Thrive in Anti-Retirement

Not content to rest, these working Emory "retirees" thrive.

By Michelle Valigursky

Retirement used to mean breakfast and reading the paper, a mid-day nap after lunch, 5:00 dinner, and early bedtime. Today’s “retirees” master social media, climb mountains, travel the globe, enjoy second or third careers, and learn new languages well into their 90s. Just ask Merle Land 62C, Mary Ball 62C 66G 79G, Fritz McDuffie 38C 39G, Tom Brodnax 65Ox 68C, and Professor Emeritus of Chemistry Al Padwa. Not content to rest, these Emory “retirees” thrive.

Merle Land 62C is a top-producing, award-winning realtor with Keller Williams Realty in Alpharetta. Land enjoys “anti-retirement.” Her service-based real estate business continues to expand despite the recent economic downturn. Now, she works with second and even third generations of her original clients’ families. “I’m flourishing,” she says. “I meet fascinating people in my work, and I help them through crises and celebrations. It’s incredibly rewarding, and it keeps me young.”

How does Land succeed against tough competition? “Today, if you want to stay active, you must dedicate a portion of your time and resources to getting out there on the cutting edge.” Her secret to keeping pace with a changing business environment? “Everyone should work with a coach,” she says in reference to her own decision to hire a business coach, videographer, and social media consultant to guide her career path. Land uses the latest technology and career networking, and advises people to “make written goals and build a team of the right people.”             

For Tom Brodnax 65Ox 68C, the concept of retirement is somewhat of a misnomer. Brodnax has no intention of “retiring.” Recently awarded the Bill Franklin Volunteer of the Year Award by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, Brodnax traded his IBM badge to wear the hat of full-time volunteer and photographer for Emory’s Alumni Association and other community groups. Volunteering is more than just a concept for Brodnax. He explains, “The only reason anyone volunteers for anything is passion. My family history with Emory University goes back to 1860. Emory is in my blood.”

Super-charge your Life

Corpus Cordis Aureum member Harold Fritz McDuffie 38C 39G fondly remembers the Emory of “the Dust Bowl years” as a place to expand his knowledge. Now more than 70 years after leaving campus and earning his PhD at Princeton University, that thirst for knowledge continues. At nearly 96 years young, McDuffie is learning Spanish and has been “relearning biology with an online MIT course that introduces us to biochemistry, gene structure and function, and the new significance of genetics in human life,” he explains. His insatiable quest for cutting-edge information stems from one trait. “I like to learn,” he says with a laugh. “It’s fun.” McDuffie points out that “Our education system can’t be as narrow as it used to be. Computer programs and online lectures improve learning. Mine included.”

Post-Emory, McDuffie spent a year learning about patent law while attending the NYU law school. From there “I worked as a combination of research and patent liaison until I moved back to the South and joined Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL),” he recalls of his assignment during the Cold War. “After some years I became Associate Director of the Reactor Chemistry Division and was selected to be the United States Atomic Energy Commission scientific representative in India for an initial term of two years. Coming home, I was made Director of the ORNL Information Division.” And despite his formal retirement from ORNL, McDuffie continues to strive for excellence in all of his intellectual pursuits.

McDuffie’s intellectual curiosity cannot be dampened. Around the turn of the twenty-first century, he became curious about the genealogy of the McDuffie Clan and led the investigation that resulted in recording more than 18,000 names of members in twenty-eight McDuffie family lines around the globe. “The compilation will always be a work in progress,” he says of the project that continues to be a labor of love.  (Read more about the McDuffies of Emory this week in a special 175 Connections story.)

Mary Ball 62C 66G 79G, newly appointed assistant professor in Emory School of Medicine’s Division of General Medicine and Geriatrics, agrees that education is one key to longevity. After earning three Emory degrees in biology and sociology, she came “in and out of retirement” and went on to obtain her PhD at Georgia State where she conducted research funded by the National Institute on Aging. A volunteer job at Emmaus House shifted her professional focus to gerontology and aging. Now, she is a recognized expert and author on quality of life for seniors in assisted living.

Good quality of life in the senior years depends on many factors. “Having good health is very important to quality of life, as is having something meaningful to do with your life,” she says. She also cites the need to maintain meaningful connections with others and “staying as active as possible.” Ball points out, “If somebody is able to learn something new or become involved in a new activity, it can certainly improve quality of life.”

Professor Emeritus of Chemistry Al Padwa doesn’t rest on the laurels of teaching thousands of Emory students and publishing more than 700 scientific papers. He still reports to his chemistry research lab at Emory to investigate and explore new concepts. “When I formally retired, my life shifted. Now, I mentor students and share advice to shape their careers. For me, life is now about mountains, mobiles, and molecules.”

The professor is a man of his word. Padwa has mountain-climbed on six continents, including trekking through Nepal to base camp at Mt. Everest. On his journeys, he forged relationships with science professionals around the globe and has since founded EcoAndes Silver, an adventure tour company that arranges cultural travel in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, and other countries.

Also an avid collector of mobiles for more than forty years, Padwa turned to creating them about four years ago. Fascinated by stereochemistry, he explains. “The marriage of my science and art is a natural union to reflect the way molecules move through space. There is also great symbolism in mountain climbing and scientific research: both seek the big view from the top,” he says. Padwa has found a way to intertwine his three passionate pursuits. “Don’t give up your profession.  Just understand that it will restructure, and embrace the change.”

Land keeps aging and retirement in perspective. “Charles Darwin once said, ‘it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.’ I love that sentiment. I promise you that continuous change is indeed the key to staying healthy and happy. As my friends and I grow older, our journey will take us to places we’ve never dreamed we’d go. And those new connections are inspiring.”

Editor’s Note: To learn more about the work and lives of these and other fabulous Emory graduates and professors, visit The Post, your official alumni blog. 

Email the editor