Not Slowing Down: Dynamic retirees and their life after work
Susan Nichols, Julie Avery and Deb Jackson have many things in common – active, educated, engaged, retired. All recently left fulfilling lifetime careers during the past few years, bringing their passions for and skills with them into new life chapters in northern Michigan. “Retiring,” however, is not a term that applies to any of them, or the hundreds of other dynamic local women leading busy, fulfilling, productive lives after leaving workplaces behind.
Aiding the underserved has always influenced Susan Nichols’ life. She credits it as a driving force for paid work as well as her volunteer endeavors, as illustrated through a career that included stints as a Head Start teacher, a National Public Radio (NPR) writer/editor, a Capitol Hill staffer, director of Save Outdoor Sculpture, which promoted and protected public art, and chief of education at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Nichols retired from the Smithsonian in October 2014, just two months before relocating to Traverse City.
“The decision to leave was very difficult,” Nichols said. “My museum and my colleagues were my home and family in many ways. And, I loved my work. It was creative and satisfying with reach to underserved audiences. I enjoyed the national and international reach.
“I also realized that I needed to leave to accomplish other personal goals while still physically and mentally able,” she said, noting that once the decision was made, she realized opportunities to continue her ‘work’ in other ways.
Today, Nichols lives in Traverse City where she applies her expertise and passions to a diverse group of interests locally and beyond. She currently chairs the Traverse City Arts Commission’s art selection panel, sings in NMC’s Grand Traverse Chorus, and is active in many United Methodist Church projects, including travels to Haiti as a mission volunteer. Noting that her volunteer work must also serve a goal larger than herself, she participated on one team that travelled to restore the coral reefs in Florida and another that documented evidence of food and drink in Pompeii.
Unlike many regional retirees, Nichols never lived in Michigan or spent much time in the state. A Wisconsin native, she was drawn back to the Midwest, but first developed criteria to determine where she would relocate when she left the Smithsonian.
“I spent 35 years in Washington, DC,” she said. “In retirement, I wanted a geographic change within these parameters: four seasons, flat water, movie house, hospital, airport, United Methodist Church, and a population that ebbed and flowed (so greater) assets would be available to a year-round population.”
“I traveled coast to coast, then met a D.C. colleague who had purchased a condo at the Commons,” Nichols said, prompting a trek to Traverse City where she found the match she was seeking. “I visited Clinch Park and found student-produced poetry placed along the breakwall. Bringing writing to a wide audience is a special interest of mine, so ‘discovering’ that sealed the deal for me.”
After three years, Nichols doesn’t regret picking Traverse City as her new home, noting it was an “A+ decision.”
She hasn’t closed the book on more life chapters or forsaking long-held goals.
“I applied to join the Peace Corps when I was in high school but was advised to go to college and then reapply,” she said, noting life ‘got in the way,’ but left the door open to pursuing it in the future. “(After all,) President Carter’s mother joined the Peace Corps in her 80s.”
Her advice to others contemplating retirement?
“Set personal goals for your next stage of life,” she said, “and survey the globe to see where you find a good match.”
“I’ve always lived by the principle “bloom where you are planted,” said Deb Oetjens Jackson of Traverse City. She credits the outlook to laying the foundation for two successful careers and a life journey stretching from Michigan to Minnesota and back again.
A Michigan native and Michigan State University graduate, Jackson spent more than 20 years in Minneapolis pursuing a successful business management career that included positions as a retail buyer for several large clothing chains, a manager with Jostens and marketing director for Department 56, a home décor business. Her professional path shifted 10 years ago when she moved to Traverse City to marry her husband, Mark Jackson, in 2006.
“Our families had been friends since college,” Jackson said. “After losing both our spouses to cancer, we became the ‘Brady Bunch’…but leaving Minneapolis caused an “early retirement” for me so I became very active in the community to fill my time.”
Voluntarism led Jackson to the Zonta Club of Traverse City, an international organization of professional women who are committed to advancing the status of women. Its mission resonated with Jackson’s prior work. Today, she is leading Zonta as president, a term that continues until June 2018.
Jackson’s first retirement was short lived. After two years in Michigan, she re-entered the workforce, this time in the health care sector, to manage Mark’s long term care medical practice. They created Northwest Michigan Long Term Care Specialists and grew the practice over the next seven years to include four nursing homes, 20 assisted living centers and a seven-member medical staff before merging with iNDIGO Health Partners last fall and, again, entering retirement.
“It was a bit hard …’Retiree’ doesn’t roll off my tongue easily,” Jackson said. “I’m so involved it isn’t a matter of needing something to do. I just don’t have the short answer when someone asks, ‘what do you do?’ I feel blessed, however, to have the time, energy and health to devote myself so intensely to the community,” she said.
In addition to her leadership at Zonta, Jackson just stepped down as president of American Association of University Women (AAUW), tap dances with the Happy Tappers, teaches “Writing Your Life Story” through Northwestern Michigan College’s Extend Education Services and is active on many committees and outreach activities through Central Church.
“I have always been involved …it’s especially fulfilling when I can utilize my business skills in the nonprofit realm.”
Looking forward, Jackson hopes to travel more, continue contributing and enjoying life…all points she recommends for fellow retirees.
“Enjoy every day. Make time for yourself,” she said. “Bloom where you are planted.”
Dr. Julie Avery’s resume is long and deep, reflecting a passion for rural culture and community development that thread through her life’s work and personal pursuits.
“I’ve been fortunate for most of my professional life to really love what I was doing,” Avery said. “Paths opened up for new experiences that seemed to grow organically from my work.”
As the long-time Curator of Rural Life & Culture and Director of Education at the Michigan State University Museum as well as MSU Extension Specialist for Cultural Economic Development, Avery led many projects, research and publications that chronicled rural heritage while showcasing its impact on economic development. A few of her major projects included the Heritage Tourism Initiative; Food, Farming and Community: Resources for Expanding Awareness; Traditional Craft in Michigan; and Cultural Economic.
Avery officially retired in 2011 but continued working on MSU projects for another year, including a long-term MSU Museum collections use report, and MSU Extension assignments focusing on tourism as a driver for cultural economic and community development. She and her husband, Steve Stier, a preservationist specializing in historic structures, moved to Leelanau County in 2012, spending seven months transitioning from East Lansing to their new home south of Empire.
Today, Avery continues sharing her expertise and supporting community cultural organizations’ development. Current involvements include volunteer commitments with Ruby Ellen Farm, a nonprofit working farm in Bingham Township; the Empire Area Community Center; and a new regional fibershed concept, to create awareness regarding local fiber similar to regional awareness of local foods. She also serves on Michigan Barn Preservation Network board, which promotes appreciation, preservation and rehabilitation of Michigan Barns, farmsteads and rural communities.
She was drawn to many current activities from past cultural development work, but is also seeking to balance nonprofit participation with pursuit of personal goals, including plans to pursue her own artwork with the same intensity.
“I am a good organizer and I think highly of cross regional community activities which engage people in accomplishing things that benefit individuals as well as the community,” Avery said. “I am finding that I can keep my hand in a bit and help out with communications and facilitation experiences.”
“What I really want to do is continue to help these causes…but would (also) like to become my own cause,” she said, noting that she is prioritizing personal time to learn, practice, evolve technique, explore new approaches and become more regular in practicing her own arts, which includes drawing, pastel painting and creating ‘spirits’ from found objects.
She advises new retirees to do the same with their own passions.
“Have some things that you want to try seriously for a while,” Avery said. “Then, actually schedule yourself into your calendar … just as you scheduled your professional life.”