‘In No Way Was I Out of Gas’: Four local retirees share their different post-career journeys

Retirement can take many forms. For some, it’s a never-ending vacation. For others, it’s the start of a second career. Many retirees use the extra time to focus on family. Many others use it as a chance to embrace lives of volunteerism and public service. In honor of October, which is National Retirement Security Month, the TCBN profiled four local retirees and the very different versions of retirement they are living.

Jim Milligan – The Boomerpreneur

The Career: “A lot of people in my generation – and in generations before me – spent an entire career at one company,”  said Jim Milligan, owner of Fustini’s Oils & Vinegars in downtown Traverse City. His was spent in the Twin Cities working for 3M, the multinational conglomerate known for making everything from Scotch tape and Post-it notes to healthcare products.

“I had a 30-year career with 3M, starting in sales and then in marketing and business development,” Milligan said. “Around the 1995 time frame, I went down to Mexico to start up a new company for them in Mexico City, doing international sales and general management.”

Milligan ended up taking early retirement from 3M at the age of 55, when, as he puts it, “my position became redundant.” A relatively young retiree, Milligan was left with the big question of how to spend the rest of his life.

“I was trying to figure out what to do,” Milligan recalled. “What was the next step? Because for sure, I wasn’t done. In no way was I out of gas.”

The Retirement: If you’re a Traverse Citian, you probably know Milligan not as a retiree from a corporate career with 3M, but as northern Michigan’s oil baron – olive oil, that is. In March 2008, less than six months after his last day with 3M, Milligan opened the doors of the original Fustini’s Oils & Vinegars in downtown Traverse City.

Milligan is one of northern Michigan’s most successful examples of a “Boomerpreneur” – a term for Baby Boomers who had full careers (usually, like Milligan’s, with one company) and then found their way to entrepreneurship in their retirement years. Milligan’s path brought him to Traverse City (a town he knew he loved, given that his in-laws had retired here years before) and to the world of specialty olive oils and vinegars (which he’d fallen in love with while on business trips to Europe for 3M).

Fustini’s proved to be a big hit – even launching as it did right before an economic downturn – and Milligan’s second career was off to the races. As the proprietor tells the story, it was the realization of a long-held dream – and a dream that may not have come true if his career at 3M hadn’t come to an end when it did.

“Since my in-laws had retired to Traverse City, we had been taking our girls over to see grandma and grandpa three or four times a year,” Milligan said. “And of course, I fell in love with Traverse City. I even put together a five-year plan to move to Traverse City and start my own business; it took me 20 years. But that’s what happens. You get going in a career, you’ve got a family, you’re saving for college, and risk starts to look a little different for you as you increase responsibilities for your family. And so, it wasn’t until I was 55 and took my early retirement from 3M that I was able to finally do what I’d wanted to do for many, many years, and that was to move to Traverse City and start up a small business.”

Lois Goldstein and John Heiam – The Outdoor Adventurers

The Careers: A wife-and-husband duo, Lois Goldstein and John Heiam met in Chicago when they were both working as high school math teachers. Both taught for 30 years before answering the same summons that Milligan did: the call to Traverse City. They bought a house here in 1995, and spent time in both northern Michigan and Chicago for five years before ultimately retiring and relocating to Traverse City for good in 2000.

“We retired before we were old enough to draw our retirement, so we lived on savings for three years,” Goldstein said. “I was only 52, and John was just 55. But we really wanted to live here. We’d had the house for five years, coming up in summers, and we were ready to live here.”

The Retirement: If there was one factor that motivated Goldstein and Heiam to take an early retirement and move to Traverse City, it was the area’s boundless opportunities for outdoor recreation. Both avid hikers, cyclists, and paddle sport enthusiasts, the pair wanted to live in a place where they could really enjoy those activities. The big city wasn’t that place, but northern Michigan was.

No surprise, then, that Goldsmith and Heiam have played substantial roles in the past two decades of Traverse City’s outdoor recreation ecosystem. Before the two even moved here, they were already members of the Cherry Capital Cycling Club, the Grand Traverse Hiking Club, and the Traverse Area Paddle Club. Heiam was instrumental in starting the outing program for the Hiking Club – a responsibility he took on as the organization’s vice president. He later served 11 years as the Hiking Club’s president, a role that in turn led to a trio of three-year terms on the national board for the North Country Trail Association.

In addition to that service, Goldstein and Heiam have also taken it upon themselves to be something along the lines of guardian angels for local trails and trail users. When they bike the TART or the VASA, they carry tools, maps, and a first aid kit with them. They’ve helped lost hikers find their way home, and assisted cyclists in fixing flat tires.

“We sort of see it as our mission to help whoever needs help,” Goldstein laughed.

In 2020, those efforts and other volunteer work with local trails resulted in Goldstein and Heiam being named TART Trail Ambassadors of the Year.

You’re almost as likely to spot Goldstein and Heiam out on the water as on the trails. Both independently and as part of the Traverse Area Paddle Club, they lead upward of 20 river cleanups a year – paddling down the Boardman, the Pine River, and other up north rivers and streams and retrieving beer cans, snack wrappers and other stray bits of trash.

While Goldstein and Heiam have spent much of their retirements enjoying the outdoors – just as they intended – Goldstein also hasn’t left the educator side of herself behind. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Goldstein was a common fixture in the math classrooms of Traverse City Central High School for 20 years, working with students to help them learn and master calculus. Though she hasn’t been back into a school building since, she’s continued to assist math students via email and phone.

“I told (Traverse City Central math teacher) John Failor, ‘Look, I’m willing to help any kids, any time, for free,’” Goldstein said. “(That work) has allowed me to get much more involved.”

Goldstein says that meeting younger people and their parents is “kind of cool.”

“I have all these Facebook friends (in their 20s and 30s); they’re getting married; they’re having children; they’re coming out as gay,” she said. “They’re just doing interesting things, and so many of them I met through calculus classes.”

Keith Charters – The Public Servant

The Career: Though he intended to pursue a career in law, Keith Charters fell into the restaurant business while attending Central Michigan University in the 1950s.

The Embers Restaurant had just opened in Mt. Pleasant in 1958 and Charters got a job there to work his way through college. But while Charters was in the midst of taking law school classes, the owner of The Embers – Clarence Tuma – called him with a proposition: Tuma had just bought out his business partner and wanted Charters to take on extra responsibilities.

So, in 1967, Charters became the business manager of The Embers. It was the decision that would ultimately bring him to Traverse City.

Fast-forward to the late 1970s, when, on a visit to northern Michigan, Tuma found himself at a restaurant right on the bay in Traverse City, called Bongiorno’s.

“He came back (to Mt. Pleasant) and said, ‘Charters, we ate in this restaurant and it’s got a beautiful view overlooking the marina and the water, but they aren’t going to be in business six months from now.’ And he hit the nail pretty much on the head,” said Charters.

Tuma and Charters bought the Bongiorno’s building in 1978 and reopened it as Embers on the Bay. Charters relocated to Traverse City to run it.

Charters would continue to spearhead Embers on the Bay until 1996, when the business closed its doors. Charters retired from the restaurant business, and he and Tuma leased the Embers property to a chain called Mountain Jack’s, which operated in that spot until the recession hit in 2008. The building was demolished in 2013 and is now a waterfront park.

The Retirement: If Charters’ name sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve seen it on a sign. Specifically, you’ve seen it on the sign for the Traverse City State Park – the 47-acre campground and beach located on US-31 that, for the past decade, has been more officially known as the Keith J. Charters Traverse City State Park. That namesake honor stems from the work that Charters undertook in his retirement years, after officially closing out his career in the restaurant world.

As a retiree, Charters got involved in local service – thanks in part to the prompting of his friend Ralph Bergsma, who was on the board of the Traverse City Chamber of Commerce board at the time.

“Ralph said, ‘I’ve got just the thing for you,’” Charters recalled. “He said the Chamber had contracted with the zoning and planning center in Lansing to do a book called ‘Grand Traverse Planning Guidebook.’ And the goal was to implement the principles (of that guidebook) into ordinances and master plans in the local five-county area.”

Starting in a part-time capacity and eventually moving into a full-time role, Charters worked for the Chamber and literally wrote the book on local planning and zoning, implementing key principles across the region that ranged from setbacks to PUDs.

One local impact, Charters says, is that much of the commercial developments in the region at the time tended to be done in a strip mall format, due in part to zoning requirements. He helped eliminate those requirements, giving commercial developers more freedom in how they designed business properties.

Charters’ efforts in planning and zoning were so well-regarded that he became known statewide and nationally for the work. That recognition led, initially, to presentations and consulting opportunities with local governments all across the country. When Charters left his job with the chamber after eight years, it led to new opportunities at the state level – first with the Natural Resources Trust Fund Board, which Charters joined in 1991; and soon after with the Michigan Natural Resources Commission (NRC), which then-governor John Engler appointed him to in 1992.

As a member of both public bodies, Charters acted in part as a voice for northern Michigan. The Trust Fund Board’s job, for instance, is to take the state’s oil and gas revenues and use that money “to buy private property for public recreation for perpetuity.” In Charters’ years on the board, the state has spent $58 million on private properties in the five-county northwest lower Michigan region, which are now public lands.

Charters served on the NRC – which has “exclusive authority (in Michigan) to regulate the taking of game and sport fish” – from 1992 to 2010. He was chair of the commission from 1996 to the end of his tenure, making him the longest-serving NRC chair in Michigan history. In July 2011, a year after Charters stepped down from the NRC, the commission officially renamed the Traverse City State Park in his honor.

Today, Charters continues to serve on the Natural Resources Trust Fund Board. He also runs the Whittemore-Prescott Education Foundation, a foundation aimed at “enhancing educational opportunities” for students of Whittemore-Prescott Area Schools. The school district, located just southeast of West Branch, is Charters’ alma mater.