In real life, finishing well comes in many flavors

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday June 25, 2016

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

Like the Ravens’ Ray Lewis, one of the NFL’s all-time great linebackers, we all want to go out as a champion, to finish well.   However, in real life finishing well comes in many flavors and not just a Super Bowl ring.

One of the most inspiring examples of a man who finished well is the late Edwin Shneidman (1918-2009), a UCLA professor of psychology and a pioneer in the study and prevention of suicide.  In 1958, Shneidman established the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center and the “suicide hotline,” a novel approach to public health that was copied by more than 100 communities around the US during the next few years. Later on he founded the first professional organization devoted to the study of suicide.

In “A Commonsense Book of Death,” completed just before his own death, he revealed his never-give-up approach to life even as he was wearing out: “I am like an old Oldsmobile: one of my headlamps is broken, my differential isn’t differentiating, my muffler has become muffled, my distributor won’t distribute—and I can’t buy replacement parts at Pep Boys.” Still, he kept on going.

A reader might say, “Well, it is one thing to work into your late 80s or 90s when you are a writer – like an academic or a journalist. But what about the rest of us, people who work the old-fashioned way – by making things, growing things, mining things, fixing things, or moving things around.”  That’s a fair question – and that’s why most of my bonus years examples are personal experiences I’ve had with “Main Street” Americans and what they do to navigate the shoals of later-life as they change lanes, making a successful transition from their career to their post-career years.

During our recent vacation in Florida, I visited with one of my favorite examples of a bonus years lane changer.  His name is Ed Fergus, another of Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation.”

Ed has had an amazing life.  In 1943, Master Sergeant Edgar F. Fergus became a prisoner of war when his B-24 was shot down over the Adriatic Sea. He spent time in captivity in Italy, and survived a 500-mile forced march in the dead of winter before his final walk to freedom 20 months later.

When Ed came home to Indiana, he went into the food processing business, where he retired as a senior executive at 61 and then moved to Florida – more than 25 years ago. After a few months in “paradise,” he decided to go back to work – this time as the maintenance man at Dolphin Watch condominiums on Fort Myers Beach, Florida where my mother lives. “Mister Ed,” as he was affectionately called, was the fix-it guy. He took care of the buildings and grounds. That was his job. But more importantly, Mister Ed took care of the people, and they all loved him, and he loved them back – with a smile, a wrench, 24/7 availability, and a solution for any problem.

Mister Ed didn’t need the money; he just wanted an opportunity to channel his time, energy and talents – to make a contribution, stay engaged, and, he told me when I talked to him about his life several years ago, “to meet some nice people and help solve problems.”

Mister Ed worked until three years ago when, at age 87, he gave up his duties after more than 15 years and went off-the-clock. Ed and Charlotte, his wife of nearly 60 years, still live in Florida and are both actively engaged in the activities of everyday life…and, he told me with a chuckle, “going to the doctor a lot.”  As we closed our conversation, Mister Ed said, “I don’t really miss the work, but I sure do miss the people. That’s why, every week or so, I go down to Dolphin Watch just to walk around and see how everyone is doing.”

The stories of the two Eds – Professor Edwin Shneidman, always the teacher, and “Mister Ed” Fergus, who changed lanes from a business man to a fix-it man and who took care of his people as well as their buildings – is really just one story. It is a story of two men who loved their flock and worked to improve its well-being. The professor did it through a life-long career of study, teaching, writing, advocacy and community service; Mister Ed did it first in the food processing business and then, in a post-career job shift where he worked in the trenches, day-in and day-out, to help people and make the world of Dolphin Watch a better place – having already performed his “community service,” first as a warrior against fascism and then as a POW in Germany in WW II.

The old saying, “There are many roads to Rome,” also applies to successful aging.  There’s not one way; there are many ways.  Some involve changing lanes.  Others do not.  Nearly all have bumps and potholes, but most are enriching and provide many opportunities to finish well.

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