Encore Careers: Why Retire When You Can Reinvent Yourself?

For many seniors, retiring has become less a matter of kicking back on the couch and more of a long-awaited opportunity to reinvent themselves and take on new career challenges.

The TCBN talks with four TC residents who have found satisfaction in their encore careers:

Bill Donberg

Bill DonbergEngineer and longtime Dow Chemical executive Bill Donberg always planned for retirement – not just in the terms but also to keep his mind and body active. Once retired, he set out to realize several of his dreams: He wanted to move from Midland and live with his wife in the home they built on Torch Lake, to fly airplanes (something his 30-year career with several overseas postings made difficult to do), and he wanted to contribute to the community.

It’s all gone better than the athletic 65-year-old could have imagined. He got a job at Northwestern Michigan College teaching in the aviation program – a curriculum he called “pretty much unmatched at the junior college level.”

The NMC connection then led him to build a drone helicopter company, Aetos Group, with two of his teaching colleagues. The drones are used to inspect industrial plants. When Aetos was purchased in 2015 by Mistras Group, two of the original partners moved to Texas.

But Donberg stayed put. He had things to do.

He still teaches at NMC, something that combines his love of flying with the energy he gets by working with young people. His commitment to NMC’s long-term viability is clear: he now serves on the college’s foundation.

But that’s just the start of his active lifestyle. Donberg spends a lot of his time working with Vermont-based Pure Water for the World, a non-profit that provides clean water systems in such places as Haiti and Honduras, and serving on Rotary’s international service committee.

Marie Schwartz

Marie SchwartzHer grown son’s New Year’s Eve party led Marie Schwartz to a different retirement path than she and her husband – both oil and gas executives – had imagined. She now runs the Corner Loft, a busy special events venue on the intersection of Front and Cass Streets.

“We had bought the place to be our condo,” she said. “We’d always envisioned having an active retirement, but it might have been more volunteer work. Then I saw what a great party place the loft made. And I love being around young people. I get a lot of energy from them.”

The business has taken off.

The energetic 60-year-old has hosted weddings, Michigan State football parties, “lunch and learns,” a reception during the Traverse City Film Festival, business conferences, Christmas celebrations, high school proms and numerous special events for area non-profits. The Corner Loft has even served as the site of a Catholic mass and a ballet performance.

Asked why she has chosen such a demanding “encore” career, Schwartz didn’t hesitate: “I’ve always tried to take care of myself. I feel pretty energetic. I had a great career, but it was time to do something different. I love interacting with happy people who are excited and optimistic.”

Karen Schmidt

Karen SchmidtAfter 35 years as an educator, Karen Schmidt retired in 2000. She knew she wanted to stay active.

“My husband retired the same year,” said Schmidt, 71. “We wanted to spend more time with my family and take care of babies while our daughter worked. Our folks helped us with the kids while we were doing graduate work. We wanted to pass that on to the next generation.”

She was also very aware of what community-minded people could achieve.

“For so many years, we benefited so much from volunteers in after-school programs, scouting, sporting events, at the Traverse City Symphony and, of course, at the theater.”

As it turned out, volunteering and her hobby – gardening – came together neatly through her work at The Botanic Gardens, situated within Historic Barns Park on the grounds of the Grand Traverse Commons.

First she was invited to serve on the board. Now, she works as interim director of the entire operation – a task she admitted leaves her and her husband (who also volunteers) bone tired at times.

“But we’re happy,” she said. “We feel we’re really living 100 percent.”

She offered advice for an enjoyable retirement.

“Tell them to make a list of their blessings, and look at everything good that’s happened,” she said. “Then next to that write down the people who made that happen.”

Giving back to the community, she said, “is not a moral obligation, it’s a joy, an opportunity to stay sharp.”

She is intensely proud of the community spirit at The Botanic Gardens.

“We have 275 volunteers and we’re attracting thousands of people. It will be here for a long time. It’s a privilege to be making that happen.”

Kim Pontius

PontiusAt 61, Kim Pontius is a few years away from retirement. In a sense, as executive director of the nearly 900-member Traverse Area Association of Realtors (TAAR), he’s too busy to even think about it.

But he shares many things in common with Bill Donberg, Marie Schwartz and Karen Schmidt. First of all, he has re-invented his career. He came to TAAR after a long career in manufacturing, then several years in economic development work. All of that took place in Fort Wayne, Ind. The transition to his current job marks a big change – especially since, initially, he didn’t know much about real estate.

The common thread, he said, was that economic development and workforce development are fields that apply very directly to the area’s economic well-being which, in turn, directly affects the real estate market here.

As with the others, he has a restless spirit that has led him to other new activities, most notably the spice-blending business he and his wife run, the Suttons Bay Trading Co. Studying spices and their role in history has become another avocation.

“It’s what created wealth before oil,” he said.

His views on retirement are clear: “I don’t see it as a given. I’ve always assumed I’d be working well into my 70s.”

And even if the day comes when he gives up his 9-to-5 job, he has no plans to give up the spice business.
He said he enjoys interacting with young people.

“It’s a good thing. It pumps you up. Here at TAAR we have some very talented young people on board,” he said, then joked, “They help you to start believing you’re younger than you actually are.”