Yale '62 - One Year Later: Retirement Without Guilt - Jim White

"One Year Later: Retirement Without Guilt"

By Jim White
Washington, D.C.

Catherine's a banker who doesn't keep banker's hours. She left home before 6:30 this morning, heading to her exercise club before going to the bank. It's now just before 7:30pm as she breezes through the front door of our home in the Georgetown section of Washington after a full day at the office. "So," she asks me, "what did you do today?"

I'm retired. I wonder, is this a trick question? "Nothing really," I answer, totally without guilt. But her question gets me thinking, what DID I do today?

I retired just over a year ago, on July 1, 2002, to be exact. I had practiced law in Washington for 37 years. I took President Kennedy seriously when he famously suggested in his inaugural address that I ask what I could do for my country. Perhaps I subliminally recalled Yale was founded in part, as stated in the original charter of 1701, for "the training up of youthful citizens for publick employment…in Civil state."

Anyway, immediately after law school (1965) I headed to Washington and a job in the Office of General Counsel of the Department of Health, Education, & Welfare (now HHS for those into Federal Gov't alphabet soup arcana). Then came army service (1966-70) and a stint with a law firm (1970-75). In 1975, returning to the Government, I joined the counsel's office in newly minted Federal Energy Administration, which was absorbed in 1977 into the newly minted Dept. of Energy, from which I retired as the Assistant General Counsel for Fossil Energy.

Jim & Catherine at Jim's retirement party
The 1970's were an exciting time to work in the energy field in Washington. The OPEC oil embargo of 1973 and the Iranian revolution of 1977 dramatically placed the spotlight on the subject and on the Gov't's "energy policy," such as it was. I found myself involved in the thinking about, designing, and implementing just such a policy. I worked closely with top DOE management, with members and staff on Capitol Hill, and on occasion I got to the White House to work with the President's staff. From 1975 through about 1992, working for Uncle Sam was an exciting and rewarding professional experience. It was fun to go to the office.

But the focus constantly changes in Washington even if the problems remain. After a long run on page one of my department's 'things to do" agenda, fossil energy matters receded to the background. So did my exposure and involvement. Going to the office every day wasn't nearly as much fun. Of course, I was getting older too. As the new century loomed, I started to give serious thought to retirement.

I was eligible to retire on August 14, 2000, the day of my 60th birthday. I didn't do it. I wasn't ready. Money wasn't the issue. No one works for Uncle Sam to get rich, but I knew my pension would be decent and I had saved a few bucks here and there. Leaving behind my staff and colleagues, and the friends I had made among my "clients" at DOE, was a concern, but I find that, as I've gotten older, spending time alone doesn't bother me nearly as much as it used to.

Another Catherine question: "Did you have any human contact today?" "Yes," I answer, "Nikki." "Who the heck is Nikki?" "The check-out gal at the Safeway." So this wasn't the issue. My job satisfaction had dropped considerably, but this wasn't the major factor (though it was an important one).

So what was it?

I was concerned about what I would do with my time. As a glance through any few of the mini-biographies in our wonderful Time and Change 40th reunion class book will show, we are an exceedingly busy bunch, combining a full work load with a bewildering assortment of "extracurricular" activities. I thought carefully about this. Then I did what has been a lifelong habit: I made a little list. Here are the major headings on my list — it is my new alphabet soup.

  1. TRAVEL. I want to travel more than I could while working, particularly to places I've never been before, which is a lot of places. Alaska, Scotland, Down Under. Naturally I keep a list, this one in my head.

  2. EXERCISE. I continue to fight the battle of the bulge, now with more time for tennis, walking, and a bit of weight training.

  3. HOUSE AND GARDEN PROJECTS. Isn't it amazing how these projects never seem to get done while you're working? There is a long (written) "things to do" list of these projects on my desk. Now some actually get done. I'm no do-it-yourselfer so, for the Big Projects, I hire and "supervise."

  4. READING. I had to do a lot of close reading in my work, and April through mid-October was largely lost to the baseball season (I couldn't resist all those games on TV). Now I can really indulge myself. I still read the Washington. Post and the NY Times every day, but now more closely. And now I have much more time for books. So many books, so little time really. And, yes, I keep a list of, those books I've read so far this year. I'm on number 29. I especially enjoyed Seabiscuit (who hasn't?); The Teammates, a sweet baseball book about my all-time favorite player, Ted Williams, and three teammates on the fine Red Sox teams of the '40's who, it turned out, remained friends all their lives; Paris 1919, a history of the peace conference after World War I; and Professor Edmund Morgan's marvelous biography of Benjamin Franklin, where not a word is superfluous and the varied accomplishments of this Founding Father du Jour leap off every page.

Of course I knew there would be: E. ERRANDS to run, the things that used to clog up many a weekend; F. COMPUTER TIME (much less than I anticipated, about 30 minutes or so a day); G. AFTERNOON BASEBALL ON TV, if you can imagine THAT (if you can imagine there still is such a thing as afternoon baseball); and H. LUNCHES with friends, at least one or two a week, which tend to be longer and a lot more relaxed since there are no meetings looming.

So, what did I do today? Well, if I'm not doing "A" above, it's some combination of "B" through "H." Perhaps you'll be surprised — I was — these take a lot of time, and fill up most days. I often wonder — you may too one day — how did I ever find the time to work.

The bottom line: one year later, with the freedom to do what I want, when I want to do it, and with whom, no regrets. Not one. That's my fond wish for those of you ready to take the plunge.

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