Unabridged from my Bonus Years column in the Lifestyle section of The Sunday Capital, Annapolis, Maryland
“Wait, wait! Don’t tell me,” as they say on the popular NPR variety show. And for many, lifestyles in the bonus years are, indeed, a surprise waiting to happen. But for others, what we have been is what we shall become. Indeed, for increasing numbers of Americans, the years following retirement only amplify the values of family and community, of cultivating and selflessness that defined their pre-retirement lives. Some actually take a “time-out” either before or immediately after the retirement event to make sure their new-found gift of time is managed intentionally – and not sacrificed to mind-numbing relaxation or aimless busy-ness” as Parkinson’s Law (tasks expand to the time available) takes over.
A case in point is the purpose-driven life of Jackie and Dan Billingsley. Dan spent 38 years as a naval architect in the Navy’s ship design group before retiring to part-time work in 2007. Following the arrival of their first child, Jackie became a stay-at-home mom, relying on Dan’s salary as a civil servant.
Each is blessed with a degree in engineering (she’s a civil engineer; Dan a mechanical engineer) and a strong faith (Dan is an elder at Annapolis EP Church and Jackie is the co-leader of a weekly Bible study). The result: A worldview that calls for personal responsibility, serving others, and making the world a better place.
When they decided they needed a permanent place to raise their family, they purchased the last vacant lot in the Anchorage, a community on Lake Ogleton at the mouth of the Severn River. There they designed their home and, in 1981-82, built it with their own hands, using well-honed woodworking and carpentry skills. In 1991, when they decided to take their kids on a cross-country motor trip, they acquired a 1979 Dodge van, welded a VW camper on top, and embarked on a seven-week adventure, driving clockwise around the US, heading south out of Annapolis and returning via North Dakota.
When missionaries returned from the mission field, Jackie and Dan joined with others to find and rehabilitate housing for the returning families. When a music teacher joined the faculty at Annapolis High School, Jackie and Dan renovated a garage where she could live during her transition. When a pastor’s home needed a new bathroom, Jackie and Dan did it.
When their two boys were in their K-12 years, Jackie volunteered as a teacher’s aide where she did everything from helping to teach math to attaching a pencil sharpener to the wall, both of which, she says, with a twinkle in her eye, allowed her to use her engineering education and both of which provided relief for a teacher and the custodian at Annapolis Middle School.
When the U.S. Coast Guard announced a decision to sell off lighthouses to private bidders, the Billingsleys joined Jackie’s sister and brother-in-law to purchase a classic, 60-foot “sparkplug” lighthouse down by Newport News in the Chesapeake Bay for $31,000. They then spent five years of hard, do-it-yourself labor transforming a derelict hulk, covered inside and out with gull droppings, into a vacation home and gathering place for family and friends – creating a new family asset while preserving an historical landmark in the process.
As the boys grew up, Jackie and Dan saved money and banked leave time so they could take off a year for a family adventure, sailing to the Bahamas and – for an adventure of a different sort – moving from a home with 3,400 s.f. to a 1979 40′ C&C sloop with less than 200 s.f. of living space. To prepare for the year living aboard, Jackie decided to home school her boys – David was 11 and Steve was 9 – to make sure they could all handle the demands and discipline of home schooling. Both Jackie and the boys passed the trial run, and the boys went on to earn engineering degrees of their own several years later. As Jackie says of her boys, “We always told them they could be anything they wanted, AFTER they got their degree in engineering.” A Tiger Mom dressed in Presbyterian garb!
I asked Dan, “How could you do all these things on a civil servant’s salary?” He responded, “It is simple – not always easy, but simple: Dream big; work hard; be frugal.” Jackie added, “We all did the frugal part. Never had a new car; always a used one. Our youngest son didn’t know a new pair of pants or a new shirt until he was 11. Up till then and for a long time after, he wore hand-me-downs. Our oldest son once asked, “Mom, can we go back to that place where we go at Christmas?” Jackie added, “He was referring to Annapolis Mall.” But even before they were teenagers, they were more than familiar with Home Depot, Tru-Value Hardware and other DYI retailers around Annapolis.
As they prepared for retirement, there was a surprise. Dan’s mother came down with Alzheimer’s and his father’s frailty meant they could not continue to live alone. They moved in with Dan and Jackie. The boys gave up their bedrooms and moved to the basement. The elders came for a few months in 2002 so they could figure out what to do – and stayed for seven years!
With this, the Billingsleys joined many other later-life boomers who are part of the “sandwich generation,” caring after ailing parents while their own kids are still living at home. However, the can-do spirit that had defined all the years of their life did not end with this unexpected detour. Both lost parents in 2009 but Jackie said, “Demanding as it was, we were blessed by the opportunity to give back to our parents who had given so much to us and to their community over the years.”
Now, with their own bonus years approaching, it’s time to prepare for their “new” life. Both are in good health and both boys are married but no grandchildren…yet. So Jackie and Dan traded their old C&C 40 for a used Beneteau 47. After seven months in the Virgin Islands and a homecoming for Steve’s wedding in June, they are headed back to the southern Caribbean on November 1, after the hurricane season. Reason: To continue a time out punctuated by Dan’s telework, where, together, they will figure out how to make sure their bonus years are devoted to projects and activities that will make full use of their gifts, serving others and making the world a better place – one hammer and one nail at a time. For many, like the Billingsleys, the past is prologue. Hence, the bonus years will be just another opportunity to do projects that serve. That’s the new picture of retirement for many, and for our community, that is a good thing.