If you want sure-fire compliments, the choices are pretty much a) retire or b) die. Highly recommended: a).
When you retire you don’t hear from people who think you’re a fool or a boob, and a party especially is nice – like a visitation only you’re there. And alive.
Less than a week after I retire from teaching after 21 years at Western Illinois University, my son finishes law school. (His knack for advocacy seems solid; during my retirement reception, he texted me, “Congratulations! You finally got out of college!”) So change is wafting over me like a breeze from Lake Michigan through the cheap seats at Wrigley Field.
I’ll certainly miss colleagues and students, though I won’t miss commuting, meetings, ties and so many keys that I half expected someone to quip, “Are you faculty or are you just glad to see me?”
Unlike journalism, which I’m convinced is a calling, teaching for me bounced between the best job I ever hated or the worst job I ever loved. Journalist Bill Moyers says, “Most of us in journalism are too obsessed with the here-and-now to think about the past or future tense of our lives.”
Retirement is a chance to reflect a bit, at least in solitude. I had years of practice working alone, from delivering newspapers at dawn and mowing lawns at all hours to driving tractors and spending days cutting volunteer cornstalks out of bean fields. I also have spent decades “playing” on teams, mostly baseball, but also construction crews, a “commune” of sorts, labor unions and, of course, newsrooms.
Alan Guebert, a terrific ag journalist, not long ago recalled a 2009 West Point speech by literary critic William Deresiewicz, who sought to encourage first-year cadets to spend more time alone to avoid becoming “excellent sheep” that he saw in his Yale University classes.
Deresiewicz said, “(For) too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going, who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them.”
For 21 years I’ve hoped and prayed that I’ve encouraged my students not only to write, but read and think – not necessarily in that order: solitary endeavors.
Recently, I’ve heard from former students, ranging from a Pulitzer Prize winner and a Fulbright scholar to sportswriters for AP/News Corp. and a small daily, from a business reporter for a mid-market daily and staffers in big newsrooms and even the military. They seem to be good thinkers and listeners as well as writers; I don’t think I damaged them. Their flattery included compliments about my being a mentor, a “heartbeat” of journalism, of helping them, or making classes insightful and entertaining.
I’ve also heard from pals who shared past adventures, friends who are now college administrators, a state senator, a judge, and an assistant attorney general. One said, “It won't be long before you're sitting at the local cafe having breakfast on a Tuesday morning with some of your cronies, other geezers, and wondering, ‘What the heck happened?’ Enjoy that moment.”
A reviewer who used to write for me remembered a “writer’s block” dry spell during which I’d cajoled him with a question: “Your hands fall off?” A Tea Party friend emailed, “Retiring? From what? We’ve been blessed with doing things we love.” An ex-PGA caddy buddy warned, “You will find time for more of the things you love, like and some that you don’t.”
One former girlfriend, now at a major metro daily, wrote, “Thanks for fighting the good fight.” Another ex-girlfriend made a donation in my name to a journalism student fund. Humbling; another card from a woman sent a note I’d sent her and other students after 9-11, which she’d saved.
I’d said, 10 years ago, “At such a time, reading and studying grammar, discussing and exercising news judgment, and expanding our awareness of the wide variety of stories and assignments seem relatively meaningless,. Priorities change,” I continued, “– sometimes in an instant – but reporting and the First Amendment that protects it remain important.”
Priorities do change, but I agree with Moyers, who said, “Journalism [is] a continuing course in adult education.”
Mine as well as others, of course.
So, I won’t be in my classrooms, but I will continue to write a column, do radio, and work on book projects, plus get involved in new media and new ventures.
One newsroom manager wrote, “Your work generates more complaints than anything else we use. Keep up the good work.”
A high school classmate offered best wishes with a challenge: “Retirement is not for sissies.”
Bill Knight is a freelance writer. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Western Illinois University or Tri States Public Radio