Retirement has always seemed like a distant, unreachable part of my life; evoking thoughts of how I felt when the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey premiered in 1968. I was 15 at the time, and I remember calculating how old I would be in 2001. I couldn’t imagine being 48. Now that I’m 57, I still can’t imagine being 48; but that’s a story for another day. Retirement is starting to seem more real, although I have no immediate plans to do it.
My wife and I just returned from a brief vacation to attend a wedding in Ohio and visit with Albany’s retired Community Development Director Helen Burns Sharp at her home in Tennessee. Helen retired about three years ago and moved back to Chattanooga, where she grew up. The visit was, for me, a glimpse into what a good retirement might be.
Helen purchased a condominium overlooking the Tennessee River, in the heart of Chattanooga’s arts and entertainment district. The art museum, aquarium, river walk, theaters, and a host of restaurants are located within in easy walk of Helen’s home. Chattanooga is an attractive, historic city that’s large enough to have many cultural amenities but small enough to avoid the worst of traffic congestion and other forms of urban blight. The city is also conveniently close to Helen’s alma mater, the University of Tennessee, which allowed us to take in the September 11 football game between the “Vols” and the Oregon Ducks. Tennessee had the upper hand until a thunderstorm interrupted the game for more than an hour, allowing Oregon to regroup and win by a comfortable margin.
Helen seems to be enjoying her retirement in a place close to family, friends, and a wide variety of cultural attractions. Her example offers some great pointers to those of us who will be considering retirement before long. Staying close to family and friends seems like the most important part of a good retirement. Sooner or later all of us will need the support of people who care about us. Amenities such as good restaurants, theaters, universities, and museums may not be important to everyone; but they do offer entertainment opportunities that don’t require the physical agility of a teenager. Finally, Helen has been selective about involving herself in activities so that she maintains control over her time. I think one of the attractions of retirement will be fewer obligations.
I should add that despite some common misperceptions, most public employees do not retire to a luxurious lifestyle. Chattanooga is a relatively inexpensive place to live, and Helen has obviously been frugal. She’s still driving her 10-year-old PT Cruiser, although it looks like it’s brand new. It was great to see Helen and to know how well she is doing in her new home. I hope I will be as wise as she has been in making choices about retirement. Good choices offer the promise of productive and enjoyable years following a long career in city government.