This month completes 17 years of weekly columns as a “Retirement Planner” for the Bay Area Newsgroup collection of publications. E-mails from readers each week introduce questions that offer grist for the mill of future columns, so I appreciate all of these responses. It’s interesting to note, however, the number of these readers who cite the column I wrote about my mother as having been one of their favorites over the years. Since newer readers may have missed it, I’ll repeat it just as it appeared in February of 2012.
A few weeks ago, my mother died just short of her 92nd birthday ending a life that embodies so much of what makes this country great. The youngest of seven children, Mom was born in a Finnish community in Vermont and learned how to speak English when she got to the first grade. My grandfather, Anton Kaukonen fought in the Spanish American War with the Rough Riders before returning to Finland to marry my grandmother who was sixteen at the time. After returning to America, he organized the Finnish community and became a friend of Calvin Coolidge in the process. Mom actually shook hands with the president when she was 5 years old after traveling to his Vermont “summer white house” on horseback.
How she handled her career offers some insight for retirees wondering how to stay busy and make money in their twilight years, but before getting to that, we have to know a little more about Mom.
She became a registered nurse and had additional training at the wartime physical therapy program at the Harvard Medical School. She married my father in 1943, and I was born about ten months later. She lasted about a year as a “golf widow” stuck alone with me on weekends before she decided to secretly take golf lessons from a pro about forty miles away. Within a few years, she was a better golfer than Dad. Not satisfied with that, she went on to become women’s club champion and president of the Vermont Women’s Golf Association. You get the picture.
My father retired early after a career in management at senior levels with a succession of companies including Caterpillar. While living in Cleveland, they had bought a farmhouse in upstate New York to use as a weekend ski house. At the northern tip of Appalachia, however, failing farms in the 70’s came complete with barns, acreage, tractors, manure spreaders --- the works. One day, Mom came home with a calf tied up in the back of the station wagon and said to my Dad, “Bill, we’re going into the cattle business.” Within a few years, they had developed a herd of 25 pure-bred Charolais cattle.
Throughout my parents’ retirement, Mom was constantly buying and developing real estate mostly around ski areas --- all on a small scale. At the farm, Mom would have Dad survey a five-acre parcel of their 400 acre property. Then, the State of New York would pay to have a pond dug for wildlife and fire protection. Next, Mom would advertise in “Field and stream” or some ski magazine that she had “Five Acres and a pond” for sale. It happened like clockwork. Years later, as they lived in Vermont, Florida, or the mountains of North Carolina, she would be buying property, improving it, and selling it herself. She never used a real estate agent, and they always offered financing to potential buyers. Periodically Mom would send me an updated list of who owed them money “in case anything happens to us.”
The lesson in all of this is that she never bought property and just sat around waiting for inflation to do the heavy lifting. She always did something in the way of improvements --- or more accurately, she had Dad doing something --- like cutting brush and trees to improve the view.
She also knew her way around county building offices and planning commissions. When she decided that they should move into a new independent living facility, for example, she checked with the county to make sure that plans had actually been approved for the “soon-to-be-built” assisted living section mentioned in the promotional literature. She never took anything for granted.
A partner in one of the prominent Bay Area venture capital firms is a psychiatrist. His job is to help select people who will make the best managers of the companies the firm develops. When interviewing prospects, he has learned to direct his questions toward what a job candidate’s mother was like. The more ambitious and forceful, the better. If the psychiatrist is right, it explains a lot about who I am, how much I owe Mom, and why mothers should never shy away from assertive parenting.
As Dad always said, “You couldn’t tell your mother anything --- but you didn’t need to. She was usually right.” She exuded self-confidence, creativity and common sense. Her love of people made her an inspiration to all who knew her. She leaves a lot of life’s lessons in her wake.