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Retirement is supposed to be a good thing — the reward for a job well done, a career well spent. But for many, it’s downright intimidating. After decades of finding daily purpose and satisfaction in a career, the prospect of life after retirement can fill a certain type of hardworking person with dread.
But it doesn’t have to. Valerie Shaw, Virginia Wilson, and Karen Miller are among those who have found opportunities for growth and fulfillment in their retirement. For them, leaving their post just means moving on to their next job. (Or jobs.)
“I knew in March of 2015 that I wasn’t going to run again,” says Miller, former southern district commissioner for Boone County. “But I had to digest it for a while before I was willing to make that commitment.” As an elected official, she couldn’t choose to put off retirement for just one more year. If she ran again in 2016, she would be committing to another four-year term.
She didn’t make her announcement until the fall of 2015. “It took me those few months to see whether I could get everything done at work that I felt like I needed to complete,” she says.
During her remaining time in office, and in addition to performing her regular duties administering the county, Miller sorted through all the documents that had accumulated in her 24 years as southern district commissioner. “I really worked hard that last year,” she says. “I went in on weekends. I cleaned out files so that they were ready for scanning, so people could more easily access them.” Filing cabinets containing her seven terms’ worth of documentation lined an entire hallway in the commission office — records of her achievements, like the passing and subsequent renewals of the half-cent sales tax for roads, which she ran on back in 1992, and her time spent as president of the National Association of Counties.
Miller passed the reins to her successor, Fred Parry, on December 31, 2016. “I left him a note,” she says, “reminding him that he had to count to two. There are three county commissioners, and you have to have another vote to get anything done. So if you can’t count to two, you can get your legs chopped out from under you.”
Shaw ended her tenure as executive vice president and retail manager at Commerce Bank last spring. “I was with Commerce Bank for 36 years, and I loved it,” she says. “It was a hard decision to retire, because I loved what I did. I loved the people who worked for and with me, but I was just ready.”
Each year, Shaw chose a theme word for her team; for her final year, she chose “intentional.” Each step she took towards retirement she took with intention, including the work of preparing for someone else to take her place. She spent a year working closely with David Whelan, a member of her team who she believed was a great leader. “My goal was to make sure that he was positioned as well as possible to be eligible for consideration,” she says. When he was eventually selected for her position, Shaw knew she was leaving the 14 branches she oversaw in good hands.
Virginia Wilson officially retired as director of small business development at the Small Business Technology and Development Centers at MU Extension in October of 2016. She spent 18 years counseling aspiring entrepreneurs through the process of opening their own businesses — the work was rewarding, and she says retiring wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision. “A lot of my friends had already retired, and I was at that age,” she says, laughing. “I had been thinking about it for probably about a year, year and a half before I actually retired.”
During that time, Wilson decided that she wasn’t ready to completely let go of her work. She still works as a part-time contractor with the SBTDC, teaching some of the same classes that she had scheduled during her final months as program director. “I had always said that when I retired, I was going to stay engaged in the business world,” she explains. With the contract work, “I’m staying engaged, doing something that I love to do. So that’s what makes it a lot easier for me. It’s good that I can say, ‘I can do this today or I don’t have to.’ Setting my own schedule — I’m loving that part of it.”
In the days and weeks after retirement, she says, “I was just going through things around the house, going to the ARC. I stayed very busy. And I thought, my gosh, how did I get anything done while I was working?”
Miller makes sure that her new lifestyle retains a familiar structure. She gets up at the same time every day and follows her morning routine, even if she plans to spend the day cleaning and organizing at home. Her mental transition from work to retirement was smoothed over by all the cleaning and organization she did at the office; having finished sorting all her papers at work, she’s now tackling the tubs full of documents that had accumulated at home. “I’m purging electronically one day and then through a closet or drawer the next,” she says. Recycled papers were followed by unused Christmas decorations. She’s been donating materials like picture frames to Columbia Public Schools to be used in class projects.
For many retirees, the end of a career can cause identity stress. Shaw put some thought into that as she prepared to leave Commerce Bank. “Your identity gets tied to your company — it really does,” she says. “So it was important to me to develop my own personal identity. I think that’s important for people to figure out ahead of time. What do you want to do? Where is your passion?” Finding that out will prevent retirees from feeling adrift. “Don’t let retirement just happen,” she says. “Think through it the way you would think about a job, in a sense.”
Retirement is, after all, the next career move.
Years ago, when Miller’s grandmother lived with her, the two began mapping their family tree based on her grandmother’s prayer cards. “My great-grandfather came over on the boat with a brother,” she says. “He never talked about his parents, his siblings — I didn’t know if there were any. So in October of 2015, I went to Poland, found 33 cousins I didn’t know I had, and met my grandmother’s first cousin. She had my mother’s wedding picture in her photo album.” It was on that trip, with her sister and sister-in-law, that Miller made up her mind about retiring. After she finishes purging and organizing, Miller will return to her genealogy project with renewed focus. She plans to spend time learning Polish so she can have more natural conversations with her relatives when she returns to Poland. “One day, Amazon delivered me a Rosetta Stone package for Polish, and it came with a note that said, ‘Thank you for what you’ve done for us and will continue to do,’” she says. “And I have no clue who it was from.”
“Connecting is really my key,” Miller says. “I was thinking about Lent. I’m going to do 40 days of writing a note to people I haven’t seen in a while. I’ve been looking up addresses, getting ready for it. Some of these people I haven’t seen in 30 years, but I found their addresses. So they’ll be surprised when they get a little card!”’
Having stepped away from the daily hubbub at the bank, Shaw makes sure to stay in touch with her connections from Commerce. “When I miss the people I worked with, I go to lunch with them,” she says. “Then I’ve got a nice dose of them and I can go back to my retired world and be happy.”
Shaw has always enjoyed travel — she and two friends have traveled to a new place each year for the past decade — but now, she’s able to add more frequent getaways. “We decided that we would take our big trip once a year, but since we’re retired, we’re doing long weekends, and we drive. We started out saying it’s going to be a radius of 300 miles, somewhere that we can drive in a day.” They visited Ste. Genevieve, Missouri last year, and they plan to go to Oklahoma City soon. Shaw is a rodeo fan — she hopes to see one while she’s there.
Wilson can look back on two decades of helping people achieve their dreams and say that she’s not done yet. “I just enjoy it thoroughly, and there’s such great satisfaction that comes from doing the kind of work that we do,” she says. Some of the business counseling she does now is volunteer work. Her next big project will be working with the SBTDC to focus on developing and supporting minority-owned businesses in the area. When she started her research, she says, “I didn’t know how many minority businesses were in Columbia. Or what their needs were, what resources they needed.” On top of that work, Wilson sits on the finance committee at Second Baptist Church, as does Shaw.
Miller now volunteers with the Boone County Historical Society in her spare time. “Genealogy made me a history nerd, much more than I ever was,” she says, “and I want to preserve our county history, so it just fits my skill set and my interests.” She’s helping to reprint Boone County’s first record book for the county’s 200th anniversary. “My grunt work will just be scanning the photos and stuff,” she says, but Shaw accuses Miller of being too modest: “I’m on the board of the Boone County Historical Society. Karen did a fundraiser for them so that we can develop a digital library in honor of Hank Waters, and it was a record fundraiser. She developed the fundraiser that made it all possible.”
As for Shaw, who has always been heavily involved in community service, she sees it as her duty to spend her retirement giving back to the community she loves. “If everybody would just do something —they don’t have to be in six or seven things, but if they would just do one thing — just think what a difference that would make.” Among Shaw’s many volunteer commitments: raising scholarship money for young black women through the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, serving as treasurer for the local chapter of the NAACP, and developing courses for Osher, a service through MU Extension providing classes for people over 50. “We have to keep our minds engaged,” she insists. “The role I was in [at Commerce Bank] was about resolving issues. The decisions I made impacted people, so they needed to be well thought out, more strategic. To go from that and not do something to keep your mind active, I can see how people dread retiring.”
But that’s not so with Shaw. She says, “I can hardly say the word ‘retirement’ without smiling.”