Originally published in the Union College Magazine, Fall 2014
Over the past few months, we put out the call for stories from alumni and friends who had reinvented themselves in retirement. The returns were interesting, amusing, inspiring and gratifying. And perhaps not surprisingly, the stories proved once again that Union folks are adaptable, wide ranging, enterprising, charitable, curious, engaged … you get the idea.
With our thanks, herewith are accounts from a few of our retirement reinventors.
If, as the saying goes, “Life begins at retirement,” many Union folks have been reborn.
Take Rick Sheremata ’70, who retired as a civil engineer in South Florida to become a wilderness photographer in Montana.
Or Thomas Flynn ’79, who after 25 years as a producer and writer at CBS News, published an epic poem and now a play based on his experiences during the Sept. 11 attacks in New York City.
Or Phyllis Budka M’82, who went from a career as a technical writer to a retirement in which she is discovering her Eastern European roots.
Or Dr. Orel Friedman ’35, who at 66 was forced into retirement from medicine by a visual disability. Now 100, he has spent his “retirement” as a tireless advocate for geriatric care and patient rights.
Dr. Orel Friedman '35
Dr. Orel Friedman, a respected ear, nose and throat specialist in Glens Falls, N.Y. wasn’t planning to retire. But when he developed double vision at 66, he had no choice. “It was the low point of my life,” he recalls. But not one to gravitate toward self-pity, he immersed himself in every book he could find about retirement and gerontology. He spoke with medical colleagues. And he took college classes, attended seminars nationwide and interned at a gerontology center in Florida.
By the early 1980’s, he had transformed himself into a counselor, advocate, writer, speaker and consultant to geriatric care providers. He became so active that his late wife, Blossom, observed that he was working harder than when he was practicing medicine. He was at least a decade ahead of national trends in end-of-life care and patient rights, which he recalls “were handled abysmally at that time.”
At 100, he is a popular resident of the Glen at Hiland Meadows, a senior residence in Glens Falls where a fellow resident and lifelong friend, Sunny Buchman, describes him as a role model. “He is very open, proactive and understated,” she said. He often gives talks on medical and aging issues. “He knows what he is talking about and he makes it very understandable,” she said. He is a frequent interview subject with students at Queensbury High School, where he participates in the ethics class.
He has authored two books, Eighteen by Thirteen, a crime novel in which he collaborated with 12 other seniors through a Florida writer’s workshop, and A Doctor Retires – Is There Life After Medicine (see excerpt in sidebar).
At Union, he was a member of Kappa Nu fraternity and Phi Beta Kappa. Union relatives include his late brother, M. Leo Friedman ’42, and a nephew, Roger Friedman ’72. After Union, he earned his medical degree from Albany Medical College, and a master’s in otolaryngology from the University of Pennsylvania.
Dr. Friedman is modest in talking about the success of his own retirement. But Buchman is quick to note that he has stayed engaged as a learner and teacher, traveled as much as possible (At 90, he traveled alone to visit family in Israel.) and taken care of himself.
Dr. Friedman puts it simply: “I made lemonade out of a lemon.”
Bob Tito '69
I’ve embraced the idea that reinvention is better than retirement,” wrote Dick Tito ’69 a securities trader-turned-yoga instructor and addictions counselor. “If you can have a sense of purpose and enjoy whatever you find yourself doing, then age becomes just a number. Not being afraid to redefine yourself as new opportunities come along allows you to be open to wherever life takes you. I’m now totally accepting that putting ‘they lived until they died’ on all our tombstones would be a great way to end the final chapter!”
Tito retired in 2006 at age 59. During 30 years in the securities industry, he hadn’t thought much about his next chapter, but convinced himself there was something else in life besides capital markets. Some personal reflection led him to a major decision: become a registered yoga instructor. In 2011, he earned a master’s in counseling from Waynesburg (Pa.) University, and at 64 started doing part-time drug and alcohol counseling for Gateway Rehab in Pittsburgh. He ran the Men’s Relapse Prevention Therapy Group for a couple of years and now consults to Gateway on issues concerning men and addictions. His personal focus is on combining Western psychology with Eastern spiritual traditions, such as meditation and yoga. He also has experience with combining 12 Step group work with mindfulness meditation.
“If I had known I was going to self-identify as a ‘Presbyterian with Buddhist Tendencies’… I would have paid more attention in the World Religions Class I took at Union in 1965,” he said.
Tom Flynn '69
Tom Flynn, a writer and producer for CBS News, spent three decades covering world events with the professional detachment of a seasoned journalist. Then came 9/11.
As the first plane struck the North Tower, Flynn was drinking coffee on the deck of his apartment in lower Manhattan. Remembering the terrorist attack in 1993, Flynn assumed the worst, grabbed a notebook and pen and steered his bike toward the World Trade Center. By the time he arrived, the second plane had struck the South Tower and he had to retreat as paper, debris and people fell from above. When the South Tower collapsed, he joined a group of others who found shelter in an underground garage, where a medic tagged him “Bikeman” for his refusal to leave his bike behind. Eventually, the former detached observer made his way, covered in dust and ash, to relate his experience to Dan Rather at the CBS News desk.
In 2005, when he retired from CBS, he pulled out his notes to consider a book. At the same time he was reading about another journey through hell -- Dante’s Inferno. Two years later, the result was Bikeman, a long epic poem in the style of Dante in which Flynn writes, “I did not live through it. I just did not die.”
Earlier this year, Flynn added playwright to his resume. The book became an off-Broadway play adopted by the 9/11 Memorial Museum. “For a long time … I have found New Yorkers to be reluctant, even fearful of re-visiting that day,” Flynn writes in his blog. “But I see them beginning to approach 9/11 more now than they have since that morning … It is their story now. One they have re-lived, and they seem finally, after all these years, ready to embrace.”
For more visit: http://bikeman1.com
Charlie Plesums '65
Plesums, who was Union’s first director of the computer center and started about a half dozen courses in computing, went on to direct computer centers at the University of Virginia, Temple University and Trinity University. He joined USAA in San Antonio, Texas, in 1982 to lead the Advanced Technology group and develop large scale document imaging that became an IBM product. In 1995, he joined CSC to consult for insurance companies nationwide on document imaging.
A lifelong hobby woodworker, he switched from kitchen cabinets to furniture in 1997. People who saw his work often asked, “can you make one of those for me?” In 2005, at 62, he “retired” to a full-time business of woodworking. And in keeping with his computer past, he started a woodworking website that averages 12,000 visits per month.
For more, see: www.solowoodworker.com
Rick Sheremeta '70
Rick Sheremeta was a civil engineer in South Florida, but for the past eight years has been in retirement with a busy outdoor photography business that he runs wife his wife, Dody, in Somers, Mont. They live in a log home on a mountain ridge overlooking Flathead Lake in one direction and Glacier Park in the other. He and Dody are frequent contributors to Outdoor Photographer and publications featuring the beauty of the West. Rick is a photography instructor for the Glacier Institute and a frequent author of articles on locations and techniques.
For more, visit: www.alpenglowproductions.com
John Perlstein '74
After a career as a corporate attorney for a health insurance company, John Perlstein ’74 doesn’t claim to have re-invented himself in retirement. But he enjoys being able to do things that weren’t possible when he was working. One of those is mediation. After an intensive training class, he did volunteer mediation work for the Connecticut court system. Then he re-connected with a former colleague to provide legal and compliance consulting services to small- and mid-sized health care companies.
The extra time also allowed him to train for and complete a marathon – “the hardest thing I’ve ever done” – and two half-marathons and several triathlons. Lately, he has added yoga. But the best job ever? “Grandparenting.” And on a recent trip to see his grandchildren, he got a bonus: a chance meeting with a Union friend he hadn’t seen in 40 years: music conductor Bob Bernhardt ’73.
Peter Milsky '66
Peter Milsky retired in 2004 after practicing dentistry on Cape Cod for 34 years. Besides tennis and acting/directing (he has been involved in over 100 amateur theater productions on the Cape), he was looking for something to fill his time. He wife, always artistic, had a long interest in stained glass and had taken classes in fused glass and jewelry. Peter followed suit and together they started a business on the Cape making fused glass wire wrapped jewelry – Rose Colored Glasses (www.rcgjewelry.com) – that sells to galleries in New England and at craft shows on Cape Cod. “I always felt that dentistry had a lot of art involved as well as science and this has given me a chance to pursue my artistic side,” the former dentist said. “We have been in business for about 10 years and while we do not make a living from our business it gives us an income for travel and fun. If anyone told me I would be a jeweler after retirement I would never have believed them but it has been fun starting and running a small two-person business.”
Norman Dovberg '68
Norman Dovberg went from a decades-long private practice in psychiatry to a retirement where he honed his skills on guitar and played in a rock band. A swimmer at Union, he also took up competitive running and qualified for and ran the Boston Marathon. Today, an average day finds him playing and singing for two hours and exercising for three.
“I just made sure that I had things to retire to by developing options before retirement,” he said. “This is what all the experts say to do for successful retirement. They were not really surprises.”
But Norman surprised even himself when he began a satirical novel about God, creation and the foibles of the human race. “I had read and thought a lot about [the subject] ever since taking courses in philosophy and religion at Union, which I loved,” he said. He describes the book, still underway, as a “Jonathan-Swift-meets-Mark-Twain-meets-George-Carlin version of the nature of Man from the point of view of God. It is completely irreverent and will need to be published under a pseudonym if I expect to live long enough to experience a natural death,” he said.
Bob Blanchette '69
Throughout a 42-year career in high school education, Bob Blanchette maintained his enthusiasm by taking on different roles: French teacher, mathematics teacher, coach, club adviser, director of admission.
Three months after retirement, he found himself as chief academic officer for KnowledgeWare21, a start-up that is developing software for school districts to implement standards and track student growth throughout the K-12 experience. “What attracted me [to the company] was its clear emphasis on the skills teachers find so difficult to measure: critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration and communication,” he said. “I now regret that I didn’t do more to address this important issue during my career, but my role in this start-up is offering me an unexpected second chance.
“This may not sound to some like a ‘radical’ change for me,” he added. “However, I am learning a whole new set of skills related to product development, marketing, website development, and many of the financial and legal aspects of launching a start-up company.”
Howard Miller '71
Howard Miller ’71 was a matrimonial litigator for many years after graduating from Emory Law School and serving as an assistant state attorney.
In 1999, after several hip replacement surgeries, doctors advised him against continuing a litigation practice involving so much travel to the courthouse with heavy files.
His wife, Lisa, is the debate coach at Nova High School, the third largest program in the country. Howard was always involved so some degree with coaching and chaperoning, but an opportunity arose in 2004 to become the director of the Florida Forensic Institute, one of the largest summer debate camps in the nation. They serve local students but also draw from as far as Hawaii. Besides running the program, Howard steps into a few seminars on legal and economic issues.
“This program could not be more different from fighting over failed marriages and taxes,” he said. “It has provided an opportunity to give back and prepare the next generation.”
Bob Birenbaum '80
Bob Birenbaum ’80 graduated with degrees in electrical engineering and computer science, and went to work for Digital Equipment Corporation designing integrated circuits. He earned an MBA at Boston University. After a few years as an engineer, he moved into marketing and then marketing management, spending 15 years in that discipline. Mid-career, he moved into sales and spent time as both a manager and individual contributor.
In anticipation of retiring, last year he was certified as a basketball referee. In his second year of officiating, he is doing sub-varsity high school games, boys and girls. His goal is to move up to varsity and college in the next few years.
“Basketball has been a passion of mine since I was a child, and this will allow me to stay close to the sport, meet lots of new and interesting people, and earn just a little bit of money,” he said.
Phyllis Zych Budka '82
Reinvention is nothing new to Phyllis Zych Budka. Her 1964 bachelor’s degree in Russian from the University of Rochester made sense in the Sputnik era, but Schenectady in the 70’s and 80’s was no place for a Russian major. So at 40, after part-time study, she earned a master’s in mechanical engineering from Union. In the mid-80’s, she was a freelance technical writer for GE. “As an engineer who likes to write, I always got the job,” she says. From the early 90’s until she retired in 2008, the computer revolution kept her busy. “Part of the fun was bridging the gap between engineering needs and translating them into ‘program speak,’” she said.
What she discovered in retirement was genealogy and a large and interesting family she never knew in Poland and Lithuania. All four of her grandparents came to Schenectady from Poland, so before retirement her ancestral curiosity was limited to the area.
“Since 1999, I have been to Poland five times and to Lithuania twice, meeting relatives, searching for ‘new’ relatives, and falling in love with these people, who have suffered much, and are eagerly and rapidly embracing the democratic way of life.”
She has published several essays on her family research (in English and Polish), and has contributed to materials on Eastern European immigrants in the Schenectady County Historical Society archives.
She also has edited papers for students in the Union Graduate College’s Bioethics Program in conjunction with the University of Vilnius that is aimed at Eastern European countries.
“The Internet, email, Google Translate, scanners, digital cameras, Facebook – amazing communication tools that connect me with relatives and friends far and wide and have helped me reinvent my own retirement,” she said.
Her Union relatives include her late husband, Alfred Budka ’58; son, Ken Budka ’87; and daughter-in-law, Cynthia Curtis Budka ’87.
Peter Hayden '83
Throughout his time at Union, Peter Hayden was fascinated by the Erie Canal and spent many an afternoon watching boats go through Lock 7. A little research revealed that the waterway was still navigable east and south to the Atlantic, and west to the Great Lakes. Once in the great lakes, one can continue west to Chicago then south to the Gulf of Mexico, or go northeast out the St. Lawrence back to the Atlantic.
After earning a bachelor’s in electrical engineering and a master’s in computer science from Union, he vowed to one day make one of those trips in their own cruiser.
After his 30th ReUnion, and retired from the data storage firm he co-founded, he and his wife set out on that trip.
They took the “Downeast Loop” from their hometown of Gloucester, Mass., to New York City, up the Hudson River, west on the Erie Canal to Lake Ontario and eventually back to the Atlantic.
They have since done a trip to the Bahamas, and last summer were in the Pacific with planned trips to Alaska, Hawaii and New Zealand.
To read their blog visit: www.MVTanglewood.com
Dan Mead '69
Dan Mead’s career included 15 years as a teacher, coach and administrator; and another 20 as a psychotherapist, hospice consultant and school counseling consultant. In retirement, he wanted something more. So he turned to two passions that were nurtured but never fully realized until retirement in 2003: travel and photography.
Step one: spend six months wandering New Zealand with a camera, an adventure that yielded 10,000 images.
“I had spent the 15 years in education speaking a lot, 20 years of psychotherapy listening a lot. Perhaps it was time in the last third of life to be seeing a lot. Travel and photography could do that,” he said.
With his wife, Sally Eagle, he has sought out workshops and photo tours. In 2008, five years into retirement, they had two international awards and were exhibiting their work throughout New England.
“Travel photography has given us happiness in exploring cultures, wildlife habitats and landscapes in many other parts of the world and meaning in sharing our good fortune with others, especially students,” he said.
For more, visit http://www.meadeaglephotos.com/