposed to cultural, educational and sports events.  Their first project was to purchase a 15-passenger van so the kids could go on field trips, visit events and historical sites in Washington and Baltimore and participate in summer camp activities.  For his extraordinary support of youth in Annapolis Rusty received the 2002 Martin Luther King, Jr. “Dream Keepers” Award from Ann Arundel County and the City of Annapolis.

Rusty also works with people and communities world-wide through his service on the board of International Cooperating Ministries (ICI) of Norfolk, Virginia.  During the past 16 years Rusty helped raise money to build churches, also often used as community centers, in other nations – including China, Russia, India, Mexico, Haiti, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.  Because of his personal role in “rearranging the landscape” in Southeast Asia, Rusty and Virginia personally donated funds to build a church in Vietnam.

Toward the end of our conversation, I asked Rusty, “Why do you work so hard at retirement?”  He replied, “Because I have been incredibly fortunate all my life. Beginning with a football scholarship to UMass, I have had many opportunities.  I know what they have meant to me.  It’s time to pay back.  Virginia feels the same.  That’s why we do what we can to create opportunities for others…and especially young people.”

By using their time, talent and treasure in steadfast devotion and service to others, Rusty and Virginia are examples of how increasing numbers of later-life Americans are using their bonus years – not for rest and relaxation, but to engage in creative work to help others and improve the world.

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