So Little Time, So Much to Do

ARTICLE | Apr 21, 2017

A Passion for Public Service in Retirement

The October 2016 issue of Public Management (Ethics Matters! department) made reference to the venerable Perry (L.P.) Cookingham, who was famous for reforming the crooked Pendergast machine in Kansas City, Missouri, among his many other achievements.

That PM article brought back meaningful memories for me that I want to share. I also want to offer some personal observations for my public manager colleagues.

During my term as Clearwater, Florida, city manager (1967 to 1973), we formed a four-county Florida Suncoast Manager's Association, which met periodically for dinner and discussion. I don't remember exactly how, but it came to my attention that Clarence Ridley, ICMA's first full-time executive director who served ICMA for 27 years (1929 to 1956), had retired in neighboring Pasco County, Florida, and was interested in attending our dinner sessions.

Ridley was a wise and gentle man with tremendous institutional knowledge and experience, and I'm proud to have several personal notes and letters from him in my files. Occasionally, Cookingham visited with Ridley, and we would be blessed to have both of these ICMA heroes join us at our dinner meeting.

When this happened, we abandoned our meeting agenda to listen, somewhat mesmerized, to them share inspiring experiences and answer our questions.

Staying Young by Working

They have, of course, long since passed and my thoughts ranged from those memories, almost 50 years ago, to the future. My future, to be exact, as I approach my 83rd birthday.

As the years pass, we are inevitably faced with decisions as to how we want to spend our remaining time. Some managers are better at planning their retirement years, and others, like me, dream about things we'd like to do, but for various reasons never get around to them.

My problem has been that I just can't say "no," and in that regard, my wife Judy, who came from a family long committed to distinguished public service, shares my passion for public service and has fully supported my decisions.

In early August 2016, for example, I received a call from Florida Inspector General Melinda Miguel asking if I would help her try to save the city of Opa-locka in Miami-Dade County which, in addition to an ongoing FBI investigation with criminal indictments, was facing potential bankruptcy or worse.

Miguel, appointed by the governor, was also chairing the Governor's Emergency Management Board for Opa-locka. She had been advised that I was a "go-to guy" for troubled Florida cities where I had similar experiences in the cities of Miami and Homestead, my second term as Miami-Dade County manager, and at other institutions like the Miami-Dade County Public School system, where I was superintendent.

After offering me a dollar a year and state sovereign immunity, I, of course, said "yes." Why? Because public service is a passion of mine. Like so many of my manager colleagues, it is in my DNA and it is why, as I have often lectured, you get not only a paycheck, but also the psychic benefit of knowing you are helping others—your fellow residents—through your professional efforts.

I am just one of many other men and women who dedicate themselves to serve the public in other "callings." Over the past several years, I've also served as interim city manager of Doral, interim CEO of the Florida Zoological Society, and interim president and CEO of the (Leroy) Collins Center for Public Policy. This is how I have spent my time, when I could have been smelling the roses in a comfortable retirement, so to speak.

Please understand: This is not intended as any criticism for my well-adjusted manager colleagues who have retirement plans and stick to them, faithfully. In fact, there are times in my thought process that I envy them.

Explaining My Choices

For many of the rest of us, however, we have been trained and conditioned to public service in our various public environments. There are so many ways to serve and so many organizations—public and private, educational, charitable, religious, or otherwise—that need and will benefit from our managerial expertise and judgment.

Don't ever sell yourself short. The opportunities for volunteerism are endless! The rewards may or may not be monetary, but be assured they will give one a sense of personal fulfilment—the joy of serving others in need.

And while I have no clinical proof, I think that because one's mental attitude has such a profound physiological impact, it may prolong your life. If nothing else, I can almost guarantee that you will smile more and sleep better.

I still go fishing, want to finish writing my book that is seven years in the making, get plenty of physical exercise, spend quality time with my wife and extended family, travel a little, and feel great.


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