Age is Just a Number and Retirement a Foreign Concept to Six Working Seniors in Omaha
Age is Just a Number and Retirement a Foreign Concept to Six Working Seniors in Omaha
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the New Horizons
During their lifetimes Americans devote far more hours to their work then to any other of their pursuits, including family life. More than the livelihood it provides, work helps shape individual identity, sets an agenda for daily commerce and affords personal growth opportunities. Given the vital role gainful employment plays, it’s not surprising then that as more Americans live longer, healthier lives, the prospect of outright retirement holds less interest for seniors who feel lost without the sense of engagement, structure and accomplishment a job provides.
Working seniors may account for a minority of the labor force but can be found toiling away at a wide range of careers and vocations — from the professional ranks to the blue collar rolls to everything in between. Omaha’s senior work force is a diverse one. It includes such well-known figures as investor Warren Buffett, world-renowned medical researcher Denham Harman, satellite communications guru Lee Lubbers, respected photojournalist Don Doll, noted jazz musician Preston Love, PR man Bill Ramsey, Henry Doorly Zoo Director Lee Simmons and Girls and Boys Town Director Rev. Val Peter. Of course, most local seniors still working are, like the individuals profiled in this story, average folks doing what they love, including band leader Ed Svoboda, school registrar Theresa Derr, maintenance man Otto Link, senior center manager Sophiae Foster, attorney Monte Taylor and receptionist Fornetta Elmore. Whatever their age or position, they agree working is a major factor in maintaining their vitality and staying full, contributing members of society.
A Working Life in Music
Anecdotically, at least, it seems many musicians, especially those outside the drug-hazed rock and jazz worlds, live to ripe old ages. Maybe it’s something to do with that old saying about music feeding the soul. If true, then 90-year-old professional polka musician Ed Svoboda Sr., is living proof of music’s health benefits. He’s been making music — first on the mouth harp, then the accordion and finally the drums — virtually his entire life and has been leading his own band for most of the past 65 years. Even today, the crusty old Czech, featured on drums, headlines with his Red Raven Orchestra, in which his son Ed Jr. performs, in regular, rousing gigs at Bluffs Run Casino, Sokol Hall and the Corrigan Senior Center as well as playing the annual Czech festival in Wilber, Neb. Remarkably, Svoboda’s exploits with his band amount to only a sideline for him, as he puts in 40-plus hours a week as a full-time furniture repairman and refurnisher with Honey Man Rental and, in his spare time, sharpens lawn mower and snowblower blades. For Svoboda, a father and grandfather whose wife of 48 years died of cancer, there’s no doubt getting up and going to work every day is a far better tonic than simply rattling around an empty house all day long. No being put out to pasture for him, thank you. If he retired to some senior complex, he said, it would surely be his end.
“I’ve been amongst people all my life and if you put me in a corner someplace you just might as well bury me because I ain’t gonna last. I wouldn’t last a month just sitting around here all alone. That’s the God’s truth. I’ve gotta move. I’ve gotta have something else going besides that thing there,” he said, gesturing derisively at the living room TV set in his home in south Omaha’s Brown Park neighborhood, where he grew up the son of an emigrant accordion-player-turned architect.
Svoboda, whose previous careers included working as a scale operator at the Swift & Co. meat packing plant for 35 years and as a press mechanic for Malnove Inc, never lost sight of his dream of being a professional musician. “That’s what I wanted all my life.” Holding onto that dream despite many struggles made attaining it all the more precious. During the Great Depression he scrounged up work wherever he could find it before finally scraping together enough dough to buy a top-of-the-line button accordion, his instrument of choice for many years until a bandsaw accident injured his fingers so badly that it forever-after obliged him to play drums. Then, in what could have been a crushing blow, Svoboda’s first band weathered a dismal public debut when nobody showed up for a dance they were booked to play in Milligan, Neb. He found out later a member of a rival band playing to a packed house across the street hid their playbills, leaving the boys from Omaha staring at an empty hall and, because they were contracted on a commission basis, high and dry. To get money to buy gas for the trip home, Svoboda wrangled the band a paying gig in a local beer joint. From that rough start, Svoboda never looked back, with his popular band plying the Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, South Dakota polka circuit and appearing as a regular featured act on polka radio shows. In 1974, he was enshrined in the Sokol Omaha Polka Hall of Fame.
Besides entertaining people the thing that Svoboda, who watches what he eats in addition to doing what he loves, enjoys most about a life in polka is its celebration of his proud Bohemian heritage. “I love the heritage. It’ll go to the grave with me. That and the music. That’s been my life since I was a little kid.” It goes without saying the, that he has no designs on stopping now.
A Woman’s Work is Never Done
Other than the 15-year hiatus she took while raising her three boys, Theresa “Rose” Derr has been doing the 9-to-5 routine as an administrative staff member in area schools since graduating high school in 1936. Now 84, Derr is in her 26th year as registrar at Westside High School, where her three accomplished sons attended, and she has no intention of leaving anytime soon. “Not even an option” she said one morning in her Westside office. “Personally, I still feel capable and I still have a desire to do it. I like what I’m doing. I really do. I think it’s something worthwhile. Working in the schools is the only type of work I’ve done, and it’s very rewarding.”
When her retired friends press her to step down, take it easy and do what she wants, a perplexed Derr tries explaining to them, “’I am doing what I want to do. Why can’t you understand that?’ I talk to a lot of gals who are retired and they seem perfectly happy and well-adjusted, but I don’t want to do the things they’re doing. They just don’t appeal to me. I’m not a golfer. I don’t play bridge. I don’t join ladies’ aids. So…I work. I have known people that counted the days until they were 65 and could quit, not that they did anything so great after they retired. So, what’s so great about it? It’s just never appealed to me to not be doing something. This way I have an agenda and I have a purpose in the morning. It never occurs to me, What am I going to do today? It sounds kind of trite, but if you can still contribute something, do it. As long as I am and my boss feels I am, I will.”
Recently, Derr, who’s long enjoyed good health, missed an extended period of work for the first time due to a medical condition. She said no one from the administrative offices at District 66 or Westside even hinted this might be the time for her to move on. “They were very cooperative. While I was gone, they just pitched in and they just assumed I would be coming back and so I just never did anything about it otherwise. I’m sure there’ll be a time when it’ll be prudent to step aside. I’ve always made it very clear that I’ll go when they feel it’s time for me to retire. I’m not sensitive about it. But at this point it seems to be mutual — they’re perfectly willing to keep me and I’m perfectly willing to be here.”
If anything, her time off only emboldened her desire to keep working. “When I was home those few weeks daytime television was the biggest deterrent to retirement I ever saw.” She said in addition to the support her colleagues show in her continuing her career, her three sons do as well. “The boys are really great about it. They want me to quit when I feel like I want to quit. I think they realize there would be a problem if I ever did. I think it’s good for them to know I’m independent and I don’t just sit around worrying or moping. I don’t want to be one of those. There probably will be a time when I will be a concern to them, but I’m not going to bargain for it any sooner than I have to.”
Like her late husband, Derr is a Lincoln native. Her German emigrant parents settled there by way of Winnipeg, Canada. Derr recalls her “very traditional” mother always engaged in some work. “Maybe that’s where I got my work ethic — from my mom. She never did just sit. She had to be doing something. You know, they did that then. They didn’t waste a minute.” She and her husband, who also worked well past normal retirement age, waited 10 years before starting a family and then made their kids their priority. Their rearing efforts paid off, too, as one son is a microbiologist and two others are attorneys, including one with the FBI and another, Jay Derr, recently appointed as a judge to the Omaha district court.
Devotion to work, she said, is a Derr trait. “It’s just my life, that’s what it is.” A positive attitude helps. “You’ve just got to think young. I don’t think age makes any difference. I can work right next to a 23-year-old and out-produce them. Whatever you can do, do.” And with that, her office rings and she answers, “This is Mrs. Derr, can I help?” and another workday begins.
All in a Life’s Work
At 86, Otto Link may be in the running for the title of oldest maintenance man in the Western Hemisphere. He works five days a week on what he calls “the housekeeping gang” at Methodist Hospital, where his regularly assigned projects include washing windows and cleaning elevator tracks, which sounds simple enough until you realize he means the full 10-stories worth of windows and elevators in the crosswalk wing connecting Methodist and Children’s Hospitals. He’s proud of the hard, physical labor he performs at such an advanced age but takes the attention he gets in stride because he’s from the old-school. “I know I’m the oldest person on our crew by far,” he said. “I get comments from guys that are 30 and 40 years old like. ‘Slow down, you make us look bad.’ They do ask me, ‘Are you ever going to retire?’ ‘Well,’ I tell them, ‘I already did twice’” and it didn’t take either time.
For 29 years the South Dakota born and raised Link was a parochial school teacher at a string of Lutheran schools in North Dakota, Ohio, Texas and Nebraska. After he retired from teaching, he became a Douglas County juvenile probation officer for a time before switching careers and working as a state rehabilitation services counselor for disabled individuals. When he left the latter post, he was already 70 — well-past traditional retirement age — but he soon got anxious puttering around the house, and that’s when, in 1986, after years of office work he opted to join the Methodist cleaning crew. “I wanted a job that was physical because I’d had enough of these sedentary jobs,” he explained. That he’s still at it 17 years later is amazing but understandable when you realize he lost his wife of 55 years in 1995, leaving him alone in the south-central Omaha home they shared. “Me and an empty house don’t get along so well,” he said. “I need something to do. You can only read so much and only watch so much TV before you get a little silly in the head.”
Besides, he said, he’s heard enough stories of folks who didn’t fare well after retiring that he prefers staying active as long as he can. It’s a I’d-rather-go-out-on-my-feet-than-lying-down attitude. “My wife was manager of a Walgreens liquor store for umpteen years and she got to know a lot of businessmen who’d stop in and get their booze before going home, and she used to tell me, Mr. So-and-So retired to take it easy, and over-and-over she’d tell me the guy who just retired had passed away. So, I kind of got the philosophy I really didn’t care what I did as long as it was physical. My wife encouraged me about that.”
Link, who has five grown children, 11 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, said his kids often suggest he resign and move into a retirement home. “But I’m not ready for that yet. I’m going to stick it out as long as I can. As long as I’m able to and my employer is satisfied with my performance, I probably will keep working.” And why not? On his most recent work evaluation, he said, his supervisor gave him high marks “right down the line” and told him — “You’re doing a wonderful job.” Link doesn’t take his exceptional staying power for granted, either. “I appreciate it. I know it’s a blessing,” said Link, a devout Lutheran. His advice for staying young? “Stay active as long as you can, try to be happy and read some good jokes.”
Doing Good Works
Sophiae Foster is cleaning up the debris from the breakfast she’s just served her regular crowd at the St. Magdalene Senior Center in the basement of Omaha’s old downtown Catholic church. It’s about 9:30 now and a few of “her flock,” as she calls them, linger at tables, one reading the paper, another poring over a book, one doing a crossword puzzle and some chatting over coffee. Foster, 77, has been managing the ENOA-sponsored center for 28 years now and she plans on working there three more years, although she suspects if and when she does retire at age 80 “to stay home and rest” after a lifetime of serving people she probably won’t stay retired very long. “I don’t think I’d last very long” sitting idle, she said. “I might go back to work, but it won’t be nothin’ I have to go to every day. But I can’t see myself sitting at home feeling sorry for myself either.”
She’s kept working this long, despite double-bypass and knee replacement surgery, because “I just like it,” she said. “I really enjoy it. That’s the truth. My friends — they all don’t work and they tell me I don’t need to work. Yeah, I could live on what income I have, but I feel if I can still work, why not?” She’s also grown attached to the people who make the center and the two hot meals and convivial conversations served there at breakfast and lunchtime part of their daily ritual. Most are single widows or widowers. “Some are homeless” she said. “They need some help. Sometimes we get clothes in here for them. We could use more men’s clothes.” Regardless of their circumstances, the people who come find a place where they feel safe and cared for. “Yeah, we get along fine. We enjoy each other. The same ones who come every day — I know them by name. I miss ‘em when they don’t come. I’ve got one little old man, John, who hasn’t been here for about five days and I need to check on him. I’m kind of concerned about him,” she said one cold winter morning. “They grow on you.”
Her concern for others is an extension of her deep Pentecostal faith in action. For example, she helped her late evangelical husband start and run the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ in north Omaha, she worked as a nurse aide in the nursery at Children’s Hospital — “I loved it” — and she helped raise two of her great-grandchildren, both of whom are now back living with their biological mothers.
Her relationship with the senior center, which she launched in 1974, has come a long way since it’s rough start. “When I started, it was just a job I needed. I thought I couldn’t make it. We had drunks walk in off the street. It was scary. But I thank God for my husband. He said, ‘If you want the job you’ve got to stop being a crybaby and you’ve just got to do it.’ I did. I worked it out so the men set their bottles on my desk when they came in and picked them up when they left. I got along with them real good. We don’t have the problem of alcoholics anymore. Now, it’s kind of like a family. It’s a part of me. It gets me up and keeps me moving.”
She Works Hard for Her Money
She won’t reveal her real age other than to say she’s over 65, but Fornetta Elmore is entitled to some fudging after the fortitude she’s shown overcoming tragedy and the adaptability she’s displayed learning yet another career deep into her Golden Years. First, Elmore’s only child, a daughter, died at 20 after supposedly routine surgery. “It’s something, frankly speaking, I don’t really believe I’ve ever recovered from,” she said. “But you accept it and you go on.” Then, when her husband of 49 years was stricken with leukemia in 1978, she cared for him up until his death in 1995. After losing the two people most dear to her, the usually up-and-at-em Elmore felt herself slipping into a malaise. “I was trying to move on from my husband’s death and I felt being home alone wasn’t the place to be.” That’s when she heeded the advice of a friend, who knew Elmore had thrived in the world of work, to explore the ENOA senior employment program. In no time at all, Elmore was hired by Nebraska Workforce Development, where she is a receptionist today.
Having a job to come to every day is important to Elmore, but even more important to her is how she is valued by her employers, who don’t view her cavalierly as some token, window-dressing senior symbol, an attitude she detests. “I think some people have the wrong conception about us seniors — that we’re too old and stumbling to be able to do a job. I don’t think they give seniors the benefit of the doubt,” she said. “I’m lucky to have marvelous supervisors whose attitude is about me is, ‘Let’s do something with her.’ I don’t feel like, Oh, they’re doing me a favor. I feel like I’m earning my keep. I have something to do every day I come to work.”
She’s also overturned some senior stereotypes by learning, among other things, computer, typing, filing and receptionist skills. “Being the kind of person I am, I’m always ready to advance, especially if someone is willing to teach me.”
On the job Elmore is easy interacting with diverse colleagues and clients because that’s her nature and that’s what she’s used to from her days as a Kilpatricks and Younkers department store clerk and as proptietor, with her husband, of Elmore’s Flowers, a florist shop the couple ran out of their home. “I can mix with anybody. I enjoy being around people of all different ages and education levels.”
She rejects any thought of retiring. “Oh, heavens no. When you retire, that’s it, you’re dead. And when you’re dead, you’re a long time dead. You have to stay active and alive. You have to keep your mind open and enjoy life. Besides, I feel there’s a lot I can still contribute. I’ve put forth my best effort and I hope to continue to. And now I better get back to work,” she said, excusing herself.
A Work in Progress
The law has long intrigued Monte Taylor, 71, who for all but the two heady years he worked as Sen. Roman Hruska’s legal counsel on a Senate subcommittee in Camelot-era Washington, D.C., has spent his entire 49-year career practicing law in Omaha. That experience in the nation’s capital sparked a second career in politics for Taylor, who went on to serve as Douglas Country Election Commissioner and as an Omaha City Councilman before losing a bid for the 2nd District Congressional seat. Today, he continues his general law practice — as head of the firm Taylor, Peters & Drew — at an age when many peers are retired. Why? Because it still excites him. “I think the biggest fascination is that one is always learning,” he said. “It’s such a broad field. There are never any clear-cut issues. Most of the things we deal with are gray. They’re never black or white. So, it requires you to be constantly going to the books and learning something new. I do really enjoy the new challenges it presents every day. I plan to just keep plugging away as long as I enjoy it.” In that sense, Taylor is following the example of the dapper senior lawyers he was mentored by when first starting out. “I was very impressed by them. They were good lawyers of high character.”
Without his work, Taylor fears he’d be lost. “In my case, it fills a real need. I have no particular hobbies. If I’m stuck at home, I get very restless. So, for my own emotional and physical well-being, it (working) is very satisfying.” In his view, work is also a great escape. “In this business I’m working with people trying to help them solve problems. It takes my mind off any perceived problems I may have. My own theory is that part of the problem with retirement and old age is that if one gets too absorbed with their own problems and has too much idle time on their hands, then the more little problems become bigger problems. I just know I have a healthier attitude when I am working.”
He regrets that as a younger man he often put work ahead of family. Taylor, who has three grown children from his first marriage, which ended in divorce, is married to a woman with three grown children of her own. “Through the years, I got too absorbed in the law and I wasn’t the family man I should have been.” Balance in life, the devout Catholic said, is a virtue he’s learned as he’s grown older and wiser. “You have spiritual needs as well as emotional, physical and professional needs. Getting that all rounded out to make the pieces go together is key.”
In that way life has of coming full circle, Taylor has turned into the kind of distinguished older lawyer he was schooled-by many years ago. Like they were, he is a man of character whose abiding love for the law keeps him involved. “The brain is like a muscle. You either use it or lose it, and this (work) forces you to use it.”
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